When we witness sadistic tragedies such as the attack on Charlie Hedbo or the brutal killing of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, we too often fail to realize that there’s more to the horrific bloodletting than meets the eye. To those leading the extremist movements responsible for such ruthlessness, violence is not just an instrument of revenge; it is a wedge that deepens the divide between Islam and the West.
In this context, some Westerners and moderate Muslims are playing into the terrorists’ hands.
Despite the fact that they represent, at most, .5 percent of the global Muslim population, groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda want to be the face that Islam presents to the world. They already are to many non-Muslims – and with every attack, they encourage the alienation and segregation of the overwhelming majority of Muslims who seek peaceful co-existence with the rest of the world. In the end, we move closer to the extremists’ overarching goal of a massive, global confrontation that will force all Muslims to choose sides once and for all.
Examples of this dynamic can be found in the UK, U.S., France, and the myriad other places moderate Muslims have settled because of the freedoms, opportunities, and security that define the Western way of life. With the rise of radical Islam, we have seen a corresponding uptick in anti-Muslim sentiments throughout societies that are otherwise tolerant and inclusive. In fact, Islam as a whole stands accused in advance, and not only the extremist fringe. Terror attacks lead many in the West to perceive Islam as a whole as inherently extremist. Small numbers of terrorists who make headlines do not certainly represent a complex and diverse religion of 1.6 billion adherents.
In the UK, we see Muslim and non-Muslim communities living in separate neighborhoods, shopping at different stores, and learning in different schools. In the U.S., we see calls for tolerance – such as those made by President Obama at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast – politicized and angrily rejected by many as appeasement. And in France, we’ve seen no less than 1,200 French citizens of Arab descent join ISIS or other terrorist groups – not because they agree with extremist message, but because of increasing cultural marginalization that fuels anger and frustration.
With every attack that inflames Western attitudes toward Islam, extremists make themselves a more attractive alternative to societies that, in turn, grow less and less welcoming. That’s one reason that ISIS’s first move upon invading Iraqi territory was the abolition of formal borders. They want all Muslims, from all countries and every corner of the globe, united in battle against the West. If they can succeed in turning the West against Islam, they create a choice for all Muslims between the lesser of two evils – one they hope will swell their ranks and strengthen their position in the battle to come.
As such, it’s up to Muslims and non-Muslims alike to realize that extremists can’t conquer us unless they first divide us. And it’s up to all the peace-loving people of the world (be they Muslim, Christian, Jew or any other faith) to stand united by the morals and values that tie us all together.
Every step that leads us further apart is a step closer to the world that extremists are trying to build.
Dr. Habib is the Founder and Executive Chairman of UAE law firm Habib Al Mulla, which he established in 1984. He is one of the UAE’s most highly respected legal authorities with more than 27 years’ experience in UAE law and drafting many of the modern legislative structures in place in Dubai today.