The Islamist Ghost Haunting Europe


By Michael Radu

The Islamist ghost haunting Europe today is not accidental, nor is its timing due to some plot hatched by a clique of terrorists from a Pakistani or North African hideout. To the contrary, it is largely the result of cultural and economic developments long in the making both in Europe and in the Muslim world. These trends are heading in opposite directions, and it is this fact that makes the threat so serious—far more than legal and intelligence errors or misguided social policies.

The most important discordance between trends in Europe and the Muslim world is identity. Europe, as a whole, is going through a clear identity crisis at both national and individual levels. Politically, the nation-state—which Europe invented and which largely explains both its past political, cultural, military, and technological triumphs as well as the totalitarian disasters of the twentieth century—is under persistent attack. It is threatened from above by supranational, largely unelected elite and bureaucratic forces, primarily the European Union and its associated institutions; and from below by the rise of regionalism and micro-nationalisms (Basque, Catalan, Flemish, Scottish, etc.). In addition, it is also threatened by a general loss of national culture and traditions in favor of an undefined “multiculturalism.” Multiculturalism, however, is not a policy, a doctrine, or an ideology. Brussels is quite effective in diluting national identities, but what has it to offer in exchange? “Tolerance”? “Europeanness”? Obviously, it is impoverished, which is why its Constitutional Treaty was rejected by both the least nationally conscious Europeans and the most—the Dutch and the French. Do not even ask the Poles, Balts, or Romanians what they think of “post-nationalism.”

When legislation passed by national, elected parliaments on issues of major importance—membership in the military, counterterrorism, immigration, or asylum, to name just a few—is overridden by Brussels or by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, or is harshly treated as a “gross violation” by self-appointed NGOs, the sense of lost control over the nation’s life and identity is increased. Hence, there is an insufficiently articulated disappointment with the political system as a whole and the rise of anti-system populists, ranging from quasi-anarchic skinheads to xenophobic parties à la Le Pen’s Front National.

European youth suffer from loss of identity, combined with widespread tolerance of deviant behavior. They see the legalization of drugs and prostitution, the continual lowering of jail sentences for various crimes, and the educational system’s frowning upon or outright rejection of national cultural identity. Many of them are losing all moral and cultural standards, and live in a chaotic, no-responsibility world. And here is the key difference between native Europeans and Muslim immigrants of the second or third generation: While both groups suffer the same loss of identity and aim, the former have no obvious exit, since both Christianity and mass ideologies are largely dead in Europe, while the latter do—and it is Islam, especially in its most simplistic, and poisonous, forms. It is hard to avoid drawing comparisons between British and German “skinheads” — who are opposed to an undefined “system” and are quick to blame their own problems on an undefined “other,” and to borrow the slogans of fascist or Nazi ideologies they know nothing about. Similarly, there are young Muslims in Europe who cannot read or understand the Quran but accept in its entirety—the Salafi interpretation of it—because it gives them an identity and a goal: to fight the infidel “other.” Doing so conveniently gives them a reason to reject a system they cannot or will not adapt to, and offers even the most ordinary petty criminal, be he a Muslim from birth or a convert, the opportunity to feel part of a large, indeed global, struggle—something that many psychologists would agree serves to create unconditional loyalty.

At the same time that Europe is suffering an extreme loss of national identity the Islamic world, aware of its general backwardness but in denial of the local roots of that backwardness, seeks scapegoats abroad, and solutions in a return to the mythical “pure” Islam of the Prophet’s times. While these factors are obvious in the case of Muslims born in Europe, they are even more acutely felt by Third World immigrants. For the latter, the identity vacuum of Europe’s metropolises adds to the double cultural shock of entry from a rural into a post-industrial world and from a conservative and structured moral universe into postmodern moral relativism and anarchic individualism.

To this, one has to add the impact of the political culture from the countries of origin, often imported wholesale to Europe and reinforced by the common pattern of marriage with partners from the original countries. This explains the disproportionate representation of individuals of Algerian, Pakistani, Moroccan, and Syrian background in Islamist activities—just as it partially explains the disproportionately low participation of Turks, Albanians, or Bosniaks in such activities. The former are products of radical or fast radicalizing Islamist environments, the latter of less radical or partially secularized Muslim societies. While this is just one element in the mixture of factors explaining the distribution of Islamism in Europe, it is an important one.

Europe, however, has by now created its own peculiar Islamic environment, in which Muslim immigrants’ ethnic and national identities are tending to be submerged into an increasingly homogenous “Muslim” whole, especially among the second and the growing third generation of immigrants. The best example of this is the joint presence of Algerian and Moroccan radicals in Islamist cells in Spain, of Pakistani and Algerian cooperation in Britain, and Pakistan-originated Tablighi recruitment among France’s Maghrebi immigrants. The neo-Wahhabi groups financed from, if not by, the nouveaux riches Gulf States are a different but not unrelated story.

