The recent spate of terror attacks in Europe highlights a highly fragile relationship between European secularism and Islam. There is an urgent need to address this conflict, for Europe is clearly on edge. Islamist terror attacks targeting innocent civilians have highlighted the extremely worrying situation of law and order amidst growing worries over the civilisational relationship with Islam in the European heartland. Beginning in France with the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty and followed by a string of jihadist attacks in other European cities, the polity and life of citizens in Europe have been deeply affected. A new dimension of conflict has arisen in the European countries which threatens to tear asunder the religious amity in Europe and create a chimera which threatens to ignite a large geopolitical conflict based largely on religious and institutional grounds.
Decoding the conflict
The conflict between European and Islamic civilisations is not new. It dates back to the days of the crusades – a series of religious wars sanctioned by the Vatican to retake the European lands captured and annexed by Islamic rulers to reconvert them on the lines of Christianity. These wars took place between the 8th and the 11th centuries. Fast forward to the beginning of the modern age in Europe, from the 16th century onwards, the Renaissance and the Reformation somehow deepened this conflict, as did the fact that European countries began a global colonisation of countries belonging to other civilisations and faiths.
The various treaties signed during the first world war allowed the victorious allied powers to take over countries of the defeated central powers and govern them as mandates under the aegis of the erstwhile League of Nations. Among them the most prominent were the territories of the beleaguered Ottoman Empire, with the Ottoman Sultan recognised somewhat derogatively as “The sick man of Europe”. For Muslims, Ottoman Turkey was regarded as the fourth caliphate and the Ottoman Sultan recognised as the caliph. In the 1950s immediately after the termination of the Second World War, these colonies slowly gained their independence, noteworthy among which were Algeria, Tunisia, and other Islamic African countries.
One of the primary sources of this civilisational clash is the text of Islamic theologian and preacher Sayyid at Qutb who in his magnum opus articulated the inbuilt conflict between Europe and Islam and called for the overthrow of the Westphalian world order and the re-imposition of an Islamic caliphate. The Christian side too has its own share of anti-Muslim scholars and thinkers such as Robert Spencer and Olivier Roy who have contributed to virulent anti-Muslim sentiment.
To some, the notion of secularism in European countries has appeared to be a potent cause for stirring up a clash of civilisations, as the American political scientist Samuel P Huntington put it. Laicite, which advocates the strict separation of state and religion in the French context, appears to be a culprit if it is placed in the broad European framework. On the basis of this principle, successive French governments have taken steps which have alienated Muslims around the world, such as the banning of hijab, closing of madrasas, and making the state language mandatory for getting jobs and availing of other services. Other European countries have emulated such steps and this has accentuated the sense of dissatisfaction among the Muslim people.
Mending the fissures
It is high time that European nation states undertake the arduous task of rebuilding the broken bridge with its Muslim minority populations because the more the distrust, the more fissures will emerge in the European polity which will entail horrific ramifications for the unity of the European Union in the foreseeable future. Some steps which can be taken just in the nick of time are:
Holding interfaith dialogues and seminars on religious affairs at regular intervals. This will help the European and Islamic countries to undertake a deep understanding of the beliefs and culture of the religion of Islam and Christianity alike, their history, their religious books, and the ingrained aspects of religious matters.
Secondly, teaching courses of Christian and Islamic civilisations in not just European universities but also in the Islamic universities across Muslim countries. This step will go a long way in understanding the nuances of both civilisations while emphasising on their good values, avoiding the friction points, and addressing outstanding gridlock issues.
Thirdly, an overarching state-regulated programme for de-radicalisation of Islamist militants is vital. Care should be taken to ensure that convicted criminals are not released. Otherwise there could be a recap of what happened recently in Austria.
Fourthly, reining in the extremist elements within every religion, the European governments must take strong steps to root out extremism on both sides of the religious and ideological spectrum. The recent arrest of dozens of far-right activists in Germany who were planning large scale attacks on mosques, and the Austrian and French raids on radical Islamic elements and closing down of Salafi and Wahabi mosques which foment extremist beliefs are cases in point.
Fifthly, introspection on the part of recalcitrant and reactionary leaders is an important necessity. This includes leaders like Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Viktor Orban of Romania. The European Union must collectively take stern steps through punitive economic and political measures to rein in these leaders who through their incendiary speeches fan the flames of communalism with the ostensible objective of promoting discord.
Hope for a better future
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”, this is precisely what is happening in Europe and elsewhere. The prophecy of Samuel P Huntington in his magnum opus “Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of World Order” appears to be slowly becoming the truth. But Europe has a chance to once again become the beacon of unity and hope for the rest of the world which is currently suffering from the scourge of a deadly pandemic. The healing touch is imperative at a time of depressive economic conditions, loss of millions of jobs, and a constant fear to one’s life.
—The writer is a strategic affairs analyst and columnist. [email protected]