When will it ever end? Month after month, year after year we are assured that extremist and terrorist networks have been uncovered and/or dismantled in the United States, in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Headline news and spectacular arrests carry a powerful symbolic impact. But our troubles are far over; despite the killing of Usama bin Laden, fully operational cells remain capable of striking highly symbolic targets: public places, schools, religious institutions, sometimes specifically Jewish ones. “Islamic terrorism” is the specter that haunts our era, and is likely to do so for a long time to come.
I have frequently stated what must be tirelessly repeated: these tiny groups do not represent the values of Islam, their actions are overtly anti-Islamic, and can only be condemned. There can be no justification for the killing of innocents, for attacks on civilians and public institutions. While criticism of the State of Israel, like that of any other state, is legitimate and justifiable it cannot excuse—in any way, shape or form—anti-Semitism, which is likewise anti-Islamic. In fact, recognized Muslim scholars (Sunnites and Shiites alike) along with the overwhelming majority of ordinary believers firmly condemn the violence of extremists and the actions of Salafi jihadists, wherever they raise their ugly heads. The world must hear this message, and the Muslims must repeat it continuously. About this we must be perfectly clear.
Internationally, the Salafi jihadists and the extremists have long pursued dangerous political positions whose first victims, after those they have uted, are the Muslim populations as a whole. Extremism and terrorism do not afflict the West alone, but also Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Today such movements—standing ideologically between conservative literalism and jihadism —are gaining a foothold in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, and in northern Mali, while maintaining an active presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is imperative to confront the views of these groups, and above all to curtail their ability to promote unrest. Over the last fifteen years, but particularly during the last five years, they have demonstrated their capacity for bringing people into the streets in times of crisis. Though they remain marginal and opportunistic, the impact of their murderous and shocking acts on the perceptions and the imagination of a greater number of people cannot be discounted.
The young people who join extremist groups are clearly suffering massive deficiencies in religious knowledge, and are often politically gullible (when they are not attempting to salve pangs of conscience by cutting themselves off a life of delinquency). They can easily fall victim to the kind of radical or populist rhetoric propagated by jihadist circles, just as they may become the instruments of predatory and manipulative government intelligence agencies. From Pakistan to the United States, by way of Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt and Syria, not to mention England, France, Germanyand Denmark, informers and provocateurs have successfully infiltrated these groups. Behind the religious sincerity and the political gullibility of youthful radicals often lurk religious or political authorities, or even government secret services. All are totally devoid of religious sincerity and driven by a political cynicism as blatant as it is deadly. The ideology of extremism and the organizations that embody it are dangerous in many ways; condemnation of them must be firm and decisive, accompanied by a rigorous analysis of their causes, their principle protagonists and their zones of darkness. There can be no room for naïveté.
To this analysis must be added the strategic connection between the presence of such groups in the West and in Muslim-majority countries. Confronting terrorism, and the cells that come into being in an apparently informal and disconnected manner, presents particularly forbidding obstacles, as can be observed in Germany, the US, England, France and elsewhere. Above and beyond acts of terrorism that are followed by immediate political and military reaction by the affected countries, like the US in Afghanistan, then Iraq in the wake of September 11, 2001, the fact remains that operations against local cells, accompanied by intense media coverage, cannot be entirely disconnected the foreign policies of the Western nations.
In fact, where terrorist actions occur, Western military intervention is never far behind. Terrorism has been successfully used to justify increased surveillance of citizens in the West and military operations abroad once public opinion had been primed to accept it (as the jihadist threat had become plausible at home). It may well be that France, whose president and its prime minister proclaim that they will combat Islamic extremism wherever necessary, will soon seek a pretext for greater involvement overseas, particularly in Mali, now that the threat has been felt on its own soil (and that French hostages are still being held). The region is a strategic one, and the petroleum reserves recently discovered there are at least as extensive as Libya’s: worth remembering in order to keep our feet on the ground.
Such considerations aside, we must remain focused on our responsibilities, and refuse to cast ourselves as victims. Once again Muslims—religious representatives, community leaders and ordinary believers—must speak out loud and clear in condemning what is done in their name by the extremists. Likewise, politicians and the media must take pains to avoid guilt by association. Not only by affirming, in times of crisis or terrorist actions, that the jihadists and extremists do not represent all Muslims, but by finding ways to speak of Muslims in positive ways, and not only in time of crisis.