Main Findings of John Pontifex, Editor-In-Chief – Religious Freedom In The World 2018 Report (Part 5)
This Religious Freedom in the World 2018 report found that the militancy of certain sections of the Muslim community is by no means only a threat to people who do not follow Islam. Evidence clearly demonstrated that the tension and violence was part of a growing conflict within Islam in which expansion and domination pitted Sunnis against Shias. Indeed, one academic said the clash is “the most deadly and unsolvable conflict in the Middle East and it is between Muslims”. To what extent the conflict stems from questions of religious dogma is open to debate. Many have pointed to economic and political exploitation and concluded that “It has not been theological differences that has led to the recent bloodshed…” That said, the expanding power struggle between the Sunni and Shia power blocs – and their international allies – is undoubtedly intensifying the clash.
The threat of militant Islam during the period under review extended far beyond Asia and Africa. The period saw an upsurge of terrorist attacks in the West, notably in Europe. The threat was more pervasive than appearances suggest because of the degree to which extremist militants were successfully stopped in their tracks by police and security services. These attacks, be they in Manchester, Berlin, Barcelona, Paris and elsewhere, demonstrated that the threat posed by extremism has now become universal, imminent and ever-present. While the motives of such attacks included political concerns – apparent revenge for the West’s military action in Syria and elsewhere – they often had a specifically religious dimension, with perpetrators expressing contempt for liberal western society and the principle of religious freedom in general. In some cases, it emerged that the perpetrators were targeting Christianity. Investigations into incidents linked to the Las Ramblas extremist attack in Barcelona in August 2017, revealed that the Islamists had planned to attack the iconic Sagrada Familia Basilica. (See Case Study – SPAIN: Islamist drives van into crowds, killing 15 people) Many of the attacks were carried out by people based in the West, radicalised online and heavily influenced by networks, which recruited people on the fringes of society. Many of them lived not far from where they carried out their atrocities. Taken as a whole, then, the period under review saw the emergence of a new phenomenon which can be described as “neighbourhood terrorism”. Some of the attacks were by militants returning to the West in large numbers following the defeat of Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Research by global security analysists at the Soufan Centre estimated that, by October 2017, as many as 425 British Daesh (ISIS) members had returned to the UK alone.
The attacks in the West and elsewhere showed another feature of neighbourhood terrorism, namely a rise in religiously-motivated violence and discrimination against Islam. On Sunday 29th January 2017, gunmen entered Quebec City Islamic Cultural Center during Evening Prayers and opened fire, killing six people and injuring 18 others in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a “terrorist attack”. Less than six months later, Darren Osborne targeted London’s Finsbury Park Mosque, reportedly shouting: “I want to kill all Muslims”. In March 2018, Paul Moore, 21, was found guilty of attempted murder in Leicester, UK; driving his car, he mounted a kerb and deliberately knocked over a headscarf-clad Muslim woman, causing serious injuries, before returning to carry out a second attack. The European Islamophobia Report 2017 reported an increase in attacks against Muslims, concluding that: “Islamophobia has become an acute problem”.
Essential to the problem was unease in the West about the influx of Muslims, especially into Europe, and the comparatively high birth rate among Muslim communities. Although many European countries were open to Muslim migrants, a Chatham House Survey released in February 2017 showed that on average 55 percent of respondents from 10 European states said that “all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped”. In Germany, attacks on refugees, mainly Muslims, reportedly increased from 1,031 in 2015 to more than 3,500 a year later. Taken as a whole, the rise in neighbourhood terrorism threatens to fracture societies along religious lines, potentially creating a culture of suspicion and distrust. Quite apart from the violence was a growth in concerns about discrimination against Muslims, with research in the US showing that as many as 75 percent of Muslims felt that there was “a lot of discrimination” against them in the country.
An important aspect of the concern about growing militant Islam in the West was evidence linking Muslim immigrants to a rise in anti-Semitism. In France, whose Jewish community of about 500,000 is the largest in Europe, there has been a well-documented spike in attacks (see Case Study – FRANCE: Jewish woman thrown from third-floor window) and violence carried out against Jewish cultural and religious centres. In April 2018, Le Figaro published a “manifesto” by 300 French dignitaries – many of them Jewish – denouncing a “new anti-Semitism” marked by “Islamist radicalisation” Amid reports of a wave of migration of French Jews to Israel over recent years, the manifesto’s signatories condemned what they described as a “quiet ethnic purging” driven by rising Islamist fundamentalism especially in working class neighbourhoods.
Against this backdrop, there some evidence to suggest a small but potentially significant shift away from traditional religious faith and practice among comparatively recent arrivals to the West from the developing world. This affected a number of different faith groups; in March 2018, the Pew Research Center published research which showed that “23 percent of Americans raised as Muslims no longer identify with their faith”. Importantly, however, “most of them are silent about their faithlessness”, fearing possible social exclusion, especially from family. The evidence also seemed to suggest that the shift away from traditional Muslim practice was to be found not just in parts of the West but also in some Islamic countries too. The Council of ex-Muslims of Britain stated in March 2018 that, while 3.3 million copies of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion had been sold since 2006, “the unofficial Arabic pdf alone has been downloaded 13 million times”. The council stressed that people in Arabic-speaking and other Muslim countries were reluctant to abandon their faith publicly, or even question it. This was in reaction to what the council described as “the authoritarianism of religious rule… and the unrelenting violence” as well as apostasy which is technically punishable by death in Islam.
(For a full definition of both categories, visit www.religion-freedom-report.org ). In these cases of discrimination and persecution, the victims typically have little or no recourse to law.