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The impact of the Toulouse killings

Separating ‘Islamism’ and ‘Islam’

, by Artus Galiay

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

The assassination of seven people, including three children, by an Al-Qaeda terrorist in France is likely to change the debate on Islam in Europe. EU member states need to individually define how Islam fits with their society, repress Islamism and prevent far-right movements from utilising these events to spread Islamophobia.

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The Toulouse killings revived the debate on Islam in Europe

On 19 March, France woke up to the dreadful news that someone had killed three children (aged 3, 6 and 10 years old) and a teacher in a Jewish school in Toulouse. It soon appeared that the killer used the same weapon and method as in three previous murders that targeted French muslim soldiers in Montauban. The murderer was rapidly identified as Mohamad Merah, a French citizen with Algerian origins who claimed to be linked to Al-Qaeda.

During the 32-hour siege in his apartment before he was killed, Merah justified his acts by his desire to avenge Palestinian children killed by Israel and to punish the French army for getting involved in Libya and Afghanistan. Merah was a French citizen and was not perceived as an Islamist by people who knew him, despite having travelled twice to Afghanistan and Pakistan to receive training from the Taliban. These events forced the issues of Islam and Islamism in Europe onto the agenda of the ongoing presidential campaign in France, and triggered intense debate across Europe. They revived certain extreme-right movements, like in Denmark, where 300 people observed one minute’s silence in memory of Merah’s victims and protested against “the Islamification of Europe”. How should European governments go about separating Islam from Islamism?

Why Islam is so specific

Islam is a specific case because, unlike the Catholic Church, it has no central authority to which the whole Muslim world needs to obey. Hence there are numerous and diverse interpretations of the Quran. The most challenging task in distinguishing Islam from Islamism consists in adopting a framework which allows Muslims to exercise their religion and have the same rights as other confessions, whilst at the same time preventing the spread of fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. However, European countries have very different ways of dealing with the integration of Muslims. France and the UK best epitomize the two main integration models. France only recognises individuals, not communities, and considers that immigrants ought to speak French and abide by French values in order to be properly integrated in the “République”. The UK on the other hand is much more liberal, and leaves newcomers to live within their communities and by their own norms. This is a highly sensitive debate everywhere in Europe, as it forces traditionally secular states to meddle with religion.

European countries should adopt and enforce a specific interpretation of Islam

The Moroccan approach to Islam can teach Europe useful lessons. In Morocco, Islam is practiced in a tolerant and moderate way and at the same time is tightly controlled by the state. King Mohammad VI controls how Islam is interpreted, which avoids the development of radical branches of Islam. The problem is that the Moroccan state holds Islam as the official state religion. This notion doesn’t fit well with Western secular democracies. Nonetheless, it would not violate the principle of secularism to provide representative Muslim organisations with the exclusive authority to authorise imams to teach and preach Islam. This should provide a legal basis to prohibit radical imams from spreading hatred and violence in the name of religion. The state would remain secular and continue to treat all religions equally, whilst preventing the spread of ideas which are against the fundamental values of European countries: the right to live, equality of genders, freedom, etc. This is even more important as radical interpretations of Islam make extreme-right arguments and demands sound rational to some. There lies the real danger, as Islamophobia destroys the social links between Europeans of all confessions.

Furthermore, since European societies have very different approaches to integration, the EU should not legislate in this field. The main problem with the Moroccan approach to Islam is that it involves an important level of control on society, freedom of expression and often freedom itself. This will inevitably end up being contradictory to the fundamental laws of certain countries. This is precisely why the British are struggling to expel Islamist priest Abu Qatada from the UK as there is no legal basis to convict him, given the country’s absolute respect for freedom of expression. France, on the contrary, has the legal basis to expel anyone suspected of being an Islamist. EU ,member states need to act and find ways to adopt an official broad interpretation of Islam. What is at stake is the social link between European citizens. This is absolutely crucial: Europe knows too well how religion can be a terrible factor of division.

