"Placing Muslims under general suspicion is not the solution"
Abominable allegedly Islamic terrorism has forced its way back into our consciousness in the shape of the barbaric acts of violence committed recently in Vienna, Nice and in a Paris suburb. We are all sick of hearing news like this. What can be said or written about such atrocities? How can something so indescribably appalling be described in words?
Yet after a while, we begin to realise that we know exactly what can be said or written. We have heard it and read it all too many times before. For about ten years now, we have been hearing the same sentences over and over from the most varied quarters. Politicians express their consternation and their sympathy.
Representatives of the Muslim community and Muslim associations distance themselves from the acts of terror. Both Muslim and non-Muslim critics of such associations accuse them of not distancing themselves enough or not doing enough. The Muslim associations in turn point out that the extremists did not attend mosques, which means there is a limit to what they can do.
At the same time, right-wing radicals gleefully pull out of their sleeves their ready-made messages of anti-Muslim hate and call on people to fight Islam. The actors have their scripts. They wait for their entrances. Nothing ever changes. Just like in the theatre: after the performance is before the performance.
Failings of the state and the Muslim community
The author of these lines has also written at length about the origins of this allegedly Islamic terrorism. The same applies to possible measures that can be taken to counter this form of extremism.
One could, of course, write once again about the specific problems of the French state, which make our neighbour so susceptible to this brand of terrorism: the colonial history that has never been properly addressed, the pressure to assimilate in French society and the associated anti-Muslim sentiment, France's lack of an academic tradition of Islamic theology resulting from its state principle of laicism, or the social problems and economic failings of the grande nation that have led to a ghettoisation of the suburbs.
One would, however, also have to mention in the same breath the deficits of the Muslim community in France: the establishment of islands of failure by replicating the social structures of their native countries, the lack of understanding for the principle of freedom of expression in the Western hemisphere that had to be fought for – in the face of both Church oppression and resistance to the Church, but also the lack of intellectual capacity to differentiate between caricatures and the Prophet Muhammad, or to respond intelligently to perceived provocations.
One could also point out that Germany has done many things much better than its neighbour France in terms of its policies on integration and religion and that this is why Germany doesn't have the problem of the permanent marginalisation of Muslim citizens, which fosters reactionary violence.
But numerous other writers are already doing this and, in this case too, adhering to the script. Nothing changes – except for the relatives and families of the victims. For them, nothing will ever be as it was.
Muslims as partners in the fight against terror
Right-wing, left-wing, and religiously motivated terrorist attacks are on the rise in Europe, but they should never be allowed to be increasingly accepted as a matter of course. Such hopelessness merely encourages and bolsters perpetrators of violence.
By the same token, placing my religious community under general suspicion is not a solution either. It is deeply wrong and merely serves to drive more disciples into the arms of the extremists. Nobody would dream of putting Germany's majority society under general suspicion after the numerous right-wing terrorist attacks that have been committed there.
It would not occur to anyone to place Christianity under general suspicion after Anders Breivik's allegedly Christian terrorist attack. What we need instead is to work together against this allegedly Islamic terrorism and for this, we need Muslim scholars, mosques, and associations as civil society partners. We also need patience and perseverance.
If, however, we continue to criminalise Islam, a world religion, and our fellow citizens of the Muslim faith, we will lose their support, which we so urgently need in our fight against this allegedly Islamic terrorism.
What we do not need for this fight is to stick to the distancing script. As a Muslim, Muslim scholar, and Muslim player who is not linked to any one association, I refuse to meet society's expectation that I talk of Muslim perpetrators of violence in a way that suggests they are close to my religion and, therefore, close to me.
I have two reasons for doing so: firstly, I don't want to enhance the status of either the attacker or his acts by paying him the honour of suggesting he represents my religion. From the perspective of the Muslim community, this Muslim has broken with the ethos of his religion.
This does not, of course, mean that the act has nothing to do with Islam. Nor does it relieve us Muslims of our obligation to work harder to make sure that our religion is not perverted for violent acts.
The transforming power of "charity"
Secondly, behind all the calls for people to distance themselves lies a message of mistrust and a questioning of declared loyalties. The latter is the expression of notions of superiority and inferiority.
No Muslim citizen should ever submit to such pressure. Otherwise we are chiselling away at the principle that all citizens are equal. Navid Kermani once wrote that "the moment I distance myself from something, I grant the person to whom I am speaking the right to suspect me."
So, if we are not to give in to either despair and hopelessness, or to prejudice and hate, what are we to do? What can be said that has perhaps not been said already?
For a religious person, there is only one possible answer: charity. Charity – or selfless love for your fellow humans – is the most powerful response to these evil crimes. Charity gives the individual the strength to act.
Charity gives us the hope that change is possible. Charity is a transformative power that can change an entire society. Charity creates peaceful co-existence between the most varied people. Charity robs polarisation, division and hate of the air they need to breathe. Charity is the opponent of all extremists. Charity can re-write the script.
Charity is not, however an abstract, but a behaviour specific to Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike. Hate does not multiply in the clouds or the heavens, but down here on earth, in our midst. Hate is not hard to identify. Charity also means setting people straight.
As individuals, each of us can make a societal contribution to combatting hate, regardless of where it comes from and regardless of whom it targets. At first glance, charity might seem like a wishy-washy answer. However it enables every one of us to take action in situations where the big answers have made no difference.
Muhammad Sameer Murtaza
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
Muhammad Sameer Murtaza is an Islamic scholar, political scientist, Islamic philosopher, and author. He works for the Stiftung Weltethos and is a consultant for the renowned specialist journal for Islamic Studies, Hamdard Islamicus.