And then there is the peculiar impact of globalization, especially via the Internet. It does not itself produce radicals, but it does offer the disaffected and alienated Muslim youths of Europe an “explanation” and a “solution” to their problems. How else can we explain why Muslims born in France or Britain, knowing nothing about Iraq, Kashmir, Chechnya, or Palestine but what The Guardian, Le Monde, or Salafi Internet sites tell them, decide to go to those countries to fight and die?

Muslims, Western politicians and academics often say that terrorism is not Islam and attempts to associate the two are insulting, dangerous, and counterproductive. This is a partial truth made of two halves. In this case, the obvious half is only a small minority of Muslims are terrorists. The other half is that, as the CEO of Al-Arabiyya courageously put it, “while most Muslims are not terrorists, most terrorists today are Muslims.” Or as the German-Turkish Muslim author Necla Kelek explained,

Politicians and religious scholars of all faiths are right in pointing out that there are many varieties of Islam, that Islamism and Islam should not be confused, that there is no line in the Koran that would justify murder. But the assertion that radical Islamic fundamentalism and Islam have nothing to do with each other is like asserting that there was no link between Stalinism and Communism.1

And the Islamist terrorists are Muslims. Neither the Quran itself nor prominent orthodox theologians today say otherwise. Indeed, the Quran is clear that all those who claim to be Muslims, are. Thus, the real problem is not that somebody else—outsiders, non-Muslims—“insult” the followers of Islam by associating them with terrorists, but that most Muslims choose to hide behind emotions (feeling “insulted”) rather than face the problem head on. Unfortunately, the genuinely moderate imams, few and mostly living in London, lack the legitimacy to reach the masses of nominal Muslims. The “moderates” à la Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and the Muslim Brotherhood in general, are anything but. Qaradawi is quite clear in his opinion: al Qaeda and its followers are Muslims as long as Allah does not decide otherwise—which is in His hands alone.

And here is the key dichotomy that Muslims living in Europe face (or, more often, avoid): either agree with the radicals, who are Muslims, that Islam is under threat globally and violence is the answer, or reject the main premise and admit that Islam has to adapt to different circumstances because Muslims now live under various circumstances. The latter conclusion would require cooperating with authorities and, most importantly, willingly accepting adjustments to traditional Islamic (or pseudo-Islamic) customs and beliefs: intolerance toward gays and denial of women’s rights, but also practices such as polygamy, female genital cutting (FMG), and honor killings. The alternative is grim: the continuous rise of populist, anti-immigrant demagogues, serious attempts to stop Muslim immigration, and eventually a general cultural clash in most, if not all, European countries. Of course, the creation of an Islam of Europe, adapted to the postmodern cultural environment, would solve all such problems. But that process is, at the very best, in its incipient, baby-steps stage.

* * *

Islam has to deal with the reality of some 20 million technically Muslim people living in the West. It is in this context that an important debate has been taking place within “mainstream Islam,” between the Swiss-based moderate Tariq Ramadan, strengthened by his genealogy (he is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood), and the Qatar-based Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim Brother and very influential among Muslim leaders in Europe and European leftists. In fact, the case of Tariq Ramadan is very important, since he is one of the most influential Muslim intellectuals in the West. As the American scholar Jonathan Laurence puts it, Ramadan “seeks the suspension of certain rules for all Muslims…He wants thereby to preserve Islam’s universality while allowing for the specificities of time and place.”

The main way to do that is by drawing a neat line between the universal principles of the Islamic faith and variations in culture:

… to define our Islamic identity by distinguishing it from the culture in which it is clothed in particular parts of the world. …Depending on where they live, Muslims of immigrant background will be by culture French, Belgian, British, Spanish or American … More broadly, this process will give birth to what we have called a European or American Islamic culture.

However, while religion and culture are indeed not coterminous, they are far more so in Islam than in any other major religion. By nature—considering its direct and indeed revealed legal, moral, and political aspects—Islam is to a decisive extent a social and legal system. Separation of its various aspects is virtually impossible in practice. This reality explains the criticism of Ramadan by orthodox Islamic scholars, not to mention the Salafis, who simply consider him an apostate.

The Anglo-Dutch scholar Ian Buruma notes: “Tariq Ramadan, Muslim, scholar, activist, Swiss citizen, resident of Britain, active on several continents, is a hard man to pin down. People call him ‘slippery,’ double-faced,’ ‘dangerous,’ but also ‘brilliant,’ a ‘bridge-builder,’ a ‘Muslim Martin Luther.’”

Indeed, precisely because of the theological and practical difficulties implicit in his reformist views, Ramadan is persistently accused of duplicity, of having a hidden agenda closer to the Muslim Brotherhood than he cares to admit. Yet, precisely because he tries to understand the dilemmas facing second-generation Muslims in the West—like himself—and to solve them from an Islamic perspective, he has a huge following among educated Muslims in Europe.

The debate is between extremes—the Salafis, gaining ground among the alienated “Muslim” second-generation youth in Europe, and moderate, integrated Muslims with no voice and few ideologists, like Ramadan and Bassam Tibi. Considering the growth of Islamist terrorism based in Europe, it appears that the former are winning hearts and minds everywhere.

