It seems as though we cannot have a few days going by without there being a fresh atrocity. There is already an established set of reactions. There are social media reports that the attacker shouted a Muslim slogan; there are tight-lipped official sources who will say nothing about the origin of the attacker. Then comes the suggested the person was acting alone, a ‘crazed gunman’, and even that he must in some way have belonged to a right-wing group. Finally comes the revelation that the perpetrator had some links to radicalised Islamists. On the one hand is an anxiety to say something bad about Islam, on the other an anxiety not to make a bad situation worse. Underlying this curious dance are two different world-views: one sees Islam as an existential threat, the other sees it as part of a multi-cultural world, and between them, it seems, there is is no middle way.
The history of the relationship between Christianity and Islam has certainly been one of considerable violence, with the latter erupting into the Eastern Roman Empire with a spasm of violence which would conquer the whole of the southern Mediterranean Coast, from which an invasion of the Iberian Peninsula would follow. It took the victory of Charles Martel at Poitiers in 732 to put an end to the prospect of Western Europe falling under Islamic rule. In the east Islam spread to the borders of India, and by 1453 the capital of the Eastern Roman empire fell under Ottoman control. It was not until John Sobieski turned the Ottoman back from the gates of Vienna in 1683 that the prospect of central Europe falling under Ottoman control faded; it would take another century before Tsarist Russia would begin a process of pushing back the Ottoman domains which would end in 1922 with the fall of the Caliphate. Historical ignorance and a concentration on the Crusades has left many with the false impression that the Western Powers were the aggressors in the relationship between Christianity and Islam when for most of the time, it was the other way round; and, of course, the Crusades failed and the Christians lost.
In short, it is easy to fashion a narrative which says that because for most of the time Islam has been the aggressor, this is true again today. That is to ignore the period from 1774 through to today when, for much of the time, it was the Christian Powers who have been the aggressors – a narrative which has left some in the Islamic world arguing that the ‘Crusaders’ are out to destroy Islam. In fact it is only a minority on both sides against whom the charge of trying to destroy the other can be made – but because these minorities are very noisy, and, on the Islamic side, violent, they occupy much of the public square on the issue.
We get cries that all Muslims should renounce extremism and denounce the extremists, as though, in some way, that would help anything and somehow prove that they were ‘loyal’ to their host country. I can remember when the same demands were made in some quarters about the Irish on the Mainland of the UK during the ‘Troubles’ – as though somehow even being a Catholic meant you were sympathetic to blowing up British soldiers and innocent civilians. It was an insulting suggestion then, and is equally so now when made of our Muslim neighbours. From the evidence we have, it seems unlikely that most members of ISIS have any great grounding in Islamic teaching and more likely that they use their imperfect understanding of it as an excuse for their homicidal impulses and their lust for sex and power. To demand that real Muslims dissociate themselves from such people would be rather like demanding that Christians dissociated themselves from the old (or new) Ku Klux Klan. It is to surrender to the narratives peddled by the extremists.
There are millions of Muslims living in the West, and they are not going to go away. Most of them, the vast majority, want simply to coexist in peace with their fellow countrymen and women, Christian, atheist, Jew, agnostic or whatever. On the whole, I have found Muslims less antipathetic to other faith groups than many secularists. However much the knee might jerk when we have atrocities like the latest one in Munich, or horrors such as what happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, it is not going to help anyone to allow it to do so uncontrolled. To take an unexpected line, just as it is not guns who kill people, but killers, so, too, it is not Islam that kills people, but killers. If we give any credence to the narrative from some of those killers that they are authentic representatives of Islam, they win.
None of that is to say that relations between the West and some Islamic States are not problematic, but it is interesting that we appear to have managed to cope well enough for a long time with a state like Saudi Arabia – one of the most Islamic of States. Just as secularists in the West are having to get used to the idea that religion is not going to die, so they, and Christians, need to get used to the idea that among those religions not dying is Islam. We are living together, and we are going to go on doing so. It is the height of irresponsibility to give in to the narrative peddled by extremists on either side.