Mennel Ibtissem

Islam has a history largely forgotten today: Schools seem largely to ignore or suppress topics related to Western-Islamic, Indian or Middle Eastern rivalries or contacts. To many modern Westerners, Islam seems to have popped up out of nowhere, from across the Mediterranean.

One feature of those discarded histories is that, as Europe moved through the late Middle Ages on towards the eighteenth century, Western societies were in many ways not greatly different from those in the Islamic world. Western laws on crime, male-female relations, education, diplomacy, slavery, punishment, the upbringing of children, and so on, were not entirely remote from those in the Muslim world. While Christians were monogamous and Muslims practised polygamy and slave concubinage, sexual relations were monitored for impropriety and punishments for extra-marital affairs were severe. The use of execution as a punishment for a range of crimes was common in both polities. What education there was tended to come from religious schooling. The long-lasting Islamic slave trade across the Sahara was eventually matched by the Transatlantic trade from Africa into North America. Western distaste for Islam was for the most part expressed in theological terms, just as Muslim distaste for Christianity seemed a mirror image of that. Both Christians and Muslims mistreated Jews, Christians more harshly on the whole. The Holocaust did not happen because of Islamic anti-Semitism.

With the reforms that entered Europe after the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the American Revolution, however, the two sides started to drift apart, less theologically than through shifts in laws and moral standards, social relations and sexual relations, among others. This shift has led to the situation today, in which liberal Western states and international organizations promote agendas that often conflict with the predispositions of Islamic culture and the strictures of Islamic law.


I do not refer here to the truly beneficial and harmonious aspects of Islam that can meld well with classical or contemporary Western values — personal and communal modesty, friendship, faith, respect for elders and the like. Britain’s Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, once said Islam was compatible with British values:

“There are many Muslims that I know who are very devout … that are model citizens in terms of what they do their job, how they care for others.”

Many Muslims have been and are model citizens. After headstones in Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and St. Louis were overturned in March 2017, for example, a Muslim activist, Tarek El-Messidi, after both attacks, sprang into action.

“I want to ask all Muslims to reach out to your Jewish brothers and sisters and stand together against this bigotry,” he wrote on Facebook. “Last week, our Muslim community raised money for the vandalized Jewish Cemetery in St Louis. Since we raised well above the goal, we can now use extra funds to help here in Philadelphia.”

Other Muslim Americans responded with promises to help guard synagogues and cemeteries:

After a spate of attacks and threats on Jewish establishments, some Muslim Americans have been offering to stand guard at sites across the US in a show of solidarity between people of Islamic and Jewish faiths.

In addition to documented vandalism – such as the desecration [of] graves in Missouri and elsewhere – at least 100 bomb threats against Jewish sites across the country were reported by the religion’s JCC Association in January and February.

Outraged by the growing climate of anti-Semitism, former US Marine Tayyib Rashib tweeted: “If your synagogue or Jewish cemetery needs someone to stand guard, count me in. Islam requires it.”

Four years earlier, in Bradford, a British city where Muslims constitute one quarter of the population, the town’s Council of Mosques worked hand in hand with the dwindling local Jewish community of 299 members to rescue its beautiful 132-year-old Reform Synagogue from closure. A fundraising effort, raising £130,000, by Bradford Muslims, to keep the synagogue open after the earlier closure of the city’s Orthodox one. All this in a city with a record of anti-Israel rhetoric and activity. Two years later, the same synagogue invited a Muslim representative, Jani Rashid, to join its council to help with the day-to-day running of the building:

Rudi Leavor, the synagogue’s 87-year-old chairman, said: “We’ve been helped by the Muslim community for a few years and we wanted to cement our relationship further so we asked Jani to join our board.

“I’m pretty sure it’s the first time a synagogue has had a Muslim on its council, but why not? He has been a great supporter.

“When there is so much strife in both communities we wanted to show there is no animosity in Bradford. Jani is a nice man and has had a close relationship with us. We want to show the two religions and communities can and will stick together.”

