What does being a Muslim actually mean?

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By Khaled Diab

In much of the world, ‘Muslim’ is often used as a marker of ethnic origin rather than of religion. This must change.

Most ‘Muslims’ are labelled as such long before they can make any kind of informed decision about their faith.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Islam is clearly a religion. People may disagree passionately about the nature of this faith, the validity of the various schools and sects, what is or is not ‘Islamic’, but there is a consensus that it is a belief system.

But does the same apply to Muslim? Is being a Muslim about faith? Is it social or political? Is it about culture? This is a question I have pondered on numerous occasions over the years.

Recently, I ran an unscientific poll on Twitter to get a taste of what people regarded as the central pillar of Muslim identity. I also canvassed Facebook friends for their opinions. I asked whether being ‘Muslim’ was founded on belief or whether it was a form of ethnic identity, or both.

Unsurprisingly, a clear majority (63%) were convinced that being Muslim is exclusively or primarily a question of faith. And, indeed, this is what Islam was originally about. Muhammad’s earliest followers were all presumed to be passionate believers and conversion was presumably the main source growth in the Muslim population for generations.

Of course, there are converts today but they constitute a negligible minority of the global population we classify as “Muslim”. Only an estimated 500,000 people converted to Islam between 2010 and 2015 (0.3% of the growth in the global Muslim population), according to the Pew Research Centre – which sheds a more telling light on why Islam is the fastest-growing major religion.

Although the Quran criticises the idea of passing down the faith, the notion that religion is a hereditary identity was a pre-Islamic practice across the region that was continued into the Islamic era, according to Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim, assistant professor of Islamic law at McGill University. “Most religions, especially since the Axial Age, in the context of universalist religions, have created ethnic and cultural layers of identification,” observes Ibrahim.

Today, we live in a situation where the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world were born into the faith, and are labelled as “Muslim” by society, long before they can make any kind of informed decision for themselves. Moreover, we have little to no information on what the world’s 1.8 billion notional Muslims actually believe and how many of them practise their faith.

If being Muslim is truly a question of faith, then it should be a top priority to find out exactly what each one believes, free of coercion, before taking a headcount (same goes for other religions).

In the absence of this, labelling all these hundreds of millions of people as Muslim is presumptuous, to say the least, even if the majority do turn out to be zealous believers. It also means that actual belief is secondary, or even irrelevant, to membership of this global “tribe” – as is the case with Christianity.

This means that “Muslim” functions, in my view, like a de facto “ethnicity”, or a super-ethnicity. At this stage, I should point out that I do not believe that Islam should form the basis for any kind of ethnic identity nor do I find this desirable. I am merely describing a reality which prevails across the world.

My assertion sparked a heated online debate. “Stop trying to Judaise Islam with this ethno-religious nonsense,” one critic asserted, in no uncertain terms.

But I fail to see any fundamental or radical difference between how Islam and Judaism are passed on from one generation to the next, except that one is believed to be largely patrilineal and the other matrilineal. The only real difference between Islam and Judaism are the issues of conversion and proselytisation – both of which are considerably less common in modern Judaism than in Islam, though far from unheard of.

Where Muslims are in the minority, the perception that their identity, like that of Jews, is primarily “ethnic” is at its strongest, such as is the case with Sri Lanka’s so-called ‘Moors’. Likewise, the secular wing of India’s pre-partition Muslim League was in little doubt that Muslim was more an ethnic than religious marker, and that South Asian Muslims shared more with each other than they did with non-Muslims from their own state, region, language or ethnic group.

“[Islam and Hinduism] are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are, in fact, different and distinct social orders; and it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality,” claimed Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan. “Mussalmans are not a minority as it is commonly known and understood… Mussalmans are a nation according to any definition of a nation, and they must have their homelands, their territory, and their state.”

Among Europe’s more-established Muslim populations, they sometimes self-identified and were formally recognised as an ethnicity, such as in the former Yugoslovia, and there has been a long-standing dispute in China as to whether its Muslim minorities were an ethnicity or religious community. Unfortunately, this ethnicisation of Islam is occurring in Western Europe and America, where Muslim is often used nowadays as a marker of origin, rather than of a religion.

But when it comes to the sum of Muslim populations around the world, the “ethnic” label becomes more ambiguous and complicated to use. “There are hundreds of ethnicities in Islam,” one friend observed, echoing others who objected to ascribing the ‘ethnic’ label to Muslims.

Some suggested that the fact that Islam is made up of many local ethnicities, referring to Muslim as a kind of ethnicity would cause considerable confusion – and argued that an alternative term was required. Mega-ethnicity, perhaps?

