On a February evening in Oslo, Norway more than 1,000 Muslims formed a ‘Ring of Peace’ around the Oslo Synagogue, thereby offering symbolic protection to the Norwegian Jewish community and making clear their utter rejection of the terrorist attack the previous weekend by an Islamist extremist on the main synagogue in the Danish capital of Copenhagen.
As the Muslims guarding the synagogue chanted “No to anti-Semitism, no to Islamophobia,” and linked arms with Jewish community members, Zeeshan Abdullah, an event organizer, rightfully remarked that the uplifting event showed that “There’s still hope for humanity, for peace and love, across religious differences and backgrounds.”
Indeed, the turnout by Muslims in Norway in support of their Jewish countrymen is only one of several recent examples of European Muslims denouncing extremist violence and declaring loudly and clearly their support for freedom of expression and Muslim-Jewish friendship. In Copenhagen itself, two days after the shooting attack at the synagogue that took the life of Dan Uzan, a Jewish guard, dozens of Danish imams visited the synagogue to express their condolences and solidarity with the Jewish community. In the wake of the horrendous shootings by ISIS inspired Islamists in Paris that left 17 dead at Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Casher market, 70 imams, rabbis and Muslim and activists from France, the United Kingdom and Italy marched together in the Paris Unity Rally chanting the slogan: “We Refuse to be Enemies.”
I would hope that these inspiring actions will penetrate the consciousness of members of the Jewish community who continue to repeat like a broken record, ‘Why don’t moderate Muslims speak out against the horrors perpetrated by fellow Muslims?’ In fact, as is becoming unmistakably clear, mainstream Muslims are speaking out clearly and consistently, condemning Islamist extremist violence as immoral and counter to the fundamental precepts of Islam. When are we going to lower our own voices for long enough to hear what mainstream Muslim leaders are actually saying? When are we going to reach out and enlist them as essential allies in an effective international coalition to combat Islamist extremism?
Let me be clear; Islamist extremism is a potent ideology that represents a genuine threat to the core values of freedom of expression and religious pluralism that we hold dear. Ominously, growing numbers of young Muslims have been seduced by the lure of this hateful ideology; with thousands having travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS. These fanatics must be fought by all means, including military means.
Yet the vast majority of Muslims do not support ISIS and other radical ideologies, as evident by the recent coalition response of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to counter advances by the Iranian backed Houthi terrorist movement in Yemen. If we make the mistake of portraying Islam itself as the enemy, and dismissing the courageous stand of the moderate Muslim majority against extremism as meaningless, we perpetuate a false narrative of perpetual conflict between Islam and the West and, unintentionally, strengthen the terrorists.
In the wake of recent Islamist terrorist attacks, Jewish leaders have been demanding that European governments step up security to protect Jewish communities. Yet, while good policing can indeed save lives, there is relatively little European governments can do to limit the attraction of Islamist extremism to young European Muslims. Instead of berating European governments to do more, we should be engaging moderate Muslim leaders; encouraging them to keep on denouncing extremism and to redouble their efforts to keep young Muslims from being seduced by it.
If we are to defeat Islamist extremism in Europe and beyond, we need to build alliances with moderate Muslim leaders like Afzal Khan, a UK Labour Party Member of European Parliament, and Ahmed Miktar, President of the Imams of France, who declared after the Paris attacks: “We join with all of our fellow citizens in opposition to these barbaric acts, which target the foundations of democracy to which we are all attached, and which are of equal and direct concern to the Muslim citizens of France.”
At the Passover Seder when we recall the Ten Plagues that God visited upon the ancient Egyptians, it is important to remember that not all of the plagues manifested themselves in the form of physical afflictions. Rabbinic sages explain that the Ninth Plague – the plague of Darkness – did not represent an actual darkening of the sky, but rather a darkness of the heart, a communal blindness, a plague which has afflicted human societies from time immemorial.
Exodus 10:23 states, “They saw not one another” – meaning the ancient Egyptians were blind to each other’s needs, and that their gross insensitivity and inhumanity in relation to the suffering of the Hebrew slaves living among them ultimately led to the breakdown of Egyptian society. The biblical narrative of Passover has reminded Jews and others throughout history that in order to avoid the fatal blindness of the ancient Egyptians we must feel and display empathy toward people of diverse backgrounds, faiths and ethnicities, including people with who we may strongly disagree.
In this spirit, mainstream Muslims are speaking out, clearly and consistently. Leaders around the world have issued strong and unambiguous statements virtually every time a violent attack has occurred, condemning such acts as immoral and counter to the fundamental precepts of Islam. Too often, Islam is portrayed negatively, as a monolithic entity. People don’t realize that there is a diversity of opinion within Islam and that most Muslims condemn extremism and violence.