Paris and Copenhagen attacks have 'put European values to the test'

Julie Ward calls on 'all citizens to stand together and empower the disenfranchised' to fight back against 'hateful radicals'.

By Julie Ward

Julie Ward is a former MEP (UK, S&D) who was an active member of the parliament’s Disability Intergroup

25 Mar 2015

The barbaric attacks in Paris and Copenhagen and the rise of the Islamic state have put European values of tolerance, diversity, and inclusion to the test. Much of what is written in the press or broadcast on our screens presents a very simplistic view of the way the world is; failed immigration policies and disenfranchised youth set against the rise of nationalism in response to 9/11 and the bombings that came after in Istanbul, London, Madrid and Glasgow. 

We tend to view the public debate on 'radicalisation' through the lens of 'white' Europe and via a skewed media which has, to some degree, fanned the flames of fear. Yet Muslim communities, scholars and activists are also at the forefront of public discourse and we should be more open to the perspectives this can bring to the wider public in respect of social solidarity and citizens' engagement from all sections of society.

In a talk on Wednesday 25 March, professors Karima Bennoune, Elham Manea and I debated how Muslim intellectuals and activists might tackle the vicious fundamentalist vision that has led to recent attacks across Europe. 

I am no Muslim scholar, but I was a development student (MEd) late in life and it was quite clear to me that education at all levels is the key to a safer, more just and prosperous world. While we consider how best to equip our infants with the emotional intelligence and human values needed to participate in a multicultural society, we also need to give credence to those involved in higher education and doctoral research. 

"The western response to terrorism, insisting on a narrow definition of 'European', 'British', or 'French' values, rather than human values, can lead to pigeonholing 'the other' as 'radical', painting two-dimensional images that only increase alienation, and can lead to abuse"

Bennoune and Manea spoke on the subject drawing from personal experience and academic enquiry, providing intelligent and nuanced perspectives in a complex and controversial debate.

First and foremost, those who stand up for human rights and freedoms must stand up proudly and loudly and say, "All creeds, colours, faiths and genders have a place in our society. Cosmopolitan, multicultural values and identities must be protected." 

In opposition to this progressive view are the radical right-wing xenophobes who seek to answer radical jihadism's intolerance with more intolerance, demonising whole communities in the process. 

All progressive forces must work in solidarity to promote dialogue and understanding. A message of tolerance can defeat hateful radicals, be they jihadists or fascists.

This is a message both Bennoune and Manea convey, in their own ways. Bennoune calls on Muslim citizens, activists and scholars to mobilise for universal human rights, and identifies the long struggle of activists in the Arab world, including her own scholar father, against dark forces of nationalism and violent fundamentalisms. 

Having interviewed 300 such activists and scholars across the Arab and Muslim world, she offers a view into the struggle against radicalism, which she has called "one of the most important and overlooked human rights struggles in the world."

The call to support grassroots human rights activists is reflected in Manea's vision of a humanist view of Islam, which places human rights, women's rights and open dialogue at centre-stage, offers a powerful alternative to the destructive narrative provided by radicals. 

Working with such projects as the inclusive mosque initiative, she focuses on a deep historical and contextual understanding of faith.

While these debates on ideology are important, social factors also play a role. The social fabric of communities that have been ruptured by alienation, exclusion, austerity, and desolation, can sometimes allow young Muslims to radicalise, or follow a criminal, and then a terrorist path. There is a sense in which their disconnect is a reflection of society's fragmentation. 

The western response to terrorism, insisting on a narrow definition of 'European', 'British', or 'French' values, rather than human values, can lead to pigeonholing 'the other' as 'radical', painting two-dimensional images that only increase alienation, and can lead to abuse.

Counter-terrorism measures, if allowed to feed on simplistic depictions of 'Muslims' with loose definitions of who is a threat, can and do lead to demonisation, a sense of distrust, and even abuse. We must be vigilant in opposing human rights violations and discrimination in the name of security.

All citizens must stand together and empower the disenfranchised - women, men, youths. Muslim activists must take to the streets to espouse a vision of tolerance and openness, and activists from all walks of life must join them to defend our humanist values.