A couple suggested, instead, “cultural Muslim”. Cultural Muslim is a great term for those who self-identify with Islamic culture but do not practise or do not believe in the faith, as well as those who belong to a minority religion in Muslim-majority societies but feel a strong affinity to the mainstream culture. “Arab Christians are all more or less Muslims by culture rather than by faith,” observes Liliane Daoud, a prominent Lebanese TV personality who was born to Christian and Muslim parents.

In addition, the term “cultural Muslim” fails to capture the fact that the status “Muslim” is not just a cultural label. In many Islamic contexts, it is also a social, political, legal and jurisprudential category.

Moreover, a similar situation of multi-layered ethnicity afflicts other accepted ethnic markers. For example, ‘Arab’ is accepted as an ethnicity, even though under this language-based umbrella stands a multitude of ethnic, national, racial, religious and tribal communities.

In addition, the multi-ethnic argument also applies to Judaism, which is also an umbrella label for numerous ethnic groups, including Mizrahim, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, all of which have numerous sub-ethnicities, not to mention Ethiopian, Indian, Chinese, and more. The only difference between ‘Jew’ and ‘Muslim’ here is one of magnitude and numbers, given the much wider spread of Islam.

Describing Muslim as an ethnicity is “likely to have negative unintended discursive consequences by reifying made-up ‘race’/’ethnic’ concepts,” in the words of Farrah, a friend and academic.

Of course, I am well aware of the dangers of conflating religion with ethnicity or race. One of the most destructive and infamous examples of this was the Nuremberg Race Laws, which defined Jewishness, not as a changeable religious allegiance, but as a fixed biological identity which could not be changed or erased, not even through conversion or total and complete assimilation.

And bad omens in this regard are appearing in the form of virulent anti-Semitism and a brand of Islamophobia that seems to regard Muslims as monolithically menacing, the kind of collective demonisation and essentialisation that informed Donald Trump’s expressed desire to impose a freeze on immigration from Muslim lands.

However, whether or not we describe Muslim as an ethnicity does not remove the fact that it too often operates like one, and this has already caused considerable harm.

Numerous Muslim-majority countries, especially those whose personal and family laws retain a modern form of the classical ‘millet’ system, have hereditary Islam codified into their laws. This means that a faith is imposed on children before they have the chance to decide for themselves, and this shapes many of the most intimate aspects of their lives.

To add injury to presumption, and to place citizens in a catch-22, quite a few countries make it difficult and often impossible for people to remove or change the religion on their identity papers – and some states even punish as “apostates” those who reject their pre-determined Muslim identity or wish to convert to another religion. Some countries also limit citizenship to “Muslims”. This is the case in most of the Gulf states, which effectively disenfranchises millions of non-Muslim residents, some of whom may have been born there, while recent Muslim immigrants stand a greater chance of being naturalised.

If being Muslim is to become truly a question of faith and conviction, not a de facto ethnic identity, then the pious cannot have their cake and eat it. They must stop counting everyone born to presumed Muslim parents as an automatic Muslim. The ‘umma’ of believers should only be as large as those who voluntarily associate themselves with it.

In addition, the ridiculous and harmful discriminatory practices common in some Muslim countries should end. Countries which do so must stop assigning a religious identity to their citizens, must not attach extra social, economic or cultural benefits to being a Muslim, must not punish Muslims who leave the faith, and must not discriminate against non-Muslims.

Ultimately, religion is a personal choice but society is for everyone.


This article first appeared in The New Arab on 11 June 2018.



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Alt-jihad – Part II: Delusions of grandeur and persecution

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By Khaled Diab

In the second in a series of articles exploring the disturbing parallels between radical Islamic and White/Christian extremism, Khaled Diab examines the far-right’s dual sense of superiority and inferiority, as well as its persecution complex.

Source: https://lorddreadnought.livejournal.com/69990.html


Tuesday 17 April 2018

In the previous piece in this series on the disturbing parallels between radical Islamic and White/Christian extremism, I examined the emerging phenomenon of far-right suicide attackers and far-right political violence in general. In this, the second article in the series, I explore a number of other parallels, namely the bizarre blend of supremacist convictions combined with a sense of inferiority, an overpowering mentality of victimhood, a persecution complex centred around a rogues’ parade of imagined enemies, as well as a related belief in outlandish conspiracy theories.