In 2017, just hours after US President Donald Trump issued a ban on unvetted migrants from seven countries entering the United States, the Islamic Centre-cum-mosque in Victoria, a small Texas town, was burned down. Offers of help were made by many of the town’s inhabitants, notably the Jewish community, who handed the keys of their synagogue to the Muslims, inviting them to use it as a place in which to worship.

It would be a mistake to think that all Jewish-Muslim or Christian-Muslim relations are as good-hearted or productive. Sadly, Muslims in Europe and across the Islamic world often play a major role in antisemitism. Indeed, we know that Islamic anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in Muslim scriptures and legal documents and that the Jewish state of Israel is almost universally loathed by a majority of Muslimstheir clerics, and their governments. Nevertheless, the mutual support mentioned here does demonstrate that, given half a chance and a willingness on both sides, Jews and Muslims sometimes do share similar good will. That ability, to act in a moral and interactive fashion, is a characteristic of outstanding Muslims to share their values with the societies in which so many now live. Interfaith work that avoids proselytisation and unwarranted criticism, as practised, for example, by Britain’s Council of Christians and Jews, shows that it is possible to create and maintain mutual respect and even joint worship between former enemies.

It did, of course, take centuries for Christians and Jews to learn mutual respect, most notably in the years after the Holocaust, an event that brought shame on the Western Christian world that had thought itself civilized and humane. Modern anti-Semitism is founded less on theological arrogance (such as the old accusation that Jews are Christ-killers) and more on political bias – one that seems to occupy the far left and the far right in more or less equal proportions.

In the long term, good mutual relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in balanced religious and political cooperation and within the context of full social integration, will, one hopes, develop through the next few generations. That will likely happen in Western democracies where there are no barriers to the growth of such positive interaction and mutual respect. It will happen more slowly if at all in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, among others. Ironically, Israel itself offers real opportunities for Jews, Christians and Muslims to live and work together.

If matters were that simple, we could all relax and wait for improved relations to take their natural course, and allow biases to wither away. As we all know, however, in recent years, anti-Semitism has been growing, not shrinking — to the point where it is perceived in some places as being as strong as it was in parts of Europe in the 1930s. Knowing that should make one less optimistic about healthy Muslim-non-Muslim relations in the years to come.

Probably hard-line bigots of all religions will resist to the death information that contradicts their prejudices. These well-known prejudices have been well-studied by psychologists and sociologists as a feature of sectarian, cultish, anti-scientific, and similar worldviews.[1]

Even when positive events take place, it is not hard to throw them off balance. A young French Muslim woman, Mennel Ibtissem, for instance, in February 2018, became a sensation on the television show “The Voice of France”, where she performed a powerful rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in English and Arabic. She is an appealing 22-year-old, with a winning smile and a voice that won over the judges in seconds. She wears a coloured turban in place of a hijab, and the rest of her dress is modern and Western. After the first night, she seemed well on her way to massive success and perhaps a singing career. More than that, she was well positioned to become an ambassador for Islam in French, not only for her voice, but because she is intelligent: she was studying for an M.A. in English at the time.

Then everything went wrong. Not long after her appearance, she was forced to quit the show. Someone had found posts she had made on Facebook, statements defending Islamic terrorist attacks in France, a claim that “the government is the real terrorist”, and association with some Islamic associations. Some sites accused her of belonging to “the Muslim far right”. As word of these associations spread out, she had little choice but to pull out of the competition.

If she is ever to play a positive role, she has no choice but to moderate her views, condemn all Islamic terrorism and listen to voices that may explain to her the true complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The problem she illustrates, however, is deeper than that. The opinions she has expressed about jihadi violence and the government of France are shared by many young French Muslims.

According to a variety of sources, including the dependable scholarly network Euro-Islam, a large majority of French Muslims identify positively with France and reject extremist ideology and activity. Such respect is to be celebrated, and young Mennel could have built on it There are, nevertheless, vast concerns about young French Muslims and converts to Islam. Writing in April 2017, Marc Hecker of the French Institute of International Relations, noted that:

France is the Western country most affected by the phenomenon of the Syrian jihad. Around 1,300 French citizens have spent time in the Iraqi-Syrian area, and hundreds of others have been arrested before reaching their destination. By the end of February 2018, there were 323 returnees, including 68 minors.

