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The struggle to divide and rule

16 January 2015

The terrorism in Paris had unexpected consequences, writes Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff


"Not terrorists!": Muslims in Madrid protest against the atrocities in Paris

"Not terrorists!": Muslims in Madrid protest against the atrocities in Paris

ACTS of terror are all about consequences. Even if these are hard to predict fully, the broad outlines can be foreseen. They can therefore help to guide our response to the horrors unleashed in Paris, and the true intent of those who planned them.

Counter-intuitive though it may seem at first, the highly negative backlash against Muslims and Islam was fully factored in by those behind the attacks, who want to shatter the global status quo in their quest for enhanced power, for themselves and for their brand of Islam. Fear and suspicion create exactly the environment they desire. Provoking Western nations into actions that can feed the narrative they are forging for Muslims - of the West laying siege to Islam ever since the Crusades - can help, too. So, to them, it was well worth the suffering and bloodshed along the way.

They hope that Muslims in Western countries will come under growing suspicion of harbouring terror, and so feel ever more alienated in their turn.

More widely, a global story of faiths and civilisations in conflict is exactly what the extremists want to foment, at any cost to others. Yet the cost to them of these attacks - which, for three days, terrorised an entire capital and nation, and commanded the attention of the whole world - was simply a few guns and bullets, together with the lives of the only too willing perpetrators. They needed no complex bombs, or planes, or sophisticated apparatus.

So, sadly, we can expect more such raids in the future: they are very high-impact, and hard to detect and prevent. All this will fuel insecurity, and the demand for ever greater surveillance measures in the West, paradoxically to protect our freedom; and may even lead to military action overseas.

THE real conflict is not between Islam and the West, but between Muslims themselves: it is an intra-Muslim fight for domination of the Islamic world, and for who defines Islam. The West is being sucked into this as a means of changing the balance. If Western nations can be provoked into more interventions in the Middle East, this can be used to urge all Muslims to make common cause with extremists against the infidel invaders.

If, on the other hand, the West holds aloof, it appears to be compromised morally by permitting humanitarian catastrophes; and new Islamist powerbases can arise in the vacuum of failed states, such as Libya and Syria. Either way, the Islamists can play the West's role to their advantage.

Against this background, the precise issue of blasphemy, and sacrilege against Islam and its Prophet Muhammad, was deftly chosen to frame the initial attack in Paris. It is a hugely powerful wedge issue. Freedom of belief and expression are central to the self-understanding of Western democracies; but any kind of insult to the Prophet is hard to bear for Muslims, even though few would normally resort to violence.

This conflict of values can thus be used to open a wider doubt about whether it is possible to be a good Muslim in the West, or to share Western values in the Islamic world.

DESPITE all the dynamics of seeking worldly power which ultimately drive the architects of terror, there are, therefore, truly religious aspects woven in to their strategy. This makes the West's response hard to get right, given that most of our experts and policymakers tend to view religion reductively - as being always, in the end, about something else, such as poverty, identity, or alienation.

Only Muslims themselves can resolve the question who defines Islam, and what being an authentic Muslim entails. This is particularly hard for Sunni Islam, because of its diffuse and largely personal structures of authority.

Historic initiatives have lacked traction. In 2005, for the first time, 200 representatives of all eight Islamic Schools of jurisprudence, both Sunni and Shia, gathered in Jordan to set out, in the Amman Message, authoritative guidance defining who is a Muslim; the impermissibility of denouncing a fellow Muslim as apostate; and the rigorous criteria to be met if a religious ruling (fatwah) is to be of standing.

This vital work passed largely unnoticed, but it is exactly the kind of groundwork for defining authentic Islam which needs to be known and understood at grass-roots level, especially among young people. Ignorance of it enables false interpretations of Islam to seem legitimate; and allows a ruthless quest for power by al-Quaeda and the Islamic State to grow unchecked, cloaked in an Islamic guise.

When we in the West urge moderate Muslims to "tackle the extremists", many ordinary Muslims unsurprisingly wonder what this has to do with them: they would never dream of attacking anyone; so why should they be held responsible for those who do?

Yet the extremists are a danger to all Muslims, and moderate Muslims do need to unite to invalidate the extremist interpretation. Specifically, those with religious authority in mainstream Islam must be enabled to do this, and be seen to do it definitively, for the wider good of all.

If, a month ago, it had been suggested that three men with guns would bring more than three million people on to the streets of France, no one would have believed it. Yet this has now happened.

Rather than demonstrating the power of those guns and jihadist terror, however, it was a vast declaration of shared resolve to uphold fundamental human values and freedom; and a contest which the terrorists lost by more than a million to one. We may be sure that this was one consequence of their actions that they had not foreseen.

God is great indeed.

Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff is Director General of the World Dialogue Network.

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