The West’s relationship with Islamic extremists is like a ranch owner who knows that his land contains a bad tree, which he passes by every day but simply looks the other way, never thinking of uprooting or treating it. He grows accustomed to regarding its existence as a universal norm or an act of God, until one of his sons dies from its poisoned fruit. In response, he then rushes to burn down all the trees on his ranch, the good and the bad alike.
Recently, the French government denied a group of highly celebrated Muslim clerics’ entry into the country. Two of them were Egyptians: Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Mahmoud al-Masri while the other two were Saudis: Aaidh al-Qarni and Abdullah Basfar. France justified denying them entry by contending that they held radical ideas, particularly with regards to women’s issues such as violence against women, the segregation of women and female circumcision. This is in addition to their alleged justification of suicide attacks against Israel, and the killing of apostates. Of course, this is a load of nonsense. Most of those clerics, until very recently, were perfectly welcome in France, which now claims to reject their ideas. For decades, France has been harboring extremist Islamic groups formed from the remnants of the Soviet – Afghan war. Those remnants still have connections with radical groups in Iraq and Pakistan. One of the outcomes of such connections was the operation carried out a few weeks ago by Mohammed Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin affiliated to al-Qaeda. The attack left seven dead in the city of Toulouse: three children and their teacher from a Jewish school, as well as three French Muslim soldiers of Moroccan origin. It was a premeditated heinous crime committed under the pretext of protesting France’s ban on the niqab, and avenging the children of Palestine and Afghanistan.
The French authorities’ position on the Muslim clerics, who were heading to attend the 29th Annual Meeting of France’s Muslims, came against the backdrop of the Toulouse attack. The French government – or rather the ranch owner – was enraged by Mohammed Merah and so has decided to burn down all the trees on its ranch indiscriminately. It has expelled a number of Muslim clerics, or denied them entry into the country. The French authorities have also launched an arrest campaign against a group of suspected French Islamists, including one of Mohammed Merah’s brothers. It turns out that this man is just like his brother; a suspicious character with links to extremist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention his criminal record. So why did the French authorities remain silent regarding such people for all these years, and only start to act against them now? Was their vision so blurred that they needed the deaths of three innocent children to clear it?
Some Arab governments have repeatedly warned the West about harboring extremists and guaranteeing them security and accommodation, whether they are immigrants or refugees. But European countries in particular have always ignored those warnings. They even ignored the voices of the extremists themselves, who used their territories and exploited their governing systems, which allow the freedom of speech and expression, to incite against and attack them. Following the infamous September 11th attacks, the stance of Western countries began to change as they became more apprehensive. They forced a lot of hardline Islamists to stop propagating their ideas, or at least amend them, but the polluted soul remained the same.
The West imagines that fanaticism and extremism come in different forms, and that ideological personalities vary in accordance with the nature of their ideas. This is an inaccurate interpretation of extremism. Those who are intolerant with regards to social issues are likely to have similar attitudes to political, cultural, economic and even behavioral ones. The principle of extremism is indivisible. It is an abnormality in the thought process.
Unfortunately, the guests of the 29th Annual Meeting of France’s Muslims suffered from poor timing. Had the invited Muslim clerics been a little wiser, they would have understood that the Toulouse attack had raised the level of anger on the French street. And as the French presidential elections draw nearer, the right-wing President Sarkozy seeks to appear more vehement and more involved in such incidents. In reality, it would have been better for the Muslim clerics to withdraw their attendance before being denied entry into the country.
The primary problem for France is not al-Qaradawi, al-Qarni, or any of the visitors coming from afar to stay for a few days. The French government has no right to blame anyone for the Toulouse attack, not Islamic organizations, not Muslim clerics and not Muslim immigrants. It should rather blame itself for turning a blind eye to suspicious characters that were always labeled with a red circle. However, the French government allowed them to live on French soil and make use of their French nationality. It is incumbent upon France, Europe as well as Arab and Islamic countries to adopt a tough stance towards any individual connected with radical organizations; figures who stir up and incite people against other cultures, no matter how plausible their motives might seem. The world is burning with the fires of partisanship, sectarianism, pan-nationalism and ethnicity. All these battles and collisions are a direct result of initial mistakes, misdealing and a failure to respond, downplaying the behavior of those who provoke malignancy and spitefulness. Those who didn’t learn the lesson the first time will see it repeated before them on a different level.
At the same time, France has made few attempts to cure those returning from Pakistan and Afghanistan from the disease of extremism, as many other countries have done through rehabilitation programs. On the contrary, it left them to face poverty, unemployment and the disdain of society, until the monster of hatred within them grew bigger and they began to kill innocent people in cold blood.
Unfortunately, those who will now suffer most from the Toulouse attack are the moderate Muslims residing in France. Amid the upcoming flurry of France’s presidential elections and the use of the Islamic extremism card, those moderates will have to restate their own innocence and distance their faith from acts of killing and terrorism. They will have to exert more effort to assimilate into French society and present themselves as moderate Muslims and good citizens, no matter how much extremists try to set up barricades to isolate them from the society of their state.