Now that a almost a year has passed since the act of barbarism in Paris which was instantly branded by some smartheads (and politicians) “a clash of civilizations”, perhaps it’s time to sit back a little and assess things a bit more soberly. In my opinion there’s no such thing as a war of the civilizations, not really. Of course there can’t be a yes or no answer to such complex issues spanning generations and even centuries, but still. On one side, this isn’t a Muslims vs Christians clash per se. It’s rather a conflict of values, one side refusing to adopt the other’s values even when the former is being hosted by the latter, with all the hospitality that comes with that.
But even then, these are not “Christian” values by definition, but rather values of humanism. Free expression included. Unfortunately, many among the Muslim community do not necessarily identify with these values, or at least do not place them anywhere near the top of their list of priorities – but instead they fear they could lose their identity and damage their own culture and faith if they do. This couldn’t be any further from reality, though. Adopting the principles of secularism, humanism and the Age of Enlightenment that have become so fundamental for the West would not only not undermine the Muslim world – it would most likely enrich it and allow it to develop – a process that Europe has been taking for granted for quite a while now. It’s no surprise that the main factor for that was the separation of church and state, of religion and politics.
Some might remember the time when Europe was discussing its new constitution, how Romano Prodi and Valerie Jiscard Distain asked the now much revered Pope John Paul II for his opinion on the project. He wrote to them that it was very good and all, but there was a flaw with it, namely that there wasn’t a word about the role of the church in state matters. They both responded to him that the function of religion on this continent has become a personal rather than state matter for a long time. Indeed, Europe had paid a steep price in its effort to separate church from state. And today religion serves to sort out the individual’s relation with God, which is why it has no place in political matters.
Fast-forward to the beginning of the 21st century, and have a look at the Muslim world. What does the separation of church and state mean for that part of the world? Well, there are at least two major aspects of this issue that need to be looked into. The first one indeed concerns the relations of the Muslim world to the West. Like I said, it’s not so much a brutal clash of entire civilizations – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a clash of some sorts, and tensions. I’d venture to argue that this mostly stems from the general alienation of the Arab and Islamic societies from the new realities of the modern world. That in turn is a result of the deepening globalization.
The development of such a process worldwide creates deep psychological problems for the societies that find themselves at the receiving end. They see that everything that’s happening nowadays, development-wise, is mostly a product of the Western world, which they (erroneously or not) tend to associate with Christianity. In practice though, it’s not merely a Christian world, it’s the *secular* world of modernity. It’s this world that has worked hard to separate church from state – and Muslims are largely feeling marginalized and very offended by that, because they feel they’ve had little to no contribution to what’s happening in the world today.
They feel they’ve turned themselves into mere end consumers of the products that are being created and promoted elsewhere on a daily basis – a consumer who has no say in the shaping of the product. Which is why they tend to turn back to the past with nostalgia, and try to compare themselves to a society that used to exist about 1200 years ago. Back then, Europe was in the Dark Ages, while the Muslim world was enjoying its early Renaissance. So they now say, “We used to rule half the world back then, but today we are downtrodden, subordinate, and marred by warfare”. So they live with deep contradictions: they simultaneously strive to emulate the Western values and achievements to an extent, but out of some sort of twisted cultural pride, they also refuse to allow it to access their communities and societies. They long for the splendor of the Islamic Caliphate of old, although they know very well that such a form of government is completely contradictory to anything existing today – because we’re no longer in the 9th century, but in the 21st.
And here’s the whole absurdity in their confusion: because they have little clarity as to what exactly they want for themselves, and are so shockingly and numbingly confused about their own place in the world, they end up both supporting and opposing the likes of the Islamic State – even in the regions it controls with a bloody iron fist, where the bulk of the victims to its terror are exactly Muslim.