Inferiority-superiority complex

Extremist Islamist and jihadist discourse is dominated simultaneously by a dual inferiority-supremacy narrative. On the one hand, they view Islam as innately superior to other religions and political philosophies, lament Islam’s loss of global dominance and dream of the restoration of its hegemony. On the other hand, they are convinced that Muslims everywhere are oppressed and victims. Even in situations where conservative Muslims are the dominant political force and wield enormous political clout, Islamists often believe they are oppressed, their beliefs are under attack and their way of life is threatened with extinction.

A similar narrative has emerged in white and Christian nationalist circles, though, given the continuing might of the West, superiority outweighs inferiority when compared with Islamist discourse. This sense of entitlement was best summed up by Richard Spencer, the spiritual leader of the alt-right movement in America. “To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror. We build; we produce; we go upward,” Spencer told the audience at an alt-right conference in Washington, DC. “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

Nevertheless, unlike the cocky white supremacy of the 19th century, when the West directly ruled most of the planet and required an ideology to justify its global dominance, instead of the white man’s burden of yore, many whites, especially men, now feel they are regarded as the burden. In fact, these far-right movements, as well as some segments of more mainstream conservatism, to a lesser degree, have appropriated the language of oppression and subjugation more common among the formerly enslaved and segregated African-Americans, or subject populations who lived under colonial rule.

At one level, this shift in rhetoric is opportunistic and cynical, with the aim of turning the tables on the truly marginalised minorities living in the West and on those who have suffered under the boot of western hegemony by suggesting that the real victims of racism and imperialism are whites, and especially the Christian right, who supposedly suffer under the multiple tyrannies of political correctness, liberalism, immigration (which is regarded as a sort of invasion by stealth) and Islam.

However, it would be a mistake to view these attitudes as merely rhetorical devices. Many on the far-right absolutely believe, their sense of supremacy and privilege notwithstanding, that they belong to an oppressed, repressed and persecuted group. At times, this can be a reflection of their sense of personal isolation. “I didn’t have many friends at school, I wanted to be a member of a group of people that had an aim,” admitted Kevin Wilshaw, who was a well-known organiser for the UK’s National Front in the 1980s and later joined the British National Party, before renouncing his former life and coming out as gay and of Jewish heritage. “Even though you end up being a group of people that through their own extreme views are cut off from society, you do have a sense of comradeship in that you’re a member of a group that’s being attacked by other people.” This sense of camaraderie, as well as a desire to stand out and be noticed, appears to have been a spur for Andrew Anglin’s transformation from a vegan anti-racist into the American extreme right’s most outspoken and outrageous troll, through his creation of the rabidly racist website The Daily Stormer.

This sense of alienation and the desperate desire to bond this produces is also something that afflicts many who fall into the embrace of radical and jihadist Islamism. “For most jihadis, the first steps on their journeys to Syria were rarely taken for political or religious reasons,” observes Kenan Malik, the Indian-Britisher writer and intellectual. “The journeys were, rather, a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect.”

Paranoid confusions

This sense of living in a world which deprives them of their perceived God-given right to dominate society and to rule the world translates into an increasingly outspoken and irrational victimhood mentality. “No one mourns the great crimes committed against us. For us, it is conquer or die,” Spencer lamented in the speech mentioned above, echoing the jihadist extremists the Christian right so despises. “We are not meant to live in shame and weakness and disgrace.”

This sense of being embattled has led to the paranoid conviction that the modern-day white conservative is surrounded by foes, both near enemies and far ones, to borrow from the jihadist lexicon. The far horizon of Enemistan is dominated by Muslims, who are closing in so rapidly and decisively that the very survival of Western civilisation and Christendom is at stake. At home, the alt-right fears migrants and other minorities, including a resurgence of classic Judeophobia, leftists, liberals, journalists and media professionals, experts, academics, feminists and the LGBT community.

This paranoid sense of being surrounded and besieged by enemies on every front has led to the proliferation of outlandish conspiracy theories. In societies whose superior technologies have for centuries visited mass slaughter upon weaker populations across the planet, there is now talk of a “white genocide” – a paranoid theory that there is a conspiracy to wipe out the white race. What is most infuriating about the white genocide myth is that many who subscribe to it deny the historical reality of actual genocides, such as the Holocaust or extermination campaigns against native populations.

The purported white genocide is not just confined to Europe and America, it is also allegedly taking place in Africa. The alt-right blogger Laura Southern has even produced a ‘documentary’ entitled Farmland which claims to highlight the plight of supposedly persecuted whites in South Africa. Needless to say, no such extermination programme is occurring in the country where the legacy of Apartheid still lives on in stark racial inequalities, unless by ‘genocide’ she means the relative erosion of white privilege.

