Islam Is a Tarnished Brand in the West: Here’s How It Can Recover

Fabio Sola Penna/Flickr
Fabio Sola Penna/Flickr

I feel for my Muslim friends, I really do. It must be beastly to turn on a television or open a newspaper at the moment and see your religion’s name dragged through the mud, thanks to the actions of lunatics over whom you have no influence and with whom you feel you have nothing in common.

But my sympathy is tempered, I’m sorry to say, by how little those same friends have had to say on the terrorism problem until very recently.

I have dozens of friends who practice Islam. They are, of course, to a man, horrible bores on the subject of Palestine. Some of them wear “boycott Israeli goods” t-shirts, to which I turn a blind eye so as not to start a fight. But have any of them, in any of their supper rants, ever so much as addressed the question, unsolicited, of terrorism performed in the name of their faith? Have any of them shown up to lunch in a “not in my name” shirt?

The answer, I’m afraid, is no. And it has also been only very recently that solemn processions of Muslim authors, celebrities, and “community leaders”–whatever that ridiculous phrase means–have passed through television studios to denounce the acts and beliefs of fundamentalists and, of course, to say that whatever crime has just occurred is “nothing to do with Islam.”

I say this not because I get sadistic pleasure from squeezing awkward apologies for terrorist atrocities from innocent friends–but because the silence of Muslims until the last couple of years on the subject has been mystifyingly self-defeating: did imams, writers, and journalists not realise that by refusing to distance themselves strongly from such awful crimes, they open themselves up to suspicion? Did they not see what would happen?

It sometimes feels as though it might be too late to save Islam’s reputation in the west. If that sounds like an alarmist or absurd thing to say, consider the facts. For decades, Muslim communities turned a blind eye to what was going on in their mosques and schools, with the result that thousands of young western boys have flown to Syria to join ISIS to commit barbaric acts in the name of Allah.

They also failed to denounce terror where it happened, allowing hate-mongers to blur the distinctions between Islam and Islamism to such a degree that the subtleties are now lost on non-Muslims. Myself included, at times, if I am completely honest. Non-Muslims like us were left to conclude that they must, on some level, secretly sympathise with the acts of their radicalised cousins. Who could really blame us?

I am left so confused by the lack of strategy and foresight. Why wouldn’t Muslims want to avoid what has now happened: the inevitable entrenchment of sinister and terrifying associations any time the words “Islam” or “Muslim” come up in conversation. The slight chill down the spine at the sight of “Ahmed” or “Hussein” in the pages of a newspaper.

That sounds like textbook bigotry, I know, but it’s a fact of life for many understandably scared people.

The response from non-Muslims to the latest killings in Paris has been remarkable in its timidity. Islamophobia is a myth, as Brendan O’Neill so elegantly demonstrates today in National Review. While our politicians wring their hands about hypothetical future vigilante justice, very few people take the law into their own hands. Islamophobia-monitoring organisations are left bleating about nasty messages on social media, as though they were comparable to Jews barricaded into their shops in one of our greatest cities.

But that extraordinary display of tolerance will not last forever, which is why Muslim leaders may wish to think carefully about their next moves. Simply repeating the mantra “this has nothing to do with Islam” isn’t working. Muslims have been handed out lines to take by these people; pleasant fictions about “tiny fringes” and peace and love and the transcendent virtues of diversity and multiculturalism and how there is no link–none whatsoever, nothing, nada, don’t even think it–between the Islam as practised by supposed moderates and the Islam proclaimed by killers and, finally, by poisonous insinuations about Israel in places like the Guardian and the BBC and the New York Times that make it harder to sympathise with Jewish suffering.

The man in the street knows better, for the most part. He instinctively understands that there is something a little different about Islam, some reason it is not able to reconcile itself with modernity, or integrate itself into modern liberal democracies. He may not know about the structural uniqueness of Islam, which, unlike any other major world religion, makes claims of finality and perfection in regards to its holy text that leave little space for progress in science or society.

He may not be able to articulate what he has read about the Koran in terms of abrogation to explain why bellicose verses are legitimised by clerics over peaceful ones, or know much about Islam’s founder besides incriminating biographical details, such as the age of Mohammed’s youngest wife. He may not know that security services estimate the number of radicalised Muslims to be in the hundreds of millions worldwide. (Perhaps it is best he does not know this.)