* * *

As George Weigel has pointed out,2 the European problem is a civilizational one. It is the problem of a society that has lost its moral and cultural bearings. What makes matters worse is that while the Europeans have lost their bearings, the growing Muslim communities in their midst have not. Many, perhaps most, Muslims in Europe today are religious, some strongly so, and the Europeans have nothing with which to counter those beliefs.

“Multiculturalism” in the West is widely practiced as tolerance, encouragement, and indeed subsidization of an archipelago of mutually incompatible, often mutually hostile, ethnic islands in countries which — until a few decades ago — were relatively homogeneous. Thus, traditions, practices, and habits alien to Europe—polygamy, FGM, honor killings—are, if not tolerated, at least not systematically punished. Any serious Islamic scholar or imam would reject those practices as alien to his religion, but Europe’s ruling circles see that as less important than “respect” for Islam. Their ignorance of Islam is never pointed out by national Islamic umbrella groups. Instead, the accusations from those circles are that Westerners choose not to understand Islam for “racist” reasons.

The basis for the West’s multiculturalism is the idea that all cultures, everywhere and at any time, are equal. The fundamental change required is to accept and enforce the idea that any immigrant group in the West has some basic obligations, most prominent among them that of obeying the laws and traditions of its new country and learning the language. Until that happens, we will continue to see spectacles like that of an elected Manchester city councilman of Pakistani background who, after years of living in the United Kingdom, still needs a translator and claims the “right” to have that translator paid by the taxpayers.

A continued belief in multiculturalism by the elites suits Muslim radicals just fine. Unlike immigrants who come to America in pursuit of the American dream, many Muslims come to Europe determined not to assimilate into the local culture, which they despise. Many of their children, unlike second-generation Americans, hold to their traditional ways with greater tenacity than their parents. This is especially true of young Muslim men eager to maintain their traditional dominance over women, a role threatened because Muslim girls in Europe are outperforming boys in school and in the workplace. And yet former Prime Minister Tony Blair thought he could reach this group through the mostly moderate Muslims who constitute the outreach “network” or “task force” he established.3 Indeed, “official” Islamic organizations in Europe all suffer the same disabilities. They are not effective among the most dangerous elements of the Muslim communities, the impressionable youth. Indeed, in the eyes of the youth, since they are sanctioned by the non-Muslim government, they cannot be “representative.” They also are subject to the same divisions plaguing the Muslim communities themselves (along lines of ethnicity, sectarian differences, and foreign influences). And this is leaving aside the fact that their leaders are seldom elected.

So far, most European governments have chosen to avoid the problem, or to change the subject. Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain actually believes, as former French president Jacques Chirac claimed to, in the “dialogue of civilizations” mentioned above, and specifically in the “Euro-Mediterranean Partnership,” a.k.a. the “Barcelona Process,” launched at a conference in Barcelona in 1995. At the Barcelona meeting of 2005, however, the only Muslim leaders present were Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) of the Palestinian Authority. Even if leaders like the kings of Morocco and Jordan, or the presidents of Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia, had been there, they would only have complicated matters. They are all less tolerant of political Islam than most of the EU leaders present. Indeed, it is hard to see with which “Islamic civilization” Messrs. Zapatero et al. want to talk—a radical one like that of the Islamists in their midst? Or one where the Muslim Brotherhood is banned or barely tolerated (Egypt, Syria); where the veil is banned in schools and government offices (Turkey, Tunisia) because its political meaning is well understood; or where Islamists were killed by the tens of thousands (Algeria), while their ideologues and recruiters operated freely in Britain or Belgium?

On the other hand, some facts stubbornly remain. While EU economic growth as a whole has been modest to nil, that of the Maghreb has been worse. Hence emigration is seen as a solution for social problems in Algiers, Rabat, Tunis, and beyond. Especially, one may add, if the emigrants are Islamists, as many are. Indeed, difficult as it would be to carry out, a detailed analysis of Moroccan or Algerian emigrants to Europe would almost certainly suggest that a disproportionate number are inclined toward Islamism.

And then there is the technical matter of security cooperation. At least in France’s case, as we have seen, counterterrorism and politics are largely separated, with the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure working well with its North African colleagues, despite official “human-rights” complaints and legislation. However, other European countries are less cooperative, and there are persistent Egyptian, Moroccan, Tunisian, and Algerian complaints about European tolerance of Islamists who are ensconced in Europe’s welfare states while working hard to subvert the present regimes of their countries of origin, the Europeans’ hoped-for partners in the “dialogue of civilizations.”

When it comes to the United States, the French provide needed military and intelligence cooperation to the U.S. Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) in the Sahel, as well as in Europe itself. Yet, the hysteria encouraged by the European Parliament over CIA rendition flights is clearly a problem—and a career threat to any European intelligence operative inclined to cooperate with the Americans.

NOTE: This essay is adapted from Europe’s Ghost: Tolerance, Jihadism, and the Crisis in the West, by the late Michael Radu, who was a senior fellow at FPRI. The book, published posthumously in early 2010, is available from Encounter Books; see For Michael Radu’s other FPRI essays, visit . This article first appeared at FPRI ( and is reprinted with permission.

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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