The army of Islam

In Europe, the end goal of mass immigration, according to far-right conspiracy theorists, is not only ‘white genocide’ but also a stealthy conquest of the West, its complete Islamisation and subjugation and its conversion into ‘Eurabia’, the mythical European Umma. And Eurabia is apparently making major inroads in America too. The far-right myth that there are “no-go zones” in Europe where the police do not dare enter and Islamic law prevails has made it across the Atlantic, and has been spread by both Fox News and the NRA, amongst others. A similar narrative of a crusade/war against Islam is a common refrain amongst Islamists. However, this notion amongst both conservative Muslims and Christians that we are in the throes of a monumental clash of civilisations does not hold up to scrutiny, as I reveal in my book Islam for the Politically Incorrect.

How far this dastardly Muslim conquest has advanced is a matter of some disagreement, however. The most pessimistic on the far-right believe the war is already over and the West has lost, others believe we are witnessing the beginning of the end, while some, like the founder of France’s Front National (FN), are convinced that it is the “the beginning of the beginning” of the Islamic subjugation of Europe. “It’s an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism,” he claimed. “The blindness and deafness of our leaders, for years, is in part responsible for these kinds of attacks.”

The most recent variation on this is the conspiracy theory that the refugees who have been entering Europe are not desperate civilians fleeing war, but part of an invading army bent on the destruction of western civilisation. This supposed phenomenon has been called “jihad by emigration” – a term coined by the creator of the far-right website Jihad Watch, Robert Spencer, not to be confused with the Richard Spencer mentioned earlier.

In its self-righteous panic, the right has become more panicky and shrill, triggering the kind of terror usually expressed by the defenceless towards an army of ruthless conquerors. Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word, yet, this army without soldiers or arms is somehow mounting an invasion.

They’re not refugees. This is an invasion,” said Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, a bishop in southern Hungary, a country which has become a far-right hotbed in recent years and found itself on a major transit route, until it built a wall to keep the refugees out. “It’s an invasion that threatens our prosperity, our security, our culture and identity,” echoed Dutch far-right firebrand Geert Wilders, who once infamously called for the banning of the Quran. A related myth is the notion that Muslim asylum seekers are obsessed with an uncontrollable urge to violate and rape western women – they are not refugees but “rapefugees”.

Away from the high-security fortress of far-right perception and in the real world of hard facts, the influx of refugees into the European Union from 2012 to the peak of 2015/16 represented under half a percent of the EU’s population. Since then, thanks to government reactions to knee-jerk xenophobia or to the xenophobia of politicians, the numbers have tailed off significantly, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency. Moreover, and contrary to the ‘sponger’ image of refugees, an analysis by the Brookings Institute revealed that the inflow of refugees actually has a net positive effect on host economies – and the OECD agrees – which raises the perplexing question, if migrants are out to destroy the West, why are they making it richer?

More confoundingly still, if the aim of Muslims in Europe and America is to destroy Christendom and wipe out the infidel, either with actual bombs or with demographic time-bombs, it appears inconceivable that any Muslim fanatic worth his salt would head the other way. Yet this is exactly what they are believed to be doing, with overstated and exaggerated hordes of European Muslims heading to Syria and Iraq to heed the call of jihad, so sensationally covered that you would be forgiven if you had the impression that Europe was being depopulated of its Muslim population.

Master puppeteers

Despite the fixation on Islam, it would be a mistake to think that Muslims have replaced the Jews in extreme right discourse – their presence appears to be a complementary one. A special place remains reserved for Jews in far-right narratives and conspiracy theories. For decades following the Holocaust, these narratives had become marginalised or had gone underground (such as the transnational Malm Movement), often only mentioned in hints and suggestions. But with the rise of the far-right, they have enjoyed a comeback in recent years in a number of countries, from Hungary to the United States.

Many Judeophobic conspiracy theories are recycled or adapted traditional anti-Semitic canards revolving around how Jews represent some kind of homogeneous cabal which runs the world clandestinely by controlling the financial sector and the media. This includes the renewed vogue the discredited hoax known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the fantasy that the Rothschild family controls the world’s central banks and causes war by financing both sides of every conflict enjoy in the growing far-right movement. More recent variations on this theme include the troubling mainstreaming in conservative circles of the narrative, which is especially popular in Hungary, that the tycoon and philanthropist George Soros is behind all kinds of sinister conspiracies to destroy Europe in order to be able better to rule it. Another is the conspiracy theory that a shadowy Zionist Occupation Government (‘Zionist’ here refers to Jew, not political Zionism) controls governments in the United States and Europe.