That said, it’s deceivingly easy to conclude that the Quran is to blame for all this. That’s the easiest excuse. But when we look a bit under the surface, we’d encounter the first complication. The question arises, which Quran exactly? The US have tried aiding the so called “moderate Islamists”, although frankly, a “moderate Islamist” sounds like an oxymoron to me. There can be only one fundamental Islam, the one written in the Quran. Problem is, it tends to be interpreted in all sorts of ways by the various Islamic denominations. There’s Salafi Islam, Wahhabi Islam, Turkish Islam, also Malaysian and Indonesian Islam, and many many more. Now tell me, which of them is to be chosen as the universal one? You guessed right: none can.
The original Quran was written 15 centuries ago. So who wrote all those subsequent addendums? Who edited it over and over, and for what purpose? Ultimately, whose is the ultimate Islamic “truth”? All these complications are causing additional pressure and chaos both in the Muslim’s mind and in the real world. And naturally, there comes the statement of the Egyptian general/junta-boss/president Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, which went largely unnoticed by the Western media by the way. A few days ago, he gathered many major religious leaders and essentially told them: “You are all responsible for what’s happening, and you should initiate a religious revolution. Otherwise the whole world will start perceiving us all as aggressors, because we only tend to attract people’s hatred and distrust. You shouldn’t keep raising the young generations in this manner, otherwise we’re all doomed!” Or something to that effect.
I think he does have a point. But the conflicts will continue, until civic societies arise in all (or at least, most) Muslim countries. If the dictatorships go away, that’d strengthen the economy, and that’ll have to be coupled with the painful process of separating religion from state, empowering women and minorities, etc – otherwise these societies are truly lost.
It’s a long and painful process, yes. It can’t happen overnight. That sort of transformation takes many generations. It looks like the Muslim societies are now going through a process that Europe had passed a long time ago, a process that turned the European societies into what they are today. The most immediate goal of the Muslim societies now has to be to interrupt the vicious cycle of militant Islamic fundamentalism. They need a new interpretation of the Quran, they need to perceive religion in a more humble and realistic way. But, as the European experience shows, this requires a lot of time, and probably going through tons of wars and blood – so things will have to get much worse before they start to get better, I’m afraid. And the recent signs that things are even going in an opposite direction, are not helping make us optimistic about it at all.
See, I’ve met with pals who are former Iraqi students here, and Syrian students, and Libyan students. Most of them are well-educated, smart, ordinary people. They remember the times when you couldn’t see a single burqa on the streets of Baghdad or Tripoli or Damascus. All women used to dress as they pleased. But now they’re all in black, covered from head to feet. Why is that? Did they suddenly discover their faith or something? No, of course not! It was always there, it’s just that this is a display of the loss of cultural identity that I talked above. So now many of them are deliberately walking the European streets covered in black from top to bottom, as if they want to yell to the world: “Look at me, I’m Muslim and I’m not ashamed of it!”
This is why I suspect this will be a century of ethnicity and religious identity. I think the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam will be largely defining those societies for a long time to come. And no one is able to predict for sure where it’ll all end up.
No doubt, one of the most crucial problems is the subordinate position of women in these societies. And by extension, it also relates to the total disregard of the rights of any minorities. We could also add the lack of free media, and then of course there’s the merging of the mosque with the state. That’s where all problems emerge from. That’s why right now, the Muslims are most vulnerable and sensitive about their religion. It’s the last thing they’ve got that they could cling to, and draw some pride from. That’s why they constantly turn back to history, and dream of great holy Caliphates even when they know full well that these are impossible in the modern world.
But here’s the paradox: there *are* Gulf countries with extremely modern infrastructure, perfect roads, and everything the most developed countries could envy them for. But still, much of their population suffers from a malfunction in what I could call the “infrastructure of spirit”. And that’s the most important part: how you raise and educate your own people, and in what direction you’re leading the future generations.
Still, there’s some of room for optimism, because it’s not like there aren’t any good examples of the opposite. Tunisia is one. It has always been a secular state, and its new constitution only comes to confirm this. The Islamists did win the elections some time ago, they got 38%. But what happened next? They lost the latest election, only being able to garner 15%. And who voted for them? Mostly the elderly people, the Tunisian equivalent of what we here in Bulgaria call “red grandpas” (who always vote Socialist, because they’ve known nothing else). Those people vote out of delusion, because they’re being told “We’re the only true representatives of Allah”, so they cast their ballot exactly the way they’re supposed to. At the end of the day though, the Islamists lost all the recent elections they ran in, including the presidential one.
