Can Europe Make It?

We need to rethink radical Islam's appeal

The Paris attacks invite us to reassess our ways of dealing with the spread of Muslim fundamentalism in western Europe. Is 'containment' enough?

Fedja Pavlovic
27 November 2015
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Minute of silence in Lille, 16 November. Demotix/ David Pauwels. All rights reserved.The terrorist attacks in Paris, whose vivid display of brutality we can hardly ignore, compel us to awake from our ‘dogmatic slumber’ as only bloodbaths can. The danger that this call is exploited by those who thrive on hate and paranoia – as well as our all-too-familiar tendency to forgo thought for the sake of ‘action’ in moments like these –further speak to the necessity of honest and serious reflection on our part.

Slavoj Žižek took up the task, proposing that we dispense with those ‘leftist taboos’ that have become too costly to maintain. One of them concerns the failings of our multicultural tolerance.

“Fundamentalist Muslims find it impossible to bear our blasphemous images and reckless humor, which we consider a part of our freedoms,” Žižek writes, “Western liberals, likewise, finds it impossible to bear many practices of Muslim culture.”

The real issue, he claims, is that Europe’s radical Islamists “consider [our] very way of life as blasphemous or injurious, whether or not it constitutes a direct attack on their religion.” On this reading, Mohammed cartoons and other such incidents merely prompt this deep-seated rejection of European culture to assert itself, as it does, with vociferous zeal.

On the face of it, this is a bitter pill to swallow.

This resolute rejection of Europe’s culture comes from what happens to be the continent’s fastest-growing demographic – one that, at present, includes 7% of France’s population and a quarter of Brussels’ inhabitants. And, for all our contempt of hasty generalizations, increasing evidence suggests that our ‘small but vocal’ estimate of fundamentalism within Western Europe’s Muslim communities has been a tad too charitable to pass muster – radical Islam’s influence seems to be far from marginal within this group of believers.

We often make the mistake of reducing the danger of this cultural rejection to its most vivid exponent – that is, to the threat of terrorism. In fact, a far broader range of implications seems to be at stake. Perhaps a mere statement of our predicament suffices to convey its gravity: namely, to say that ‘a significant chunk of an expanding European demographic finds the European ‘way of life’ irreconcilable with its beliefs’ is, for itself, a red alert.

So, how do we go about this?

A look at Žižek’s proposed solution can help us see why so much of our thinking on religious fundamentalism misses the point.

First, he says, we should outline “a minimum set of norms obligatory for everyone, that includes religious freedom, protection of individual freedom against group pressure, the rights of women, etc.” Once this line is drawn, we should “unconditionally insist on the tolerance of different ways of life”.

In other words: we, the European public, shouldn’t shy away from enforcing the boundary between private and communal life. What is proposed is, essentially, containment – as a testament to our liberalism, we should allow radical Islamists to embrace whatever crazy dogmas they want, provided that they keep their beliefs from ‘spilling over’ into the community.

We accept that the task policing private households and dinner tables, where ideology is spread, is impractical and too totalitarian. Vexed by this liberal self-restraint, we compensate by suppressing its influence where we can – that is, by enforcing our values in the public domain.

This idea of containment is intimately related to the standard socio-economic account on which we rely to explain of radical Islam’s appeal. This toxin, we believe, seizes the vulnerable hearts of disenchanted, jobless youth, whose prospects of a life in poverty, crime and segregation leaves them feeling abandoned by society. As despair turns to anger, the militant call of one’s ‘suppressed’ identity channels the bitterness of the perceived rejection, and acquires a magnetic pull.

‘If only we empowered our Muslim youth to succeed as productive members of society,’ our self-righteous liberalism speaks from us ‘if only our schools, workplaces and other communal outlets could provide tools to resist domestic indoctrination!’

And so, when a public show of radical Islam’s strength signals that our efforts to contain it have failed, we see it as a sign that we haven’t tried hard enough.

Could it be the case that we’ve been taking the wrong approach?

The idea that Muslim fundamentalism can be contained, within those boundaries of privacy our liberal convictions won’t let us breach, is deeply misguided. When an ideology is banished from the community and suppressed to four walls of one’s bedroom, it hardens in isolation – and the so-called ‘bedroom radical’ is born.

Similarly, the notion that radical Islam’s appeal can be explained away by socio-economic conditions alone (and, by implication, amendable by socio-economic measures) looks increasingly flimsy. Think of the relatively privileged backgrounds from which jihadist leaders tend to come, the urban upbringing of runaway ISIS brides or the great diversity within the pool of European citizens who leave their homes and go fight in Syria. Factors such as education, labor market status, age, gender and affluence certainly have their share of impact on the prevalence of Muslim fundamentalism – yet, it’s becoming clear that part of the story is missing.

Let’s try to put it this way:

When we think of ‘European culture’, whose rejection, in the form of radical Islam, we face – what is it that comes to mind? For many of us, the ‘European way of life’ seems to denote little more than a list of bullet-points that form a social contract – a set of freedoms, provisions of equality, minority rights, and so on. Increasingly, we find ourselves perceiving this social contract as a set of givens, to which one adheres by habit or, at best, by appreciating its comparable merits. ‘This way of life isn’t necessarily better than anyone else’s,’ we say, ‘it just happens to be the one we practice.’

This expression of multicultural tolerance nevertheless betrays something else – namely, the dismissal of the transcendental. Together with our desire for a set of social norms that regulate our societal conduct is a need to underpin these norms with deeper, less ephemeral truths – a need for a spiritual context that gives them meaning.

If we divorce the two, what becomes of our social norms? Outside of their encompassing ethos whose expression they embody, their appeal is reduced to that of a prenuptial agreement – serviceable at best, but destitute of any genuine ideological force.

Our craving for the transcendental does not observe the boundaries of private and communal life – we might think of it as being inherent to humankind. As such, it will arise whether or not the society wishes to acknowledge it.

This is where, I believe, the ‘hypnotic’ pull of radical Islam comes from. If the offer of a ‘way of life’ leaves one’s need for the transcendental unsatisfied – if ‘spirituality’ is exiled from the public sphere, if social norms are posited without an understanding of their deeper undercurrent – one’s spiritual craving will find its expression in the most banal, most readily available form of spirituality: religious fundamentalism.

If we, therefore, believe that a package of civic provisions, which we offer under the name of ‘European culture’, can ever offset the seduction of radical Islam, we are making the mistake of thinking we can reason someone out of a thing they weren’t reasoned into. For those who crave some form of spiritual expression within the community, this offer is merely one of ‘temporal goods’ – misplaced and counter-effective.

A plea to reinstitute ‘spirituality’ in Western European public spheres shouldn’t be heard as a call to Christianize these proudly secular societies. As a term encompassing, yet not being limited to, religion, ‘spirituality’s’ demands might well be served by rediscovering the rich cultural and spiritual identity that gave our social contract its enduring appeal – one far more compelling and ‘magnetic’ than what religious fundamentalism has to offer.

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