Islamist radicals are a threat. But do you need to attack their religion?

Ishaan Tharoor writes: Islam is not a monolithic thing. It’s embraced by multitudes that speak different languages, think different thoughts and grapple with different challenges every day. It has no central, governing institution and no shortage of internal debates and schisms.

Some analysts point out that the attacks on Islam aren’t really about religion, per se. “Their ‘cultural racism’ portrays Muslims as an irremediable, jihadist fifth column,” writes journalist and critic Adam Shatz in an incisive essay about the Charlie Hebdo editorial and its boosters. “Their fear of Islam has less to do with the religion than with the people who practice it.”

That was very much on show in the face of Europe’s migrant crisis, when fears of a “jihadist fifth column” consumed a segment of the Western public and shaped the response to what aid groups and the United Nations desperately plead is, first and foremost, a humanitarian tragedy in the Middle East.

Given the violence in Brussels and Paris, these fears are understandable. But it’s a case of seeing a vast forest when there are only a few trees.

“Claiming that Europe faces a Muslim invasion has become standard fare for a range of politicians and political parties in Europe,” noted Nate Schenkkan, the project director behind a recent Freedom House report on the rise of illiberal politics in parts of the continent. “This kind of speech undermines democracy by rejecting one of its fundamental principles — equality before the law. There is a danger that this kind of hateful, paranoid speech will lead to violence against minorities and refugees.”

This “hateful, paranoid speech” has its obvious political uses, though. Fiery populists on both sides of the pond have pointed to the threat of Islam when campaigning, often with success, in recent local elections.

The trouble is that pinning the radicalization and criminality of a small minority on whole communities — a whole religion, even — obscures more than it reveals. It reduces to abstraction what are far more complicated and important problems to consider, such as lapses in security and intelligence as well as troubles over assimilation and integration.

And, as myriad experts on counterterrorism policy and the Middle East have argued, it trades in the same logic that is employed by Islamist organizations.

“Promoting a clash of civilizations and destroying the reality of productive coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims was always at the heart of al-Qaeda’s strategy. The Islamic State has avowed the same goal of eliminating the ‘gray zones’ of toleration,” writes Marc Lynch, professor of international affairs at George Washington University. “With American political discourse these days, the prospects for escaping the iron logic of this strategy have never looked more dismal.” [Continue reading…]

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