They lost to the young generations of Tunisia. They lost to the women of Tunisia, who’ve been a very significant factor. They’ve had equal rights for 30 years now. And they were the ones who neutralized the Islamist agenda where it even remotely existed. It was thanks to Tunisia’s women and the preservation of their rights that the modern civic society in Tunisia has been sustained.
I can’t say for sure if that’ll happen in the rest of the Muslim world any time soon, but something tells me that’s inevitable in the long run. If for anything, at least because there’s been a Western type of mentality in Tunisia for a long time, in the most general meaning of the word. So the Tunisian people cannot be tricked by populist religious propaganda – not at this point. And when a model works, others would sooner or later want to emulate it. Good example, just like the bad one, tends to spread like a contagion.
It was for similar reasons that Egypt ended up deposing of its Islamist government (no matter how “moderate” it claimed to be), less than a year after it was sworn in. 22 million Egyptians signed an impeachment petition against now former president Morsi. The military instantly seized the opportunity to present itself as the protector of the interests of the people, not the state itself – with which it practically asserted its claim to dominion on Egyptian politics (just like the Turkish military used to be pre-Erdogan). Where the Islamists tried to kick the secular military out through the door, it came back through the back window, seized the moment, and destroyed the Islamist agenda by force. Different method, same result as in Tunisia.
All the trouble of course started from Syria. And not because the West intervened or anything like that – just on the contrary. Because it did not. Until very recently, there were few to no Islamists in Syria, it was a modern society with normal people who just wanted some dignity and freedom to go about their life. They were fed up with the conditions of dictatorship they had lived in for more than half a century. But Assad didn’t want to go without a fight, he unleashed his repressive machine upon them, so the conflict soon escalated and started expanding, and the terrorists didn’t come late. Many of these were imported from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East, the end goal being to remove Assad. But these calculations turned out wrong, because the Russian factor had been neglected. Big mistake.
Right now, Russia is playing the Syrian, Iranian, and now the Ukrainian card, in order to essentially show the US and the West that they’ll do their best to prevent things from happening by the Western scenario, and that Russia is a factor to be reckoned with. That’s why Russia took the side of Syrian despotism. And I won’t be surprised if the US is eventually compelled to get involved in yet another armed conflict.
The West is understandably reluctant to enter conflicts of any sort, granted, and it should’ve probably pressed Assad to reform his government and allow Syria to follow the Tunisian scenario. But now that Russia has been involved as a destabilizing factor, things have become rather complicated. As for Russia itself, it has two problems: one is with the West, the other with its own Muslims, who are not few at all. And they’re Suni, just like those fighting against Assad in Syria. But that’s another type of clash, which is a whole other story. By the way, there’s been a huge protest in Grozny against the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as we speak. And this says a lot.
So what’s Europe’s responsibility for what has happened in Paris? Well, for more than 15 years Europe has been witnessing its Muslim communities further encapsulating themselves, alienating themselves from the host societies. In the meantime though, anyone who thinks this is a social problem, is being misled. After all, what social problems could exist in a country like Denmark? I have friends who’ve emigrated there, and they’re given a place to live and a job almost as soon as they arrive, and even from now they know in advance that they’ll be granted a 1400 euro pension when they retire. Education and health care is free for their kids, and they have a number of other privileges. And most importantly: a sense of stability.
What about Sweden? Are there social problems of a magnitude that would render entire segments of society disillusioned to a point where they’d join an extremist cause? Or what about France, the most-pronounced welfare state? Or Germany? What social problems are we talking about? Whoever truly wants to work hard, is given the opportunity to work – what’s more, unlike here in BG, they know exactly how much their work costs, and exactly what they’re working for. This is not a matter of social problems – it’s rather a matter of alienation and cultural marginalization. It’s a matter of neglect, and failure to care and to understand. And it’s becoming ever more serious, and is deepening with every next generation of Muslims, who’ve been born and raised in Europe. So we end up with a number of these youngsters looking for adventure, or just having psychological problems caused by wrong or brutal upbringing and/or education, and ending up on the side of Jihad eventually.
