Much to the chagrin of the staunchly secular among us, religion shows no sign of going away. Predictions of the demise of religion, faith, tradition – and even God – have consistently been proven wrong. What, then, can be done about it? This question has of late vexed the Western world, especially Europe. The answer is plain to see, if you can strip away the hostility towards religion that has taken hold.
Today’s secular mindset, especially among “new atheists”, is such that it sees no virtue in religion, dismissing it as ideas, traditions and behaviours that comfort simple people. Ironically, the atheists of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries often understood the utilitarian benefits of religion, especially in promoting morality among the less educated. It was a cynical view that led many of them to mask their materialistic behaviour behind a religious veneer; in other words, they were saving appearances for the sake of social cohesion.
Even the founding fathers of the United States saw the benefit of religion, and enshrined freedom to exercise faith in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Most legislative bodies, including Congress, usually begin their sessions with a prayer from a religious leader.
But things are changing rapidly, both in the US and across Europe. Today, a strong anti-religious sentiment has emerged in Europe, and increasingly in the more religious America. It’s a sentiment that reflects the French model of laicism that has effectively banished religion from the public sphere.
Providing fuel for the anti-religious fire has been the rise of so-called "Islamofascism", which seeks to strike terror and chaos into the heart of European and American societies, believing these nations and their values to be the cause of many miseries in Muslim-majority countries. This threat has led many – especially those not familiar with normative Islam – to perceive of Islam not as a religion but as a political cult.
This, in turn, has led to a resurgence of nationalistic and xenophobic elements of the far right, who are once again rearing their heads, singularly focused on cleansing their homelands of any overt sign or expression of Islam. In Europe at least, this charge of the right brigade serves as an unwelcome reminder of the not-so-distant 1930s and 1940s; of the rise of fascism, Nazism and communism. It is worth noting that the term Islamofascism was coined to draw an analogy between today’s militant Islamic movements and the European fascist movements of the early 20th century.
A migrant headache
The recent history of Muslims in Europe is, in many ways, a tragic one. After the Second World War, many Muslim people were brought to England to help rebuild devastated cities; many of them came from societies that were colonized by European states, particularly France and England. Broadly speaking, a ghettoization occurred in which these new arrivals were neither welcomed nor assimilated.
Their children grew up with a migrant headache of sorts, caught between feeling alienated from the home countries of their parents and feeling like foreigners in their new lands. Many of them integrated successfully, but others veered from the values of their parents or became susceptible to the cri de coeur of the "Islamofascists" offering a simple but militant ideology as an exit strategy. Some who succumbed have perpetrated horrendous crimes against civilians in the lands of their birth.
The twin challenges of "Islamofascism" and the uneasy state of many Muslim immigrant communities have led many in France, England, Holland and elsewhere in Europe to attribute the problem to Islam. But this idea of the faith of Islam as a breeding ground for militancy has only exacerbated the problem and lent credence to the claims of the extremists: that the West is at war with Islam.
The demagogic rhetoric unleashed during last year’s presidential campaign in the US, and the subsequent victory of President-Elect Donald Trump, has not only fuelled an Islamophobic movement in America but provided a boost to the budding anti-religion political parties in Europe. Attacks from high places on the religion of Islam only serve to increase recruitment to extreme ideologies, especially among the beleaguered immigrants and refugees already facing economic hardship and the lack of a safety net.
The French intellectual Jacques Attali presciently described our current crisis in his 1991 book, Millennium: Winners and Losers in the Coming World Order. The desperation of so many refugees fleeing conflict and failed states in Africa and the Middle East has created a siege mentality in Europe and an isolationist attitude in America, a hitherto globalized landscape that imports virtually everything, often from places it now fears the most.
Islam on the rise
There are more than 40 million Muslims living in Europe and an estimated 6 million in the US – and they have higher birth rates than the majority of Westerners. The idea animating some of the anti-religious thinking – that their societies can be rid of Muslims – is patently insane; the idea that Muslim communities are fifth columns is equally mad. But the threat of terror is real, hence our dilemma.
What can be done about it?
The most viable pathway would begin with sincere and concrete efforts to reach out to Muslim communities – and especially their most influential leaders – with the aim of engaging them, restoring their sense of enfranchisement and improving their economic conditions. Large majorities of Muslims in the West have benefited greatly from the countries in which they live, and feel a great sense of gratitude for the opportunities afforded them there. They would welcome and support efforts to protect their young people from the ideologues who prey on them.
The greatest preventative to terrorism is Muslim religious literacy. The acquisition of knowledge – knowledge of both the world and of their own religion – will inoculate young people against extremist ideologies.
In many ways, we have failed people in crisis. They are not less than us but are simply less fortunate than us. For believers, both privilege and privation are a trial, and both demand responses: one demands service and the other demands patience. The greatest privilege is to live well in flourishing lands; the greatest privation is to live in the midst of war, especially civil war.
As civil wars rage in too many places, we would do good to remind ourselves of the counsel of an Athenian political realist, albeit one who lived two millennia before us, of what such wars do to men:
The sufferings which revolution brought on the Greek states were many and terrible. In peace and prosperity nations and individuals have higher standards because they are not involved in involuntary necessities. But war, depriving men of their easy circumstances, is a savage teacher, and brings men’s characters down to the level of their fortunes.— Thucydides