By Jonathan Power*
France has its back to the wall, unnecessarily so. Its coronavirus policy is in a mess. (How come the Asians and Africans can get it right and the Europeans and Americans can’t? Perhaps we are racially inferior.) And now there is the appalling act by an 18-year old fanatic who, in the name of Islam, decapitates a teacher for showing his class the notorious caricatures of Mohammed, published in the satirical magazine, “Charlie Hebdo” five years ago. Two weeks later three worshipers in a church in Nice were gunned down by another young fanatic of Muslim origin.
President Emanuel Macron and his interior minister in moving to condemn the first attack unsubtly ruffled the waters by giving the unfortunate impression that they were down on Islam, the religion itself. They aren’t. Irresponsibly, since they both know better, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan flay Macron with words and provoke the ire of the partially informed masses of the Islamic world.
Morale in France is at a low. It has been hit by a double whammy with consequences yet to be revealed. At the same time as this happens, as Covid-19 spreads in Europe, the French (and the rest of the world) are being told that in Afghanistan Al Qaeda members can be found in the ranks of the Taliban, and that ISIS is showing life again in Iraq and Syria. The mood in France is right for “Islamisteria”.
The words still ring in our ears from Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington’s treatise, “The Clash of Civilizations”, which in many ways triggered the paranoia that infects our politicians, press and public discourse. “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism, IT IS ISLAM”, he wrote in capital letters.
Even today, after so much debate, there are many who do not appear to understand that Al Qaeda is a deviant phenomenon within the Islamic world, just as Hitler was within the Christian world. (Commentators overlook that Hitler’s early speeches called on Catholic principles, albeit a misreading of them.)
Islam has a much better record over the ages of dealing with its deviants who take violence to excess. Islamic culture has not been tolerant of Nazism, fascism or communism. Christianity has spawned all three. Japanese Buddhism failed to resist Japanese militarism and Confucianism proved hospitable to Maoism. Yes, there was Saddam Hussein, but he was an atheistic brute without a religious ideology.
Of course, there have been many incidents in the long history of Islam when there have been large-scale losses of life. Islam initially spread by conquering Arabia and further afield. The massacres and starvation of the Armenians in 1915 by Muslim Turks still stirs the waters of contemporary debate. In the late fifteenth century, the occupying Muslim armies of the Tatars finally were repulsed by Moscow. But Islam has never spawned anything comparable with Hitler’s systematic genocide of the Jews. Indeed, throughout its history, Islam has been protective of the Jews, regarding them as “people of the Book” to whom it has a special responsibility.
There have been no Islamic-led pogroms of the Jews, as have happened in the Christian world. Nor did Islam settle in other parts of the world and systematically obliterate another civilization, as did Christian Spain with the Aztecs and Incas. Nor did Islamic societies create anything equivalent to South Africa’s apartheid or the racist culture of many Americans. Unlike many Christian churches, the mosque has never separated
Western memories are highly selective. When at Easter time in 1821 the Greek peasants of the Peloponnese began to kill all the Muslims in the land there was silence. But 50 years later when there were mass killings of Christians in Bulgaria there was a great outpouring of moral outrage. Delacroix immortalized the massacre in his painting, “Massacre of Chaos”, with Christian women being pursued by Turkish lancers and the nineteenth century British Prime Minister William Gladstone wrote a bestselling pamphlet in which he described the Ottomans as leaving “a broad line of blood marking the track behind them”.
Almost forgotten today is that it was the Ottoman Muslims who gave refuge to the Jews when they were expelled from Iberia in the fifteenth century, but many cultured Westerners know of Voltaire’s “Fanaticism or Mohammed the Prophet” and of Dante’s portrayal of “Mohammed in Hell”.
Criminal violence is much lower in Muslim cities like Kuala Lumpur, Algiers, Rabat and, the world’s safest city, Abu Dhabi, than in many Christian-influenced societies. According to the UN’s annual Human Development Report, Muslim countries, along with Scandinavia, have the world’s lowest murder and rape rates.
When my daughters and their friends asked me where they could safely travel in an interesting Third World country I said go to Morocco, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Emirates or Calcutta in India. Certainly not Catholic Brazil or Venezuela or Protestant South Africa. Not only murders, muggings and sex offences are comparatively rarer, there is much less prostitution and hard drug use. Neither is there as much AIDS.
The Western debate about Islam is often ill-informed, even infantile. Europeans and Americans live in a slough of ignorance. If we want to deal effectively with Al Qaeda, ISIS and murderous fanatics who do their dirty deeds inside our own societies we have to find a way to understand Islam and persuade its overwhelming majority of non-violent adherents that we are their side, and that we want them to be on our side.
* The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com