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The murder of at least six people in a mosque in Québec city is a brutal reminder that Muslims are by any
measure the people who suffer most from terrorism in the world today. Terrorism is a tactic, not a religion, and it has been employed in the past 150 years by Muslims, Jews, anarchists, communists, Christians and Buddhists, all of whom were to some extent motivated by their beliefs. Yet there is a persistent belief in the west today that Islam has some unique and visceral connection to violence and intolerance that no other faith approaches. This is wrong in theory and untruthful as to the facts. It tends also to conceal the real damage that some interpretations of Islam can do to the lives of believers, and of unbelievers too.
It is true that terrorism in Britain is at the moment overwhelmingly a Muslim problem – of the 143 people in jail for terrorist offences in December 2015, 139 identified as Muslim – but it’s just as true and much more important that this figure represents less than one in 200,000 British Muslims, and the overwhelming majority have nothing to do with terrorism, and want nothing to do with it either. To study a whole religion through the lens of security policy damages both social cohesion and, in the long run, national security as well.
The violent and intolerant verses in the Qur’an, and the tradition of interpretation that cherishes them, have their parallels in all the major world faiths, and in secularist belief systems, too. Communists murdered hundreds of thousands of believers, just for their beliefs. Some atheist intellectuals in our own century have endorsed torture and preached unholy, existential war against Muslims. We live in a world where violence and intolerance will sometimes be rewarded, and it is more surprising when a faith is found that has never been prepared to justify them. What makes the difference is not whether these calls to war are made, but whether they are heard, and where they sound persuasive.
Theology matters, but it is almost the least important part of any religion, just as dogma is the least important part of any political party. Hope and brotherhood matter far more. The tragedy of religious and ethnic hatred is that it makes the enjoyment of hope and brotherhood seem to depend on the exclusion and demonisation of others. The process appeals to deep-seated flaws in human nature, and when it gets under way it can rip whole societies apart, as it has done in both Yugoslavia and Iraq in our lifetime. The one great strategic aim of British and, indeed, European policy must be to stop these divisions growing in our own societies. This is especially urgent when there are propagandists in both Moscow and Washington trying to fan the flames of civic hatred.
The answer must be to stress our common humanity across the boundaries of faith and race. This is not a programme of wishy-washy uplift. Common humanity is full of friction and messy disagreement, often about really important subjects. The misogyny, corruption and antisemitism of elements among some Muslim communities in this country need to be challenged, as they are being, by Muslims and ex-Muslims as well as by outsiders. The example of Naz Shah, MP for Bradford West, is inspiring here. But the really urgent social problem is the hatred and contempt with which some non-Muslims dehumanise Muslims.