By Thijl Sunier The day after the attacks in Paris, the French President François Hollande declared war to Islamic State. In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte also declared that ‘we are now at war’. Not with Islam, he added.
What bewilders me is that these declarations suggest that we are only now dragged into a conflict we supposedly have no part in. Baffling and indeed cynical. The Taliban, al Qaeda and Islamic State are monsters that the West and Russia have co-created in a decades-long struggle for power, influence and resources. This war has already started a long time ago at the cost of many thousands of innocent victims primarily in the region itself and the West has been involved in this right from the beginning.
What war? Whose war?
In the news we see images of the war in Brussels and Paris, so close by it (finally) becomes tangible for us. The perpetrators of the attacks are already being hunted down. Of course, they must be caught and brought to justice. But what about the other war – the war that does not break out?
I am talking about the war against poverty and humiliation in the Parisian banlieues, which have been abandoned by the authorities and where all welfare provisions have been cut down by the present and previous French government. The same goes for Molenbeek in Brussels where the fabric of society has been affected in the past decades by neoliberal austerity. A social fence has been erected around these neighbourhoods and suburbs – cutting them off from society as’ hotbeds’, ‘Shari’a triangles’, or whatever they are called.
It is often heard that in the Netherlands things are different. However, this is only partly the case. Here, the existing informal networks are fortunately still functioning and signals from within the neighbourhood are at least sometimes taken seriously. On the other hand, we also hear community activists complaining that many specific programs have been closed down because they are seen as ‘multicultural pampering’. What we see is that the obvious and widespread discrimination of Muslims in the labour market is played down and trivialised.
What war? Whose war?
While officially we are not at war with Islam, in practice hatemongering against Islam has become an everyday practice. Geert Wilders ever more loudly shouts that terror and Islam are one and the same and it seems that more and more people agree with him. But even if we ignore the Islamophobic statements by Wilders and his supporters, it is a worrying fact that there is a growing distrust against Muslims in our society. That’s exactly what IS wants. Through these attacks they try to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe. While it is publicly stated that we can and will not let that happen, the practice is that the growing distrust and Islamophobia cannot be ignored. Not only Islamophobic extremists, but also benevolent citizens – partly unintentionally – contribute to the gap. They either implicitly or explicitly discriminate against Muslims, viewing them as outsiders still. But the hard fact is: Muslims have long been a part of this society.
One of the subtle ways in which this happens is by posing the same question over and over again when something horrible has taken place: ‘Why do we hear so little from Muslims?’ Instead of assuming by default that virtually all Muslims are vehemently against IS-terror and that they are allies in the struggle against this evil, they are first summoned and called to account for their position. Muslims are deprived of the right to remain silent about the attacks by implicitly arguing that silence is the same as sympathizing with IS. To me – being a non-Muslim – such a question would never be asked. Muslims, however, now have to prove something before they are granted the ‘right’ to either speak or to be silent.
Mistrust is everywhere. I endorse the statement of Imam El-Forkani that this is the perfect opportunity for Muslims to show how their religion evolves and what discussions take place among Muslims. However, it should remain a free choice whether you take part in that discussion or not. That choice should in no way be dependent on whether you are Muslim or not. For non-Muslims it is a choice by default, so this should also apply to Muslims. Indeed, this should apply to every individual, regardless of religion.
What war? Whose war?
If we want as many people – Muslims and non-Muslims – residing in that ‘radical middle ground’ envisioned by Jozias van Aartsen, the Mayor of The Hague, and if we want IS not being able to drive a wedge in society, then distrust and double standards against Muslims must be eradicated instantaneously and radically. Islamophobic prophets and other hatemongers must be stopped and condemned publicly. Only then can the real war against IS be successful.
Thijl Sunier is hoogleraar Islam in Europese samenlevingen aan de afdeling Sociale en Culturele Antropologie van de VU.