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  • On 17 April 2012 at 20:04, by Yahya Replying to: Separating ‘Islamism’ and ‘Islam’

    In Breivik, troubling echoes of West’s view of Islam http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/17/opinion/stanley-islam-breivik/

  • On 19 April 2012 at 01:21, by GordonHide Replying to: Separating ‘Islamism’ and ‘Islam’

    I don’t think differences in organisation of different religions explain differences in behaviour of their adherents. Nor do I think that the Koran is especially more barbaric than the bible. I think the difference in behaviour stems from culture.

    I don’t think governments should involve themselves in trying to control what is acceptable scriptural interpretation. I believe that European governments made a serious mistake in not rigorously enforcing the rule of law and that they allowed too much cultural privilege in the name of multiculturalism and, probably, a quiet life.

    I think I’m much closer to supporting the French model than the British although I believe measures such as the burka ban are a gross error.

  • On 20 April 2012 at 13:39, by Dyz Replying to: Separating ‘Islamism’ and ‘Islam’

    What an extremely weak article.

    “Islam is a specific case because, unlike the Catholic Church, it has no central authority to which the whole Muslim world needs to obey.”

    1) Christianity is more than the Catholic Church. 2) Very few catholics actually submit authority to Rome. Most are catholic in name only and liberal protestant in actual beliefs.

    “Hence there are numerous and diverse interpretations of the Quran.”

    And there are as many interpration of the bible. You are not making an argument.

    “Nonetheless, it would not violate the principle of secularism to provide representative Muslim organisations with the exclusive authority to authorise imams to teach and preach Islam.”

    Yes it would violate the principle, and it would not help; they will simply call their religion “rislam” (real islam) and continue with whatever they are doing.

    You federalists always want to control every aspect of peoples lives and simply ignore causality/reality whenever it suits you.

    Why not have some french foreign minister stand up to Israel and tell them to stop their quest for lebensraum and stop building their concentration camp for palestinians? (I know why; $$$)

  • On 9 June 2012 at 00:52, by Artus Galiay Replying to: Separating ‘Islamism’ and ‘Islam’

    Dear all,

    @Yahya: it is precisely because of the rise of extreme-right movements and figures such as Breivik that I am arguing in favour of political/legal action to deal with radical islamism. When radicalism feeds radicalism, I believe it is the State’s duty to act to defend our universal values. It might also be because I am French and always tend to privilege State interventionism!

    @Gordonhide: My aim is not to determine what are the roots of fundamentalism: structures might or might not determine behaviour, that is another debate for me. My aim is to provide a legal basis to make calls for violence in the name of religion condemnable. I know that a law in itself will not change (or very little) fundamentalists’ behaviour, but at least there will be a legal framework condemning such behaviour. It is in the advantage of everyone. The State is simply defending its core values (human rights, equality of gender, etc.). I refuse that such values are violated simply because it is in the name of a religion, whichever it is. Multiculturalism and the rule of law are in no way contradictory, on the contrary: for different cultures to co-exist, one needs to establish a minimal common ground. European countries’ universal values are a very good basis from this point of vue.

    @Dyz: what I mean is that Christianism is traditionally a more centralised religion than Islam. Look at the pyramidal organisation which prevailed during centuries in the Christian world, do you have such an equivalent in the Muslim world? The core of the problem is not forcibly the diversity of interpretations of the Quran, but the fact that some of them are violent and fundamentally against the core values of European countries. Every Muslim State defends its version of Islam, so why wouldn’t European States do the same? Furthermore, what I propose is not too pick one “right” version out of 100, but rather to ban the 1 violent version, and leave the 99 remaining versions exist freely, as is their right given the Freedom of religion which exists in Europe. There would still be 99 versions debating which one is “rislam”, exactly as there are different versions of Christianism debating which is the purest. This is a limit the State would not cross. Hence, such an approach would not violate secularism, on the contrary it would protect it. We do not want to “control every aspect of people’s lives” as you say. On the very contrary, our history taught us that we need to find an equilibrium between individual freedom and collective freedom: when there is a disequilibrium, State intervention is justifiable and desirable.

    Artus

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