Terror in Europe

Enemies Inside And Out, The Double Threat Facing The West

What connects the violence in Barcelona and Charlottesville? Where have Western democracies gone wrong since the turn of the century?

Vigil in Barcelona, days after the Aug. 17 attack on Las Ramblas
Renaud Girard


PARIS — From a Western point of view, the month of August 2017 will be remembered for a new wave of terror attacks in Europe (in Spain and Finland) and the resurgence of the racial issue in the United States. The bloody events in Barcelona, Turku, and Charlottesville are a brutal reminder that, for a generation, the West has been facing a double challenge.

The leading Western countries are suffering from both a lack of internal cohesion and an accumulation of inconsistencies in foreign policy.

The integration model in European countries worked successfully during much of the second half of the 20th century with immigrating populations from diverse origins successfully brought into society. But one major exception has emerged: this model doesn't seem to have the means to truly integrate Muslim populations.

Why is this the case? Is it because of Islam's lack of separation between politics and religion? Is it because of the rejection, since the 12th century, by Sunni Islam of all efforts of critical interpretation of its sacred texts, the consequence of which is the strict application of precepts that ruled the life of 7th century Bedouins in the Arabian Peninsula? Or are there other reasons? The existence of an initial cultural gap that immigrants need to overcome isn't a satisfactory explanation. The Jews from the Russian Empire who emigrated to France or the U.S. in the late 19th century had grown up in an entirely different civilization, and yet, they eventually integrated perfectly into French and American societies.

We approach the issue with the assumption, and rightly so, that immigrants are the ones who must adapt to the societies they're joining, and not the other way around. We often forget to take into consideration what the situation in the countries of destination looks like to those who arrive. Admittedly, there's little about our contemporary European societies that can win over the hearts of young Muslims. Older Europeans are testaments to a once flourishing Christian civilization, one, alas, that has been deserted by the younger generations, plunged as they are into a frantic consumerism.

If you are a young Muslim and you feel ill-at-ease in the world of shopping malls, Disney World, reality television and fast-food chains, and you're looking for an ideal, what options do you have? Communism? It has failed. Christianity? Most Europeans have abandoned it. What's left, admittedly for those with little cultural knowledge, is the fantasized Islam of the first Caliphs. The young Muslim immigrant is led into thinking, as the Muslim Brotherhood proclaims, that "Islam is the solution." The solution to all problems, his own and that of the society around him. Sharia law becomes the only possible way to rule over men. Society needs to return to the customs of our pious ancestors (the Salafs). The infernal machinery is in motion: A jihadist is a Salafist who's decided to take his commitment to its logical conclusion. How else could you explain the hatred shown in Barcelona by the young Moroccan terrorists that Spain had generously taken in?

American society also lacks cohesion. It's never been so divided. Young whites are in open rebellion against the cult of minorities and the globalized economy their academic and media establishments are trying to impose on them. They can no longer accept being despised for who they are and blamed for what their grandparents did. They form such a strong electoral base behind Donald Trump that nobody can seriously claim he can't be reelected in 2020.

The West has been fighting the wrong battle.

Authoritarian regimes around the world used to look upon the West's democratic political system with indifference. Now they look upon it with contempt. If Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan share one thought, it's that the West is weak, that it doesn't believe in anything anymore, and that it can collapse at any moment like a house of cards. In Beijing, Moscow, and Ankara, leaders think that the European cohesion won't resist the migratory pressure much longer and that the racial issue irrevocably weakens American society.

What's more, their contempt — unwarranted given their own weaknesses — feeds on Western inconsistencies in foreign policy. It's been almost 16 years since the West sent its troops to Afghanistan in order to "rebuild" it and "democratize" it. To no avail. In his August 21 address, President Trump admitted that this "nation building" attempt was a failure. He rightly lashed out at Pakistan, which takes U.S. aid with one hand while, with the other, offering a safe haven to the Taliban. But he said nothing about the absurdity of seeing Americans endlessly fight against Afghan Pashtuns, probably out of respect for all the sacrifices the West consented to in its war in the "Kingdom of Insolence".

The West engaged in costly wars in the deserts of the Hindu Kush, Mesopotamia, and the Sahel. Wars they can never win, for lack of being willing to resort to the level of cruelty of 19th century colonial expeditions. Since the beginning of the new millennium, the West has been fighting the wrong battle. It forgot to defend its own populations against creeping, dissimulated attacks from the outside, to better engage in resounding military expeditions in faraway lands, not unlike the "civilizing mission" advocated by 19th-century French leader Jules Ferry.

What does it mean to defend one's own populations? Two examples. First, on trade, the West has proven incapable of blocking China's technological plundering. Small EU nations just blocked Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron's project to curb Chinese investments in European high-tech companies. Second, on culture, the West was incapable of stopping the infiltration inside Europe of such a dangerous ideology as Islamism.

The West's great mistake in this new millennium has been to believe that no violence would result from allowing in so many different cultures, and in the whole world adopting the West's political principles — the ones it claims are "universal."

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.

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