We shouldn’t also underestimate the role of the social networks in recruiting such people. A new term has been floating around the blogosphere as of late, “electronic Jihad“. That’s a problem, granted. But we shouldn’t allow the main issue to get out of our sight: it’s that Europe has welcomed these communities to its society, but it has failed to prevent them from drifting apart from society, and feeling alien. Instead of recognizing and tackling this problem, Europe prefers to sit back and either rant about it, or mock its Muslims, and poke them into the most sensitive part of their wound. And when they react, it acts surprised, offended, and all in all, defiant. This betrays a profound disconnect that has existed under the surface, which few have raised a voice about. It displays a deliberate unwillingness to understand the core of the problem.
The problem is not Muhammad. The problem is that Muhammad has become the last resort for many Muslims in Europe – and for a reason. And, instead of punishing its Muslims, Europe should ask itself the hard question how it has come to this, and what can be done to amend it.
In the meantime though, it’s also true that many of these Muslim communities have been allowed to encroach dangerously into the most fundamental tenets of democracy that the Western societies hold sacrosanct – for the sake of coming across as tolerant and inclusive. They’ve now entered Britain’s state education institutions; in Belgium and Germany there’s even “Sharia police“, which is supposed to “protect the Muslims from having their rights violated”. What sort of violation are we talking about here, given the fact that the very fundaments and rules of a secular system are being undermined, its laws disregarded, the principles of the host societies disprespected? Is it just now that Europe has decided to notice that its own citizens are flocking into the ranks of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq? Did it take a tragedy like Paris to turn our attention to that?
Europe shouldn’t forget that today there are no borders, everyone has access to everything, and with this, the threats are becoming greater and more complex. But isn’t that what Europe wanted for itself? A borderless, open all-European society? There are risks that come with this. Risks to Europe’s very cultural model. And instead of acting defiantly, it better look into that matter. The current situation presents us with a chance to do just that. It shouldn’t be wasted.
We may’ve already become aware of how the profile of the regular Jihadist generally looks like. Well, first of all, here’s a disclaimer: there’s no such thing as one single profile of the Jihadist. Because there aren’t only Muslims among them, but also Christians, even Jews – as absurd as that may sound! The lower age bar is constantly dropping, now it’s between 16 and 24. These are young boys and girls, most of whom know almost nothing about Islam, nor about religion as a whole. They’re driven by internal, psychological problems, or by neglect, or lack of understanding in their environment. Some want to prove themselves as men. But all of them lack something in their culture and upbringing, and a realistic view of the world’s processes.
In other cases, these are just rejects. For example there are people who’ve tried to enlist in the French military, but despite their ambition to become fighters and learn to kill, or defend, all they’ve seen is locked doors. So they’ve turned to the Jihadists as plan B, and the Islamic State has been happy to provide them the opportunity to do what they consider to be “something meaningful” with their life, and contribute to some cause – any cause. And these cases are thousands, and they come from all sorts of surprising places, many of which are “very European”, if you know what I mean. So why are we even talking of Islam, Islamism and Jihad here at all? Aren’t the various neo-Nazi groups much the same? Extremism is not restricted to any one group of people, least of all ethnic group – it tends to rear its ugly mug whenever culture, upbringing, family, and the sense of belonging to community is destroyed.
Is there a threat to my country? Sure there is, as is the case with any other country. This threat exists in the Islamic countries themselves, but it’s also become a total problem. Without necessarily succumbing to paranoia, it’s something we should learn to live with. And here the state certainly cannot deal with the problem on its own, because these terrorist organizations are not centralized. These groups are fragmented, they act on their own, they could consist of just a couple of individuals, and their actions are unpredictable, undetectable – but they do know how to communicate between themselves, and how to win hearts and minds through the means of modern communication. So, modern society needs to adopt new approaches about tackling it – and indeed, such proposals abound. Bottom-line is, though, that we should do better in addressing the core issue, and this time we better be smart about it.