Hecker provides detailed profiles for 137 jihadists. They have an average age of 26, one-third who left France were women, they are significantly less educated than the rest of French youth, they were almost entirely unemployed or worked in jobs with low incomes, 69% were French citizens, and 22% held dual nationality.

That young French Muslims display high levels of acceptance or outright support for terrorism is summed up by Colin Randall, writing in The National in late 2018:

A study of attitudes in high schools in areas of high Muslim population revealed some startling statistics. About 45 per cent of Muslim pupils did not unreservedly condemn the murders of 12 people at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and 20 per cent supported taking up arms “in certain circumstances” to defend their faith.

France is considered the standard bearer for Western secular liberalism and had, therefore been singled out by Islamic State as a key target.

Given the sensitivities of the French public and the genuine concerns they might justifiably have about extremist Islam, Mennel Ibtissem’s expressions of support for radicals guaranteed her dismissal from The Voice.

Was it “Islamophobic” to ask her to quit the show? It was hardly bigoted or racist to do so. She had given voice to views that make her compatriots nervous. She is not obliged to receive an education in moderation from secular French teachers who want to re-make Islam in their own style, or from any of the many French imams who themselves argue from Islamic sources for a form of the faith that will fit easily within a liberal and tolerant French polity.

There are French imams such as Bordeaux’s Tareq Oubrou who work hard to integrate their congregations within a republic that remains dedicated to the concept of secularism (laïcité). Muslim leaders who adopt this position make no bones about the harm done to their communities by radicals and terrorists. In late April 2018, thirty imams signed an open letter in Le Monde, in which they bitterly attacked the “confiscation of our religion by criminals” and said “ignorant, disturbed and idle” young people had become easy prey for dangerous ideologues. 

Adapting religious beliefs to secularism should not be hard to do; it mainly depends if one wants to. French secularism, like the American separation of church and state, allows religions to act openly in matters of worship and faith. That freedom has been well summed up by the leading French organization for public diplomacy, France Diplomatie:

“France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic, guaranteeing that all citizens regardless of their origin, race or religion are treated as equals before the law and respecting all religious beliefs” states the Constitution of 1958. The “freedom to practice religion” has been recognised since 1905 when the Law on the Separation of the Church and State (la loi sur la séparation de l’Église et de l’État) came into effect. Far from being a weapon against religion, this text returned all religions to the private sector and established state secularism in the public sphere. The French State does not favour any one religion and guarantees their peaceful co-existence in respect of the laws and principles of the Republic.

In 2014, the French Secular Monitoring Centre (Observatoire de la Laïcité) issued guidelines on the mix of secularism and religion in an increasingly diverse society. The guidelines included the following statement,[2] one that clarifies matters:

There is greater cultural diversity in France today than in the past, which is why the country needs secularism now more than ever, for it enables all citizens, whatever their philosophical or religious beliefs, to live together, enjoying freedom of conscience, freedom to practise a religion or to choose not to, equal rights and obligations, and republican fraternity.

Secularism is not an opinion among others, but rather the freedom to have an opinion. It is not a belief, but rather the principle authorizing all beliefs, providing they respect the principles of freedom of conscience and equal rights. For this reason, it is neither pro- nor anti-religious. On this basis, adherence to a faith or philosophical belief is entirely a question of freedom of conscience for every woman or man.

Dr. Denis MacEoin is a former university lecturer in Arabic and Islamic studies, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow in the Gatestone Institute. He lives in the United Kingdom.

[1] For an intelligent popular study of the power of the irrational, see Will Storr, The Unpersuadables, New York, 2015.

[2] For the original French text, see here.

French Muslims and the Secular State
by Denis MacEoin
February 23, 2019 at 5:00 am