Some have even attempted to forge unified conspiracy theories of everything, in which various disparate and contradictory conspiracist ideas are forcibly mixed into a potently toxic cocktail. An example of this is how the mythical Zionist Occupation Government is responsible for mass migration in order to dilute or exterminate the white race so as to facilitate its satanic quest for global dominance. This blends anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, white genocidal and anti-leftist/liberal conspiracy theories into one incoherent whole.

Toxic far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have drifted not only to segments of the far-left but have found their way into Arab, Islamic and Islamist narratives, which historically discriminated much less than Christianity against the Jews, with Muslim bigots traditionally regarding Jews with condescension rather than suspicion and fear. This changed dramatically with the advent of modern Zionism, the influence of fascism and the creation of Israel, and is often fuelled by a desperate need to scapegoat weakness and failure by depicting the ‘enemy’ as super-humanely powerful and evil.

The hatred, contempt and fear of Jews shared by Christian and Muslim extremists has occasionally resulted in some unlikely and troubling alliances between neo-Nazi groups and Islamists, such as has occurred in some parts of Germany, both of which “ascribe extraordinary political power to Israel and the Jews, and their goal is to fight this power,” in the words of Heinz Fromm, the then president of the German domestic intelligence agency.

Turkey’s Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has even suggested that the Kurdish referendum on independence was a devilish Jewish conspiracy, one unconvincingly masterminded by Bernard-Henri Lévy, once memorably described as the “Donald Trump of French philosophy”. Of course, this is not the first time that Erdoğan has ascribed superpowers to BHL, as he often referred to in France: he once hinted that the French ‘philosopher’ was behind the ouster of Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi. Islamists often portray Arab regimes with whom they disagree as being American and Jewish stooges. Some members of the outlawed and oppressed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt subscribe to a conspiracy theory that dictator Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has a Jewish mother. Some conservative Muslims and Islamists are convinced that ISIS is a creation of western and Zionist imperialism, as are some secular Arabs. Interestingly, numerous white supremacists are also convinced of a similar conspiracy theory, even alleging that ISIS’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is actually a Mossad agent.

Mainstreaming falsehood

These far-right conspiracy theories do not exist in a vacuum. They are fed by more mainstream conservative falsehoods, which then feedback to the mainstream, pulling it ever further into the la-la zone. This is apparent in everything from the decades of eurosceptic myths that led the UK to leap off the Brexit cliff to the anti-immigrant, pseudo-fascistic rhetoric of large segments of Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire in Italy. Some mainstream conservatives find the twilight zone so alluring that they take the express train to the extreme because the mainstream’s gradual drift to the former fringe was not moving nearly fast enough. An example of this is Gavin McInnes who abandoned his creation, Vice, to embrace his inner white supremacist, misogynist and racist.

Even though the negative stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs has a very long pedigree, and has for generations been a staple of Hollywood myth-making, toxic mainstream conservative demonisation took off in earnest in the wake of the horrors of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. Since then, America and Europe’s Muslim minorities have been inextricably linked in conservative perceptions with terrorism and treason.

The same applies to other minorities and marginalised groups, from Jews to Eastern European migrants to asylum seekers. The rightwing tabloid media in a number of countries has been vilifying them for years while claiming that it the imagined bogeyman of political correctness that was enjoying the upper hand, rather than the reality, that rightwing bigotry has been the dominant voice for generations.

Read part I

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A brief history of Western ‘jihadists’

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By Khaled Diab

From Guy Fawkes and Lord Byron to Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, Westerners have an ancient tradition of doing ‘jihad’ in foreign lands.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Does this dandy Englishman qualify as a European "jihadist"?

Does this dandy Englishman qualify as a European “jihadist”?

After weeks of public debate about the small number of Belgian Muslims who have been lured to Syria to join jihadist groups fighting the oppressive Assad regime, Belgian police recently raided 46 homes in the country’s second-largest urban area, the port city of Antwerp.

Authorities across Europe are also on a similar high level of alert.

The sting was said to be targeted at groups suspected of recruiting volunteers to fight in Syria. The arrests included at least Fouad Belkacem, the leader of the notorious fringe salafist group, Sharia4Belgium, the Islamic equivalent of white supremacists. It remains unclear whether Belkacem will be formally charged.

The police said that they had been planning the operation for months and were not spurred into action by all the media reports of young Belgian jihadists in Syria.

No one knows exactly how many Belgian Muslims – including converts – have landed themselves in Syria, but estimates tend to be on the very low side. Among the latest, two teenagers, described as “model youth” by their school, managed to make their way to Syria, the Belgian media reports.

