A message to moderate Muslims about terrorism

When there’s some big event in the news, like the recent brutal attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, I usually don’t post about it. It just always seems to me that enough people are commenting—people like me who don’t have any specialist knowledge; as well as all sorts of experts, who do.

photo credit: rehberkolejleri at Pixabay

photo credit: rehberkolejleri at Pixabay

This time, though, I feel moved to comment, mostly to emphasize two points in particular:

1. The real purpose of the terrorism

This comes from an article called “Sharpening Contradictions: Why al-Qaeda attacked Satirists in Paris,” by Juan Cole.

According to Cole, the purpose of this terrorist attack wasn’t just to kill those specific people to punish them for publishing supposedly anti-Islam cartoons. The purpose was bigger than that: to polarize the two communities so that more young Muslims would be susceptible to a radical extremist message.

By carrying out a vicious attack while claiming a Koranic justification, these extremists intentionally incited anger against the whole Muslim community.

And sure enough, the opinion pieces appeared right away in the press stating that the problem is Islam in general: claiming that Islam is a violent, backward religion at its core, and that we should stop appeasing Muslims. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for example, expressed this opinion in the Wall Street Journal

Such messages undoubtedly anger Muslims, and if you add that insult to the longstanding difficulty of their lives in Western countries—marginalized, poor—it seems likely that more young European Muslims will radicalize.

I believe it is possible—even probable—that this was the actual intention of this attack: to increase the number of recruits for Al Qaeda and similar groups by inciting hatred of Muslims. And my guess is that it will succeed. More people, including prominent politicians and reporters, will speak out against Islam. Anti-Muslim actions, whether violent or not, will be more frequent. As a result, Muslims, especially young ones, will be even more marginalized.

2. The role of moderate Muslims

The second point is a consequence of the first. Actually, it could stand alone as well, even if incitement of hatred of Muslims was not the actual purpose of the attack in Paris.

While it is heartening to hear moderate Muslims speaking out, saying “That isn’t my Islam,” I would argue that speaking out isn’t enough.

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen argued a few days ago that moderate Muslims are partially to blame for the terrorism because they don’t “fully denounce” the terrorists’ actions.

The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center

The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Photo credit: jensjunge at Pixabay

I don’t think that’s the main problem. Sure, protesting against Islamic terrorism is important in order to let non-Muslims know that terrorists don’t represent all Muslims. But even the most vocal protest won’t change the minds of the extremists themselves.

I think it needs to go much further than denouncing the jihadists. You, the moderate Muslim community: you are the ones who have to take the primary responsibility for fixing this situation.

You’ve already been doing part of it for years: reaching out to the surrounding non-Muslim community to combat prejudice against Muslims, to increase access for Muslims to education, housing, jobs, etc. That certainly needs to continue.

But besides reaching outward, you need to reach inward: into your own community. It’s not enough to talk about how the extremists do not represent the majority of Muslims. You need to try to reduce extremism. That means going into your mosques, going into your communities, and reaching out to the same young people the extremists reach out to. They need to hear your message of moderation to counter-act the message that terrorism is acceptable, and even rewarded. They need to hear it from you, the moderate Muslims—not from us non-Muslims.

The larger, mostly white, mostly Christian community in Europe can make all the speeches they want about the importance of free speech and freedom of belief. They’re preaching to the choir. They can’t reach the young people who are most susceptible to radicalization because they won’t be listened to. You, on the other hand, can. I don’t know, being an outsider myself, but I suppose that some programs are already in place to counter-balance the extremist messages coming in. You need to broaden and intensify them.

Your voices, turned inward, are key to preventing more terrorist attacks in Europe. And they’re key to improving the position of your community.

Add your comments below, if you feel so moved. Keep it polite please!


  • An American expat

    January 11, 2015 at 8:23 pm

    Excellent article. Let’s hope your wisdom will reach a worldwide audience. During my week in Paris I will share your very important message with those people I know.

  • Jon Jeffer

    January 11, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    I think you have a certain amount of rennunciation of radical Muslims taking place in different Muslim communities. What I think you don’t have is a lot of coverage of that in the Western media.

    it’s hard to really tell right off the bat what you’re looking at when you look at these events. I’ve felt for years but the real purpose of the 911 attacks was to elicit exactly the response from United States that happened. The wars that we wage in response of done more to radicalize the Islamic world than anything that Al Quaida did. regarded this way it looks like a trap that we walked into. And it would be a perfect analogy for what the author of the article that you cited was saying.on the other hand there are other groups that would benefit from this kind of polarization. All of the Hawks and authoritarians in the United States and Western Europe for example.

  • rachel75

    January 11, 2015 at 9:56 pm

    Yes, other groups would benefit from this polarization, for sure. But they didn’t carry out the attacks; so their benefit is just luck, from their point of view. And I agree: it was a trap we walked into.

  • An American expat

    January 17, 2015 at 7:56 am

    In Paris, groups of men and women in police uniforms patrol the streets day and night. The French police has made many arrests in their anti-terror raids since the Paris attacks. I’ve heard comments from French people with the same message, “Muslim leaders have a lot of political power and they ought to denounce terrorist attacks publicly. This hasn’t happened.” Meanwhile, so many Jews are leaving France.

    • rachel75

      January 17, 2015 at 9:22 am

      Here in the Netherlands, many Muslims HAVE denounced the attacks. I just think they need to do more.

      A lot of Jews were leaving even before the attacks. I’m not surprised; it’s not just the Muslims who have an anti-Semitic history there!

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Santa

    January 19, 2016 at 5:17 pm

    How convenient. First, they don’t taking enough care for their youth; secondly, blame them, anyway, don’t blame social and political structures which keeping them disenfranchised !?
    Do you offer same advice to black communities around Europe, and especially black African-American communities around USA ?
    Poverty, low education level, criminality, drugs, daily murders, etc. are rampant among black communities on both sides of Atlantic, especially in US – your advice seems fit for them too?

    By the way, how you know that Muslim communities not doing enough already in dealing with this problem, anyway ?

    • Rachel

      January 19, 2016 at 11:14 pm

      If they were doing enough, in my opinion, far fewer would be attracted to extremist ideologies. I think the black community isn’t comparable in terms of the points I made in this article. They’re not committing terrorist acts against the larger community in the name of an ideology.


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