It’s good to see that all of you have safely made it back to college. Whether by plane, train, sleigh or snowplough, or thanks to having hitched a ride on the back of a frisky reindeer, you’ve finally made it back to the warm embracing arms of college. Some of you have had to fight snow and ice, cancelled flights and endless news reports about snow and ice, while others have had to suffer through heightened security at airports following the attempted terrorism on a flight bound for Detroit on Christmas Day.
It’s become very easy for us to believe, as we remove our shoes in metal detectors around the world and travel in ever more secure modes of transport, that we are the main victims of terrorism. That the global war on terror is a case of ‘us’ against ‘them’, where the ‘us’ represents the Western World and its liberal values and the main threat to our security comes from the ‘them’ - turban-clad, scimitar-brandishing cave dwellers of Victorian fantasy.
As convenient as this image may be to us as we lace up our shoes and replace our belts, it is a gross and tragic oversimplification. The automatic assumption that the West is under attack from Islamic terrorism is deeply flawed – it is Muslims who are under attack from Islamic terrorism, Muslims who make up the majority of its victims and Muslims who are forced to suffer its consequences.
Students of history are in the habit of referring to the ‘long’ 19th Century as the period between the American Revolution in 1776 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. This period was then followed by the ‘short’ 20th Century, which spanned the rise and fall of fascism and ended with the collapse of communism in 1991. In that case, we are due another long Century, one whose opening number has so far been mostly concerned with the rise of international terrorism.
The great ideological battle of these years of the long 21st Century is not between the liberal West and the fundamentalist Muslims. It is between the vast majority of peaceful Muslims and a small but ever-expanding radical fringe. The rest of us are merely the bullet-proof vest being battered between a rock and a hard place.
Those of us who live in enlightened democracies are mercifully safe from the consequences of extremist rule. A woman in London is allowed to drive; a basic right denied her sisters in Saudi Arabia, while a homosexual man in Paris or New York can escape the lashings which await him in Tehran. It is the Muslim population which suffers most from many of the sanctions applicable in their home countries, sanctions instituted and defended by extreme interpretations of Islamic law.
Just as the Second World War was not fought against the evils of Germanic culture or Western European civilisation, but against the way in which they were abused, the war on terrorism must have as its principal target the abuse of Islam and its teachings. Because explosive devices on the roads of Iraq and Afghanistan and suicide bombers on planes over America or the United Kingdom are not distinct phenomena. They are all indications of the tremendous power held by fundamentalist clerics and leaders over the minds of their followers. Many who are willing to blow themselves up in the name of Allah are poor, but others are rich and well-educated. Some have never left their rural villages whereas others were educated in prestigious London universities. Some are peasants and farmers, but others are doctors or engineers. The only thing they all share is a tragic receptivity to the dangerous words of ruthless and fanatical preachers.
As much as we have suffered at the hands of terrorists, our losses are as nothing compared with the international Muslim community. Well over 90% of the terrorism casualties since 2006 have been Muslim. Some have been collateral in the attempt to attack a greater Western target, but all have been victims of a school of thought which regards human life as a negligible factor in the great equations of morality.
Even those Muslims who have not been personally affected by such tragedies are unable to escape their consequences. The automatic assumption of guilt by virtue of religious or ethnic association is something that haunts all those with a Middle Eastern passport or appearance. Spot checks at airports, suspicious stares and unprovoked displays of fear or aggression are among the effects felt by millions of Muslims as a punishment for having done absolutely nothing wrong.
But it is no longer enough to enjoy a clean conscience in silence. In the same way that Jews around the world feel obliged to criticise Israel in order to clear themselves of any perceived guilt, and Americans by the thousand joined facebook groups entitled ‘George W. Bush is not MY president’, the tide of anti-extremist rhetoric and actions must now come from the millions of moderate Muslims who are currently silent.
By refusing to distance themselves from the fundamentalists, ordinary Muslims are encouraging the growth and popularity of xenophobic, racist and even violent groups who are more than happy to spray all Muslims with the grapeshot of abuse. When we think of those organisations who are most vocally opposed to the rise of Islamic extremism, the Daily Mail and the BNP should not be the names that spring to mind.
No individuals have more to lose under the rule of a fascist caliphate than those who will be seen to have ‘thrown in their lot’ with the infidels or kafirs. On Tuesday’s edition of NewsNight, Anjem Choudary (the leader of the Islamist organisation Islam4UK) pointedly refused to answer the more moderate Maajid Nawaaz’s questions about what his fate would be under a Sharia tribunal, sinisterly hinting that Nawaaz ‘knew the answer already’.
When moderates refuse to push back against extremism, the tides of fear and aggression drive ordinary people further and further to the political right. It is fear of this sort that led to the Swiss ban against minarets last year, and the recent decision by the Home Secretary to declare Islam4UK an illegal organisation. If we are to make it to the end of the 21st Century, long as it is is likely to be, those who have most to lose must take a stand against those who are most likely to take it away. Moderates of all backgrounds need to lead the way if extremism is to be fought.