This could suggest that, far from their demonised image as mindless fanatics and nutters, at least some of the young Belgians fighting in Syria are idealists there to fight against a gross injustice which their government condemns but the world has done nothing to arrest.

While I do not advocate that people should take up arms in this way, even as a pacifist, secular, flower-power type of liberal watching the civil war in Syria with growing frustration, I understand what their motivation could well be.

As someone who recalls the disruption caused by returning jihadists from Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia in my native Egypt, I also understand why the Belgian state, like other European countries, would be concerned about the security risk posed by traumatised and possibly radicalised fighters when they return.

The Muslim community is also concerned about the risk posed to their sons, as reflected by the preacher who risked his life to go to Syria to convince young Belgian fighters to return to their anxious families, only to be abducted by a radical group for “betraying Islam”.

Worrying as this trend may seem, it is important to place it in its proper perspective, and not allow bigots, racists, Islamophobes, or those with vested interests, including radical Muslims themselves, to blow the situation out of all proportion.

Belgium’s Muslim Executive puts the number of fighters in Syria at somewhere between 70 and 100, while Britain estimates a similar number of its nationals are taking part in the civil war.

In contrast, large waves of indigenous European “jihadists” – for, ultimately, jihad, regardless of its Islamic connotation, is a struggle for justice, not to mention an inner spiritual struggle – have been wandering off to foreign lands for centuries, lured by a heady mix of idealism, romance and rebellion.

For example, the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s was a major draw for foreign fighters. In fact, it is estimated that some 18,000 foreign volunteers, mostly anti-fascists from Europe and the Americas, joined the International Brigades against Spain’s as yet uncrowned rightwing dictator Francisco Franco. Their ranks even included highly regarded writers and intellectuals, such as George Orwell, WH Auden and Ernest Hemingway.

Moreover, while the trickle of European fighters to Syria is unlikely to pose a major security threat for Europe, the thousands of volunteers who fought on the side of the Republicans and the backing Franco’s Nationalists received from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy could easily have become the trigger for World War II, rather than Poland.

Going further back, Lord Byron was not just Britain’s most famous romantic poet and dandy who scandalised conservative England with the tales of his sexual misadventures, including his quest to find homosexual love in the fabled “East”. Byron’s career as wealthy agent provocateur and freedom fighter has some rich-boy-turned-revolutionary parallels with Osama bin Laden’s early mujahideen days in Afghanistan.

Byron was perhaps the most prominent of the Philhellenes, volunteers from the European and American aristocracy who – besotted by visions of classical Greece and feeling solidarity with their fellow Christians – took up arms against the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence.

In 1823, Byron spent an enormous £4,000 (around $15 million in today’s money) of his own fortune to refit the overstretched Greek fleet and increase its fighting capacity. But as he sailed to do battle, his life was cut short by a fever. Even if he personally didn’t see combat, Byron’s intervention, which was regarded as unhelpful trouble-making at the time, drew Britain reluctantly into the conflict after the Ottomans failed to assert their dominance.

Just as there is nothing new about Europeans going to do battle overseas, stigmatising minorities as fifth columns and potential traitors also has an ancient pedigree. In Europe, before the Muslims, the Jews were there, as were the Catholics in Protestant lands and vice-versa.

Speaking of the Catholics, security services were able to foil a conspiracy to blow up Parliament and destroy the government by a fanatical sleeper cell of religious zealots led by a foreign-trained British convert.

But unlike today’s headlines, the foreign-trained convert in question was not a Muslim but a Catholic who went by the name of Guy Fawkes. Born a Protestant, Fawkes converted to Catholicism at the age of 16 and went off, in the 1590s, to fight for the Spanish in the Spanish-occupied Netherlands.

When he returned to Britain, equipped with the explosives training he had received in Europe, he became involved in the Gun Powder Plot of 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The plot was a reaction to both the harsh anti-Catholicism instated by Queen Elizabeth I and the so-called Hampton Court Conference.

The plot served the interests of the Puritans very well and set back the cause of Catholic emancipation for at least another two centuries.

The risk we run today is in the other direction. Muslims in the West have entered societies in which they are, in principle, equals. However, stigmatisation, ignorance, prejudice, fear and vested interests are conspiring to keep many Muslims on the margins of society, and on the constant verge of suspicion, unable to take full advantage of their legal emancipation.

More troublingly still, since the tragic 11 September 2001 atrocities, the pretext of security has been used to reduce the civil liberties of some Muslims and to keep the community under close surveillance.

