By Riad Kahwaji*
Terrorist attacks by violent extremists pledging allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) against various targets in Europe has raised concerns about the status of the Muslim communities in Europe, especially at a time when almost a million refugees are arriving all over Europe from countries like Syria and Iraq. Far-right parties have performed well in recent elections, such as in France where public sentiment in the aftermath of the Paris attacks indicates how events in the Middle East increasingly impact security and local politics in Europe.
For many analysts, the French elections were just the start and many expect to see far-right and nationalist parties performing well in upcoming elections around Europe, with a potential to redefine the approach of the European Union (EU) on immigration in general and on Muslim communities in particular. Right-wing activism and politicking in European countries affected by terrorism or the flow of immigrants may well have long-term ramifications and could even trigger social unrest if Muslim communities are targeted with violence – signs of which have been recorded – and set the stage for civil unrest and the breakup of inter-communal disharmony.
The emerging social-political situation in Europe will probably highlight the problem of immigration and challenge of Muslim communities at once. Western leaders have been debating for some time the best approach to address the rising number of domestic cases of violent extremism by Muslims who were born and raised in the West. It was always believed that Muslim extremists usually came from Muslim countries with troubled societies, often suffering oppression, illiteracy and poverty.
However, Muslims communities in the West do not have clear, well-defined religious leaderships and have become prone to influence by foreign elements sending false promises or misleading ideas to serve their own narrow agendas. There is a growing sense that multiculturalism has failed, and one consequence to that is a growing national security issue where Muslim communities are concerned. The challenge of socially integrating Muslim communities into the broader culture and developing an effective bulwark against fanaticism and violent extremism is becoming more pressing.
If one observes the Muslim communities in the West as a whole, it will become clear that the way in which young Muslims are raised and educated – at home and school – has contributed to systematic failures that have in turn created opportunities for groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda to resonate their message and narratives. Muslims communities in the West are mainly comprised of individuals and their offspring who arrived as immigrants and settled in mainly poor and lower middle class neighborhoods, often feeling safer in communities with ‘their own’ which effectively became closed communities that offered little opportunity for outside interaction.
For first generation immigrants, cultural integration and education primarily came the hard way with daily life interactions, especially at work in offices, factories, shops, and during commuting – few were able to adapt quickly, and many spent decades feeling socially alienated. For second and subsequent generation Muslims, cultural integration occurred primarily through schooling and education, and they grew up understanding social norms, habits and traditions differently.
However, as Western schooling syllabi taught no Islamic education, this created a role for parents and elders typically from the first generation immigrant community to fill. As it is, Muslim communities residing in the West have typically relied on community elders to provide religious requirements, such as Islamic education, sourcing and managing places of worship, and provisioning activities for religious rituals such as funerals, marriage, and pilgrimage to holy Islamic places.
In most cases, community elders prefer to source clerics from their own respective countries, often tied with some kinship or social connection, to relocate and assume positions as Imams in mosques built and managed by local communities, or Islamic organizations normally backed by foreign governments or patrons. No higher authority in the host country checked the credentials of individuals brought over by local communities before or after they become Imams. Unsurprisingly, many Imams took up their positions despite low to non-existent cultural awareness, and often even the inability to fluently speak, read and write the language of their new home country.
Imams are prescribed great religious respect and credibility by practicing Muslims, but they can arrive with deep misperceptions about the West and possess hostile views towards Western culture and history, often blamed for troubles of the Islamic world. Yet, these same Imams are expected to provide lessons in religion and a way of life to practicing Muslims which is built on mutual respect and coexistence with non-Muslims and broader society to which they have little or no familiarity with. The result is unacceptably large numbers of the Muslim community living in a cocoon with feelings of disdain towards non-Muslim culture, and suspicion towards social change.
Muslims visiting friends and relatives that were born and raised in the West are sometimes surprised to see them harboring more conservative and sometimes even fanatical views than those living in Muslim-majority countries. A major reason for the type of religious conservatism that has been seen to provide ample opportunities for creeping extremism among Muslim communities in the West is the role of Imams lacking cultural awareness and appropriate levels of education for providing religious guidance. Too often Imams equate Western culture as anti-Islamic and counter-Islamic, develop imagined social fault-lines, and engineer a social isolation of Muslim communities from broader society in which radicalism is able to gain hold more easily.
The solution for the social and cultural integration of Muslim communities in the West is to establish an official Islamic institution that is able to look after the religious affairs of Muslim communities – with an authority at the top akin to a Grand Mufti. Such an institution would be able to educate and develop Imams to act as Muslim community leaders locally – indeed from within local communities themselves, ensure attractive salaries and job security, appoint Imams and religious leaders to mosques and religious schools, monitor and regulate performance, provide continuous education and professional development programs, instruct the subject and content of sermons delivered during religious service on Fridays and other days of religious importance such as during Ramadan, and train religious institutions to serve local communities in a way to support social and cultural integration.
Such an Islamic institution must be headed by a Muslim who was born and raised in-country, and meets the authentic religious credentials to be given the title of Grand Mufti – but also possesses the social awareness and political outlook that makes him suitable to take on such an important and influential tasking. Moreover, such an Islamic institution should be given authority to license the building of mosques, ensure that teachers of Islamic education meet a certain criteria, and have a role in helping decide which international Islamic organizations are moderate, suitable to the local community interests, and should be allowed to conduct charitable or religiously-oriented activities in the country.
In short, the proposed Islamic institution would faciliate the integration of new Muslim immigrants into society as well as act as a bulwark against religious fanaticism and social isolation among members of existing Muslim communities. Jurists in the West may find such a proposal to contravene existing laws or approaches, such as the right of freedom to practice religion, and politicians – especially conservatives – could misinterpret this by itself as creeping Islamization. However, it is important to acknowledge the importance Muslim communities attach to religious authorities and understanding how, and why, they have been underserved. Muslims in France or Germany should not be getting advice from an Imam who just arrived from Pakistan, Turkey or Syria. They should hear it from an Imam who was raised and educated in the West.
The emerging international environment requires extraordinary measures to be taken by governments to address a plethora of issues. Defeating violent extremism and the likes of ISIS and Al Qaeda which are able to indoctrinate both young and mature minds thousands of miles away requires policies that are sensible and sustainable – which do not target ordinary Muslims, such as banning entry at borders altogether, but which seek to collaborate with them to address the systematic failures leading Muslim communities in the West to being underserved with capable and equipped leaderships. Failure here may well be a final chance before the impending death of multiculturalism combines with a dangerous mix of impending social challenges to drive Europe and the wider West into socio-political abyss. Moreover, Western leaders must always remember that the war on terrorism has to be won ideologically in order for military gains to count.
*Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA