Once the shock of last night's horrifying terrorist attack in London and last month’s terrorist atrocity in Manchester had subsided, the media commentary that followed had me thinking.
There’s a battle raging for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world and it’s essential that Moderate Islam wins. Because if the moderates don’t win we risk a much bigger war between Islam generally and the western, or secular, world. Moderate Muslims don’t want that and nor does the west because it could be a fight to the death, and they’re usually brutal and bloody - especially for the losers.
The perpetrator last month was an Islamist terrorist. That we know. It’s almost certain the perpetrators last night were Islamists as well. They justify both their cause and methods using Muslim scriptures. In one sense – their willingness to inflict terrible violence on those with whom they disagree – they’re little different from the murderous zealots who committed terrible atrocities in the name of Catholicism or Protestantism a few centuries ago, and those of us brought up in the Christian tradition (if not the faith itself) would do well to remember this.
However, the Islamist cause and methods are generally denounced by a majority of Muslims, just as the majority of people brought up in the Christian tradition have renounced and denounced the sectarian prejudice and violence that have disfigured their faiths from time to time.
There’s a difference, however. In modern times the liberal Christian tradition has generally promoted something approaching a benign and tolerant democracy. Liberal societies can tolerate difference and dissent – some better than others, admittedly, as any Irishman or southern European could tell you. And as a result the temper of a Liberal society as a whole, both spiritual and temporal, makes political and sectarian violence a thing of evil. The same isn’t true in many (though not all) Muslim countries.
During the years of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, and during the terrorist campaigns of the 1970s and ‘80s in places like Italy and Germany, national and spiritual leaders repeatedly condemned violence in the strongest terms.
Moderation and tolerance had a voice that mostly drowned out the message of violence. This voice was heard in homes, at schools, at places of worship. It argued for peace, it argued that the terrorist was the grotesque ‘other’ whose taste for violence placed both him (or her) and the cause itself beyond the pale. This same tolerant, inclusive voice made welcome immigrants from a diversity of faiths and backgrounds, not least Muslims.
In most free countries this voice of reason and tolerance (helped by an open and honest media) has helped prevent the radicalisation of generations of passionate, grumpy youths. It has spoken through the law, through the media, through governments and national leaders to deny terrorists the legitimacy they crave and the support that follows. In the West, the general de-legitimisation of extremist movements, whether terrorist or not, has been a victory for the common people, for human values and for the societies that sustain them.
Are we seeing the same in the Muslim community? That’s a genuine question: notwithstanding the lonely courage of a few Imams and community leaders, is the voice of reason and tolerance being heard enough in the Muslim community?
The point is that Moderate Islam risks being painted crudely with the same brush as the Islamists if Muslim leaders won’t emerge who can champion the cause of peace and tolerance and give a voice to these values which can then be amplified in family homes, in schools and in mosques.
Moderate Islam must give voice to reason and tolerance – especially tolerance, where Muslims choose to live in or alongside a secular or non-Muslim nation - and deny radicals the sense of legitimacy that empowers them to carry out barbarous acts of murder.
It seems to me that the prevention of radicalisation and the de-radicalisation of Islamist would-be-terrorists must begin among the Muslim community at large. You see, not all Muslims are Islamists, but all Islamists are Muslims. If the voice of Moderate Islam is not heard then the atrocities committed in the name of Islam will define the faith as a whole in the minds of onlookers. The consequences for the majority of peace-loving, tolerant Muslims living in Western countries who are good citizens and decent members of society, could be serious.
That’s the battle that’s being fought for the hearts and minds of Muslims, and it’s essential that Moderate Islam wins. And Moderate Islam needs the patience and support of the wider non-Muslim community if it is to win. This must be a shared endeavour because the consequences of defeat will be catastrophic. But first we need to hear the voice of Moderate Islam, of Muslim leaders who can promote and defend peace, reason and tolerance. If Moderate Islam has no voice, or if that voice is silenced, then the faith as a whole will have been hijacked by an extremist minority that, by default, has placed Islam at war with the rest of the world.
In the meantime, we mourn those poor innocent souls who have died violently at the hands of murderous terrorists, and try to comfort their loved ones, and thank God for the kindness, and courage, of strangers who sought to help them.