But like the Catholics and Jews before them, and with time and effort on the part of inspired grassroots activists, the West’s Muslim minorities can become accepted and valued threads in society’s colorful, multicultural tapestry.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 16 April 2013.

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Enemies like us

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By Khaled Diab

Had the threat from far-right extremists been taken more seriously, could the Norway tragedy have been averted?

Monday 1 August 2011

The gruesome and horrifying attacks on 22 July 2011 in downtown Oslo and on the island of Utøya, which claimed at least 76 lives, including numerous children and minors, has caused Norway to lose its innocence, according to Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbø. 

“I came from a country where fear of others had not found a foothold. A country you could leave for three months… and come home to read the newspapers and discover that the only thing new was the crossword puzzle,” he wrote in The Guardian.

“The Norwegian self-image before 22 July 2011 was that of a virgin – nature untouched by human hands, a nation unsullied by the ills of society,” Utøya added. “And yet there is no road back to the way it was before.”

An attack like this is tragic for any country, but in the peaceful and peaceable backwater of Norway, a small country with grand ambitions of spreading peace around the world – such as by hosting the secret talks which led to the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords or by launching the process which led to the Convention on Cluster Munitions – it is perhaps doubly sad.

On 22 July 2011, months shy of a decade after the 11 September attacks in the United States, another virginity of sorts was lost: the increasingly popular and mainstream idea that the greatest threats facing the West are posed by Islamist jihadists and Muslim minorities in Europe and the United States.

In fact, in the early hours following the attacks, speculation by ‘talking head’ experts focused on the presumption that the atrocities had been committed by Islamist extremists, despite the absence of any evidence to support this.

And, even worse, once the identity of the perpetrator was known – Anders Behring Breivik, a far-right extremist and Christian fundamentalist – the semantic shift in the coverage was palpable. Generally gone were the words ‘terror’ or ‘terrorist’ and, instead, we read and heard ‘gunman’, ‘extremist, or ‘attacker’ – even in the normally even-handed Guardian – despite the fact that he is being charged with “destabilising or destroying basic functions of society” and “creating serious fear in the population”, i.e. acts of terrorism.

At a certain level, such speculation is part of human nature because people need to know why, and it is far easier to apportion blame on the ‘other’ than to think the unthinkable or at least the unsavoury, that one of our own did this to us.

But even if it is human nature, such knee-jerkism is not humane, especially because it could have dire consequences for an already-vilified and distrusted minority, i.e. Muslims. This is doubly so when considering that even non-specialists could see gaping holes in the early theories of the security experts.

The main question that dogged my wife and I was “Why Norway?” The only reason we could think of as to why Islamist extremists would target Oslo is that it is a ‘soft target’. This could perhaps explain the bombs which went off in the government quarter, but why attack a Labour Party youth camp? And with bombings being the choice method used by Islamists when attacking Western targets, why did a gunman go around picking off individuals one after the other?

Well, even we had internalised the security narrative sufficiently to doubt our doubts, and decide it may have been Jihadists after all, despite our suspicions. Then, reports began to spread that witnesses were saying that the attacker was blond. As the details emerged, the initial outrage turned to shock and surprise – since when did white Europeans engage in terrorism and kill their own, many were asking?

This can’t be terrorism, these must be the actions of a mad “lone wolf”, some were insisting. But Breivik himself claims that he is not alone and is part of a Europe-wide anti-Islam network with two cells in Norway.

Although the attacks in Norway have taken the world by surprise, the signs that something like this might happen have been there for many years for those who were willing to take off their Islamist blinkers and look objectively at the wider picture.

Last year, on the fifth anniversary of the 7 July terror attacks in London, when debate again focused on “homegrown extremism”, but of the Islamist ilk, not the European far-right, I wrote, in an opinion piece for The Guardian in the UK, that neo-Nazism and other far-right ideologies in Europe probably constitute a greater threat than Islamic extremism.

I argued that, while the threat posed by a small number of violent Islamist extremists is very real and the danger of Islamic fundamentalism should not be downplayed or understated, the risk posed by the European far-right was greater because it is an indigenous ideology that can cruise under the radar while society is distracted with the spectre of external threats.

“Neo-Nazis have yet to pull off any attack as spectacular as those in Madrid or London. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to or don’t plan to,” I cautioned. Moreover, they “are responsible for a regular and growing stream of violence against Muslims, Jews, blacks and other minorities across Europe”.

