Hard Work, Not Just Ideals, Will Defeat Bigotry in the West
When September 11 happened, no one doubted that the world had changed. The greatest fear was that the anger of the American people would be directed at innocent Muslims who had nothing to do with the attack.
Almost a decade later, the evidence is overwhelming. Muslim Americans increasingly feel like a suspect community. That feeling intensified after the Fort Hood incident, when Major Nidal Hasan killed 12 people, but it was there long before. The US Department of Homeland Security had already acknowledged that Muslim Americans felt targeted in the public sphere. They were not quite sure what to do about it, but feared that as a result, al Qaeda-inspired ideology could influence young Muslim Americans.
In the UK, that fear had turned into a reality. Long before the July 7 bombings, there were warnings that British-born Muslims might carry out terrorist attacks based on the ideology of al Qaeda. There were far fewer causalities than September 11, but because the perpetrators were British, and not foreign nationals, the damage was multiplied.
The first conclusion in the post-September 11 world has to be that a certain misinterpretation of Islam can be used to provide moral justification for terrible acts. What can be done about this is clear properly trained Muslim scholars need to disseminate correct teachings about Islam. The greatest threat to al Qaeda will always be the Muslim community at large. Indeed, that same community is also al Qaeda’s principal victim.
The second point is that despite the reticence of western governments to admit it, ideology alone does not explain the al Qaeda phenomenon. Al Qaeda is a response, however illegitimate, to western foreign policies. There is a basic ideology, which thankfully only a tiny minority of Muslims share, but the Westâ€™s foreign policies have engendered a far more popular discontent.
And another truth is painfully close to home. The reaction to terrorist attacks have included domestic security measures. The Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay and various curbs on civil liberties have affected the United States and the West as a whole. We may think that these are necessary. But such measures come at a price, and we need to constantly re-evaluate whether they should remain. They cannot be a permanent feature of our existence.
There is a final truth, which hits the headlines almost every day. The position and role of Muslim communities in the West is under threat. We’re not seeing pogroms, but there is a disturbing trend where Muslims and Islam are treated as suspect. Even as Barack Obama is arguably the most popular US president ever among Muslims, an American pastor has caused an international uproar by threatening to burn the Quran. Muslim Americans, who suffered as victims of September 11 and the subsequent suspicion, have watched their most sincere efforts at outreach further attacked â€“ witness the absurdity over the Muslim community centre being built near Ground Zero.
In Europe, levels of anti-Muslim sentiment have risen to levels that previously seemed unlikely. While writing a book on Muslim Europeans in 2001, I was sure that Europe would return to the best of its traditions to safeguard diversity and pluralism. I wonder now if that was naive.
Both America and Europe have proud traditions to rely on, but they also have their ugly sides. There’s an America that will never accept Muslims as part and parcel of their society but there’s also an America that will never surrender the values of respect and righteousness. There’s a Europe that will never allow the lessons of the Holocaust to be forgotten but there’s also a Europe that has reawakened the racist language of the past, although this time directing it against Muslims instead of Jews.
The basic goodness of these societies will not win out automatically â€“ it will require work. That work depends on Muslim communities participating at all levels of society. One of the reasons behind the minaret ban in Switzerland was the failure of the Swiss Muslim community to get involved in the debate over Islam and Muslims in Europe.
In the West, no minority community has ever been able to succeed without a struggle and the Muslim community should be up for the challenge. They will find support from the strengths in western societies. One opponent of the Park51 community centre argued that it had woken up a sleeping beast. Maybe so, but it also woke up forces of good. We will see which side defines America and Europe in the future.
HA Hellyer is a Fellow of the University of Warwick, director of the Visionary Consultants Group and the Europe Fellow of the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding
This article also appeared on thenational.ae on September 16, 2010 at www.thenational.ae
ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.