Europe and Islam

‘Islamist terror’ in Europe demonstrates the awkward push-and-shove between secularism and religion

Photo by Ken Lau on Flickr.

— 6 minute read — By Sam Portillo

Many an agnostic and atheist contend that all of the world’s problems can be explained by the existence of religion. Take the Crusades, for example, where millions of Christian fighters lost their lives attempting to retake the ‘holy lands’, as did millions of Muslims who were trying to defend them. In modern times, acts of terror committed in the name of religion kill innocent civilians at work and play, on high streets, in the office, in venues, restaurants and bars. Liberal activists pushing for reform around abortion and LGBTQ+ rights would argue that the spectre of religion, keeping frankly ancient rules alive in the twenty-first century, is a key obstacle to progress. As controversial comedian George Carlin claimed: “religion has never really had a big problem with murder… more people have been killed in the name of God than for any other”.

Recent terror incidents in Austria and northern France are only the latest in a long line of tensions between Christian Europe and its Muslim periphery, dating back over a thousand years. In the vacuum left by the implosion of the Roman Empire, the Umayyad Caliphate (centred in Damascus) conquered the Iberian peninsula, including most of modern-day Portugal, Spain, and parts of France.

The Christian kingdom of Asturias in the north instigated an eight-century reconquista, slowly edging Muslim rule out of the peninsula. Fast forward to the present day, and only an estimated 3 percent of the Spanish population identify as Muslim. In 2017, a 22 year old Morocco-born male drove a van into a crowded market in Barcelona, killing fourteen civilians and injuring over a hundred others before fatally stabbing a driver on the outskirts of the city in order to seize an escape vehicle.

The last bastion: the Emirate of Granada existed as a Muslim state until the late fifteenth century, the last in Western Europe.

The so-called Islamic State terror group praised the attackers and threatened further consequences if Spanish military action against Syria and Iraq didn’t end: an atomic bomb against Gibraltar and the recreation of al-Andalus. In other words, the recapture of Spain as an Islamic state.

Counter-terrorism experts say that such threats serve propagandistic purposes, attempting to convey the illusion of strength to supporters and strike fear into the minds of their opponents, rather than informing foreign governments as to their genuine intentions. While the attainment and deployment of atomic bombs is unlikely, and total conquest of a country is outlandish, terror attacks claimed by the so-called Islamic State and motivations of jihad continue to happen in supposedly safe towns and cities across Europe.

Under the shadow of the Elizabeth Tower and Houses of Parliament, landmarks that represent the pinnacle of European prowess, 52 year old Khalid Massood drove a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing five and injuring another forty nine. Minutes before the attack, the killer sent a document to several contacts over WhatsApp titled “Jihad in the Quran and Sunnah”, complete with a picture of himself and selective quotes from the holy books of Islam that could be interpreted to justify what he was about to do. He told accomplices that he was motivated by revenge for Western military action in the Middle East. Investigators found that he had converted to Islam in prison, where he served multiple sentences for grievous bodily harm, and taught the English language in Saudi Arabia, where others theorise he was radicalised.

Just two months later, a 22 year old British Muslim charged into the Manchester Arena foyer just as thousands of concert-goers were exiting the show and detonated a nail bomb, killing 22 innocent people and injuring hundreds, with many requiring hospital treatment. During the investigation, the killer’s sister claimed that he was motivated by the injustice of Muslim children dying in Western bomb attacks on Syria.

Then-Prime Minister Theresa May condemned the attack as a “perversion of Islam”. Indeed, the Quran has encouraged peace, tolerance and forgiveness for over a thousand years, and the religion has been consistent in teaching those values. At a fundamental level, Islam has not changed. The socio-political context that envelopes it, however, certainly has, with large swathes of Africa, Asia and the Middle East being subjected to Western military domination. However noble and humanitarian the mission, Europe’s engagement in conflicts like the Syrian Civil War have both tangible and ideological consequences on the people who live there – destruction of homes, loss of friends and family members, the need to escape their country altogether in search for safety.

In the modern world, the tension is not between Christianity and Islam: general consensus has moved beyond racism, and humanity likes to think it has grown out of religious spites over fabled ‘holy lands’. Beside a small number of exceptions, twenty-first century Europe is a haven for secularism – the idea that religion should be kept separate from the state.

In the UK, at least, church attendance has fallen since the nineteenth century. In 1851, Sunday service registers accounted for around half of the local population. A recent study found that less than 10 percent of Brits conform to such a routine. Similar patterns of distancing from religion can be observed in data for weddings, funerals, baptisms, Christenings and Sunday School attendance.

European identity is built on secularism: science, democracy and individual freedoms. Photo by Stephen Carlile on Flickr.

With the quick slicing of a monarch’s head (and the not so quick Reign of Terror that followed), the country of France abandoned ideas of worship and Godly leadership with a strive for secularism. Science, technology and democracy presented an alternative to religion, championing humanity as a powerful and responsible entity as opposed to an unseen deity. In 1905, la parlement enshrined the separation of the church and state into law, and forty years later, it was added to the constitution.

Just ten percent of Germans believe the existence of God is an absolute certainty. Christianity is by no means congruent with the national psyche.

Even in countries with more religious populations, like Portugal and Spain with Catholicism, or Armenia with Islam, religious beliefs rarely take supremacy over secularist values: science, democracy and individual freedoms come first.

This evokes a paradox between liberty and religious oppression. If European countries claim to be beacons of freedom and tolerance, they must stop short of any bans on religious expression. If they claim to champion free speech, they must allow the voicing of opinions – however radical, regressive, or against the country’s values.

Samuel Paty, a 47 year old teacher in France, was beheaded near his place of work after being targeted for showing a cartoon of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad to students in class. The religion regards making depictions of Allah and the prophet as blasphemous, punishable in the eyes of certain extremists by death.

Such an atrocity, where civilians were punished for exercising free speech, is reminiscent of the 2015 shooting at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office, where 7 employees were murdered, along with 5 others at the scene. The magazine had a long commitment to secularism and frequently goaded religions with their front covers: not just Islam, but Christianity and others too.

“The religion they exploit”: President Macron speaks to the nation after the death of Samuel Paty. Photo by Francois Mori/AP.

Some European countries have leaned away from their liberal ideals, choosing to restrict religion in response to a rise in extremist terrorism. France has banned full-face coverings; several Moldovan councils have banned public Muslim worship; German courts have classified child circumcision as assault. This is the paradox of secular Europe: Islamist extremism has been met with restrictions on religion and spikes in public violence towards ethnic minorities. ‘Islamist terror’ does not represent Islam, and unless Europe isolates heartless extremism from the harmless faith of Islam, it cannot claim to be tolerant and secular, either.