A lot of readers, inspired by the assurances of ‘security experts’, at the time dismissed my thesis, with some even accusing me of “agenda-pushing” and “fear-mongering”, with claims that “the far right are simply not a menace”.  Likewise, my theory, which I expounded three years earlier, that the United States and some parts of Europe were in the throes of a nascent “Christian jihad” was also met with a fair amount of ridicule.

So, the conventional wisdom remained the guiding principle, and Western security services continued their quest to protect us from the Islamist threat, with Europol reporting a 50% increase in the arrests of suspected Islamic extremists in 2010. Meanwhile, Anders Behring Breivik, was working for several years to blow this conventional wisdom out of the water: apparently undetected, he plotted this attack, tried to purchase weapons, engaged in hate-filled online debate and wrote a 1,500-page far-right manifesto entitled ‘2083 – a European Declaration of Independence’.

In its 2010 report, Europol did not take very seriously the risk posed by right-wing extremism, judging that the “threat from right-wing extremism appears to be on the wane and the numbers of right-wing extremist criminal offences are relatively low”. However, it noted that “the professionalism in their propaganda and organisation shows that right-wing extremist groups have the will to enlarge and spread their ideology”.

So was Breivik’s apparent ability to cruise below the radar an understandable oversight or a monumental security failure?

On the one hand, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is an important pillar of the legal system and, according to Janne Kristiansen, chief of the Norwegian Police Security Service, Breivik was careful in the run-up to the attack and “deliberately desisted from violent exhortations on the net [and] has more or less been a moderate”.

On the other hand, Islamists who believe in creating a global Islamic caliphate, for instance, are routinely monitored by European security services, and numerous arrests of conservative Muslims have been made over the years on the slightest suspicion of possible violent intent. In Breivik’s case, he managed to research and write a lengthy manifesto containing many worrying passages, including his belief that his actions will help to spark a civil war in Europe that will ultimately lead to the expulsion of “cultural Marxists” and Muslims.

Moreover, even if his initial preparations were careful, Breivik’s megalomania seems to have got the better of him in the final countdown to the attack, which could have afforded security services the chance to apprehend him before he caused real destruction.

Six hours before the fateful and bloody killings, Breivik posted a YouTube video in which he urged fellow ultra-conservatives to “embrace martyrdom”. A text accompanying the video detailed his plans for the attack, while his blood-chilling manifesto was released an hour and a half beforehand – yet no action seems to have been taken to apprehend him. 

Why? Perhaps in a country that has never been rocked by a major terrorist attack, Norway’s security services were wholly unprepared for such an eventuality, at least, one originating with a native Norwegian – after all, what possible reason could a Norwegian have to commit violetn terrorism in such a prosperous and egalitarian society.

 At another level, perhaps Norwegian and European security services, like society at large, have so internalised the false yet popular notion that, although the majority of Muslims are not terrorists, the majority of terrorists are Muslims. I wonder if, in future, we will learn that Breivik’s name was flagged by some low-ranking analyst but his or her superiors failed to take the warning seriously.

Breivik provides an object lesson to Europeans and Americans alike that they ignore the extremists within their own ranks at their peril. There are also important lessons to be drawn from the West’s security-obsessed handling of Islamic extremism when it comes to the far-right. Far-right extremism cannot solely be viewed through the prism of security, but we need to strike at the ideological and socioeconomic factors that fuel it.

To do so, we need to build greater awareness and better understanding of the socioeconomic and cultural factors feeding this phenomenon. Just like their Islamist counterparts, many people who are drawn to far-right ideologies feel disempowered and marginalised, and believe that the way to overcome this is to turn back the clock to an idyllic ‘pure’ past.

And, as unemployment figures rise and government spending falls on the back of the recession, this sense of exclusion and frustration will grow – and minorities will continue to fill the role of convenient scapegoat for the economic ills visited upon us by the banking crisis and neo-liberal economics.

“The economic recession has led to political and social tensions and, in a number of member states, has fuelled the conditions for terrorism and extremism,” concludes Europol.

Mainstream society is, in certain ways, complicit in the emergence of this troubling current. The increasingly mainstream vilification and demonisation of the West’s Muslim minority and Islam in general – based on fear, insecurity, ignorance and political expediency, as well as the worry that extremist groups will succeed in their bid to ‘Islamise’ Europe – since the 11 September terror attacks a decade ago has created fertile ground for the far-right to lay down deeper roots.

We should not deal with far-right extremism and its violent manifestations with the same level of sensationalism and mass hysteria we reserve for extremist Islam – we need to be vigilant, not vigilante about it.

This article is part of a special Chronikler series on far-right extremism.

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