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Opinion: Islam must be treated like Christianity in Europe – accepted, revered and lambasted

It is up to moderate people to have an open debate about religion and society. Otherwise, extremists will have it for us.

Aaron McKenna

IT HAS LONG since passed into memory, but Christian fundamentalist violence used to be par for the course in Europe. Christians would march off to foreign lands to conquer and convert on pain of death, and many of the bloody wars that embroiled the continent had a religious undertone. Christianity held a place in the national life intertwined with the God-given mandate of monarchs.

Then, to give you a very truncated version, we had the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the French Revolution and the separation of church and state. Europe has evolved into a largely secularist land of liberal democracies that reflect western values on topics ranging from freedom of speech to women’s liberation, education to family. Christianity is the official religion of the vast majority of Europeans, but it is also excluded from much democratic decision-making; churches come in for regular and robust scrutiny, to say the least.

Though we cannot say we are holier than anyone else, for there are pockets of resistance and there remain people alive who suffered at the hands of extreme persecution here, Europe is a tolerant place by and large. Even Ireland, with its Catholic-tinted constitution, is a safe place to practise your religion, express your political views and associate with whom you want, however you want. People of all creeds are welcome in Europe. As we are seeing, however, from movements across the continent, there is a push back on the notion that people are welcome to challenge the core values of Europe as a secular, liberal land.

An attack on one of the key institutions of the free world

There exists the perception of a great friction between western values and the values held dear by those of the Islamic faith, the vast majority of whom are anything but violent. This is leading to the rise of more extreme anti-Islamic movements in Europe, from Pegida in Germany to support garnered by the Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen’s of this world.

Controversies about burkas, Islamic education, cartoons and the application of Sharia Law in western countries (to name but some) have created points of contention between Islamic values and traditional European ones. A series of studies of attitudes in Europe cited in The Economist this week shows that half or more of the population of many European countries believe that Islam is incompatible with the west.

The vile terrorist attack in Paris this week has shocked us in a way that perhaps other terrorist attacks of recent time have not. Every death to extremism is a senseless tragedy, but the attack on Charlie Hebdo was also an attack on one of the key institutions and concepts of the free world: the press and the ability to express oneself without fear or favour.

Terrorists walked into a newspaper office and said to the free world, “You will only print what we deem acceptable or we will kill you.” It has shocked us to our core, because we can recognise that this kind of a threat may well lead to self-censorship and a fundamental win by terrorists against the freedoms we enjoy.

These extremists do not represent the majority of Muslims any more than the IRA represented the majority of Irish people who, by association, suffered a hard time living in Britain during the Troubles. Terrorist extremists who murder in cold blood are rarely representative of the way most normal people would conduct themselves.

Impressionable youngsters who feel frozen out in society and who are egged on by fundamentalist mentors (who rarely strap bombs to themselves) go on to become radicalised and seek to take violent action. Many Isis and Al-Qaeda fighters have originated in Europe and both French and US sources have indicated that the two men suspected of the Paris attack were born in France and were actively involved in Islamic militantism overseas. The notion of young Muslims going off to fight in places like Syria and then return to the west to perpetrate atrocities is no longer theoretical.

An extreme expression of  wider problems 

Terrorism is not unique to Islam, but in this age it is the source of much of the terrorist bloodshed on our streets. The shootings on Parliament Hill in Ottowa, the Sydney Café hostage shootings and the Jewish Museum of Belgium shooting last year. The beheading of Lee Rigby in London the year before. The Toulouse and Montauban shootings in 2012 and the Frankfurt Airport shooting the year before. The Stockholm bombing in 2010. All were “home grown” in one fashion or another.

More attacks are promised, with Andrew Parker, Director of MI5 in the UK, indicating that Islamic terrorists are planning imminent mass casualty attacks in the west. It’s also worth remembering that the 9/11 attacks were largely planned in Europe.

These radicalised elements are mostly an extreme expression of the wider problems that Islam is having in settling into what, for lack of a better moniker, we might call the western free world. The terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo did so because of cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad, which offended many moderate Muslims also. In this country the Trinity lecturer and spokesperson for the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh, Dr Ali Selim, has said that he would take legal action against media publishing depictions of Muhammad. Outside of the Muslim community, some commentators have questioned the publishing of such depictions both now and in the past, such as around the time of the Danish cartoon controversies.

All of this friction is creating a backlash, exacerbated by the terrorist acts that shock many; 18,000 people have marched in the German city of Dresden in protest of the perceived Islamicisation of Europe, and in France and elsewhere we have already seen far right groups making hay from the “threat” of Islam. In the Netherlands the prominent right wing politician Geert Wilders wants to ban the Qur’an. One of his predecessors in the Dutch right was murdered in the street for his views on Islam. A controversial right wing Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, was killed in a near decapitation by an Islamic terrorist two years later. This is fertile ground for a counter-radical movement against all Muslims, which would be entirely wrong as a response to these acts.

Bridging the divide between secular European society and devout Islamic thinking

The issue at the heart of the matter is that western society has put religion in a box, living parallel but separately to the life of our nations as a whole. We have developed republics that largely separate church and state, and even in our constitutional monarchies such as the UK, where the Queen is also the Defender of the Faith, there has been an effective castration of the influence of religion over state affairs.

Muslim communities tend to come from a less secularised state background; combined with the immigrant experience this can lead to disenfranchisement and, eventually, radicalisation. We must square this circle between the expectations of secular European society and devout Islamic thinking if we are to bridge the chasm that separates us and leads to atrocities like that in Paris.

Islam is welcome in Europe. What we must be firm in saying, however, from the moderate centre rather than fascist fringes, is that Islam will be treated like any other religion in Europe. It is separate to our conception of the state and wider civil life. The universal creed that Europe imposes on people of all religions and outlooks is that of a secular society that therefore creates room for all to coexist.

We are a tolerant society. Mosques can spring up and Muslim life flourish in places like Christian Ireland without much protest. We are also a polite society, and so sometimes it might feel like an imposition to say, quite firmly, that there is a space for religion and a separate space for society and the state.

It is up to moderate people, Muslim and otherwise, to conduct this debate. Otherwise, extremists will have it for us.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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