But he knows–he feels–he is not being told the whole truth about Islamic terrorism. And he is right. The longer politicians and silly left-wing columnists keep parroting the old lie that there is no relation whatsoever between the faith and the fundamentalists, the longer the honesty gap widens between what is happening in our streets and what our leaders say in press conferences, brand Islam has no future in the west. Dialogue, and compromise, and understanding, cannot begin.

It’s often said by smart alecs on the internet that “Islamophobia” is a nonsense because fear of Islam is no irrational worry, as “phobia” implies, but a worry grounded in perfectly legitimate safety concerns. They have a point: a 2007 poll showed that 42 percent of French Muslims aged 18-29 backed occasional suicide bombings. So the first step in rehabilitation ought to be to admit that there are a colossal number of Muslims–and, yes, they are Muslims, and, yes, they practise Islam–who are quite relaxed about acts of violence in the name of Allah.

Lying about the scale of the problem helps no one; nor does pretending that there is no continuum between what we call moderate Islam and the Islam of the jihadist. We will simply have to decide where on that line we stop issuing people with passports.

Next, we need to hold Muslim societies to account for their many systemic inadequacies. As a gay man I would be killed in at least ten Islamic countries for being who I am. Women are routinely and systematically oppressed everywhere Islam takes root. You won’t hear this from timid western dhimmis, of course, but these are not the fringe beliefs of extremists: this is the face of mainstream Muslim society in many parts of the world.

Feminists and left-wingers need to stop inventing fictitious complaints about “manspreading” and “manslamming” and tackle genuine oppression in the Middle East. So far they have been shamefully and inexcusably cowardly about speaking truth to real power. These societies must be shamed into treating their weakest members with dignity and respect. Sanctions should be applied to those who refuse–including Saudi Arabia.

Islam must learn to laugh at itself. We will continue to mock Mohammed. Terrorism will only bring ridicule and contempt; Muslims must instead learn to deal with a bit of ribbing, as every other faith and nationality on the planet has to. It can no longer be acceptable to respond to words, thoughts, or artwork with violence. Islamic countries must imprison those who break this law, not tacitly endorse them and provide them with hiding places.

Muslim communities must engage fully with national and international law enforcement. They must turn over their black sheep, however painful it may be–however many families may be torn apart. They must police themselves and they must speak out in a single loud, clear voice against terrorism. Polls which show that one in five British Muslims somewhat sympathise with terrorist attacks must never appear in a newspaper again.

The endemic anti-semitism of so many Islamic communities must be admitted and rooted out, and the fairy-tale victimhood narrative of Islamophobia dispensed with. Anti-semitism remains the great bigotry of our species, and nowhere is it more deeply entrenched or more poisonous than in Muslim countries and diasporas. Islamic fundamentalists are obsessed with Jews–specifically, with killing them. Muslim leaders must speak out in the latter’s defence.

Finally, Muslims must agree to obey the laws of the countries in which they live. A British Muslim who would rather live under sharia law is welcome to do so elsewhere, but he should not lobby for it to be an option here. There is no space in our society for those who would segregate themselves or treat others as second-class citizens in any regard.

In the west, brand Islam is in trouble. Its minarets and peculiarly cloaked women have become a repugnant sight even to non-bigoted people. But its present crisis is not necessarily terminal, though every one of the above conditions will have to be met if it is to engage satisfactorily with the West and–let’s not beat about the bush–if we are to avoid a third great world war triggered by terrorism.

If we can successfully detoxify Islam to ordinary people, we will stand a fighting chance. Brits and Frenchman and Americans will stand alongside their Muslim neighbours to resist the dark power of radicals and to root out extremism together wherever it may be. But these necessary conditions for the rebuilding of trust must come first.

Muslims have been ill-served by the Establishment, by which I mean those apologists for terror, such as Channel 4’s Jon Snow, who engages in whataboutery every time a terrorist attack occurs, invoking irrelevant situations in Afghanistan or Iraq, and our politicians, who go on the offensive to make it totally, absolutely, very clear indeed that Islam is really just the most peaceful religion there is every time something terrible happens. But the time for special pleading is over.

If Muslim communities want a future in the West, they must act now.

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