In principle, one can only welcome the fact that Muslims’ reactions to the terrorist misinterpretation of religion are becoming more and more sophisticated and explicit – with every attack, as it were.
They can achieve a variety of goals at once here. For one, they show resistance to attempts made to equate Islam with terrorism, an attitude that is fuelled just as much by notorious enemies of Islam as it is by political events, with the self-proclaimed “Islamic State in Syria and Iraq” at the forefront. Secondly, they are repudiating the allegation that Muslims are not distancing themselves sufficiently from terrorism. This is important, even if this insinuation is nearly always the product of ignorance, for example of the debates being waged in Arabic, and is partly based on plain distortion.
The initiative for a Muslim curriculum against terrorism is, however, not only geared toward appeasing Islam-critical observers; it is also an attempt to defeat with their own arguments those who espouse an aggressive and narrow-minded understanding of religion. The arguments against terrorism are derived here theologically from the religion itself and not, as so often is the case, from common sense, which is unfortunately in short supply among those who look to the religion to justify violence.
Of course, many scholars of Islam have tried to do this in the past. However, they have never before worked out such a systematic plan for a theological fight against terrorism and undertaken such great efforts to publicise it in the world press. That this has not yet been attempted can be explained by the religious diversity and local fragmentation of Islam, rather than assuming that Islam offers no arguments against violence.
No choice anymore
Such an initiative takes to its logical conclusion the fact that the Muslims have no choice anymore but to do the same thing with good arguments that the preachers of hate and violence are trying to do with bad ones, namely to reach a broad spectrum of Muslims all over the world. This is admittedly a Herculean task, but it just might lead – if it succeeds – to the kind of Islam that believers around the world are longing to see: a religion whose global standards would be supported by undisputed, universal and humane principles.
We must not forget with regard to this initiative that religion is often used only as a pretext when young Muslims make their way to Syria. Very few of those who go to war are theologically savvy. And precisely because they lack religious education, they are susceptible to radical arguments that present themselves in a religious guise. In this respect, the curriculum initiative could indeed provide a remedy. However, it also reinforces the misleading notion that “terror tourism” really does have primarily religious and cultural motives.
This form of culturalisation, as one might call it, hides other, more likely reasons for the suicidal decampment to the war zone, namely the social, political and economic marginalisation of many immigrants. And it could be, therefore, that the initiative seeks more to meet the expectations of Western policymakers and suspicious non-Muslim observers than to fulfil the needs of the Muslims concerned.
Seen in this light, the initiative could even end up having the opposite effect to what it purports to achieve. By chiming in with the chorus of those who interpret the phenomenon of Muslim terrorism as a problem with the religion, it relieves neo-liberal policymakers of their responsibility for the poverty and neglect of wide swathes of the population, including, of course, the converts looking to compensate for the lack of fulfilment and prospects in their lives in West by fighting for Islamic State, where they can earn the recognition they are denied in the West, even if they have to pay for it with their lives.
Model Muslims and marginalised migrants
Finally, Western societies need to ask themselves some probing questions. What good is it if Muslims distance themselves from IS and come up with good arguments against radicalisation as long as the West still does its most lucrative business with countries that have supported this very radicalisation for decades and to this day have in many ways more in common with the social ideology of IS than they do with the Western nations? We are talking here about Saudi Arabia and other states on the Persian Gulf that may have neo-liberal economies but are, in political terms, decidedly anti-democratic.
A second question we must ask ourselves – and one that is perhaps even more important – is to what extent Western democracies are really willing to offer people from different backgrounds and cultures, besides a few very well-integrated model Muslims (and even they can be found above all in the purely symbolic worlds of culture and the media, but not in the crucial realms of business and politics) an equal opportunity and to show them respect and appreciation.
That multiculturalism has failed, as conservative politicians like Merkel and Cameron like to claim today, must not be understood to imply that some Muslims are not interested in participating in an open society, but indicates instead that this society is perhaps not really as open as we like to believe.
And it could soon prove to be the case – to the horror of conservative politicians in particular – that, despite the inherent risk of specific groups sealing themselves off, multiculturalism was a comparatively inexpensive solution to integration issues – at any rate compared to the aspiration to grant immigrants, no matter what their origin, a genuine opportunity in accordance with their abilities and desires and to provide the requisite, government-funded structures for this purpose.