Why have so few of them publicly condemned the train and bus bombings in Madrid and London? Why have so few spoken out against the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, killed because his work was considered an insult to Islam?
Talk to Europe’s mainstream Muslims privately, however, and it turns out they have a lot to say.
Seek them out in the neighborhoods where they live and work – in the outdoor markets and butcher shops that sell halal meat, in the book stores that display literature on Islam and the West, in the boutiques that promote Islamic dress codes, in the Turkish restaurants and smoky Tunisian teahouses, in their schools and youth clubs – and they denounce, the vast majority unequivocally, attacks against civilians in both Europe and the United States.
“Van Gogh was a crazy man, but no one has the right to kill anyone who says bad things about the Quran,” said Mohammed Azahaf, a 23-year-old student who runs a youth center in Amsterdam. “If you kill one, it’s like killing the whole of mankind,” he said, quoting a line from the Muslim holy book.
Why, then, the public silence?
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For some of the more than five dozen Muslims interviewed for this story in Amsterdam, Paris and London, it’s a sense of shame, or even guilt, that innocents have been killed in the name of Islam; they say those feelings make them seek to be “invisible.” For those lucky enough to have jobs, there is little time to protest or even write letters to newspapers. For others, there is fear of being branded anti-Islam in their communities.
Dutch Muslim rapper Yassine SB wrote a song about his anger over Van Gogh’s murder but scrapped plans to perform it out of fear of being ostracized by the Islamic community. He also turned down requests by a popular Amsterdam radio station to sing a song against terrorism.
“If you sing that, it’s like you choose the Dutch, not Muslims,” said Yassine SB – the initials stand for his surname Sahsah Bahida – who is popular among Dutch North African youths like himself for his songs against racism.
“People will say ‘you are a traitor,'” said the 20-year-old musician.
In the Netherlands, Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali – who wrote the script for Van Gogh’s movie “Submission” – went into hiding after receiving death threats for her condemnations of Islam. And in the United States, Syrian-born psychologist Wafa Sultan’s calls for Islamic reform also earned her death threats.
But there is another reason for the silence – one that for many overrides all others.
Why, many Muslims ask, should they have to speak out against, or apologize for, actions of radicals who do not represent them – people they do not even regard as true Muslims?
Many find the very idea of being asked or expected to denounce such acts “extremely offensive and insulting,” said Khurshid Drabu, a senior member of the Muslim Council of Britain.
“I’m British,” said Tuhina Ahmed, 24, a British-born Muslim in London whose family came from Gujarat in India. “I could have been blown up as well.” Why, she asked, should she have to make a public statement to prove her objection to terrorism?
To many, the pressure to denounce acts of terror smacks of President Bush’s warning that ‘you are either with us or against us.’
“People and politicians say where are the Muslim people, why aren’t they on the streets defending themselves? They say we should go into the streets and condemn what happened so they see us as good Muslims,” said Karima Ramani, a 20-year-old Dutch born to an Algerian father and Moroccan mother. “I don’t feel it’s my duty. I’m not responsible for the death of Van Gogh.”
Many European observers of Islamic communities agree.
“If they protest as a group of Muslims against these terrorist attacks, they take on an extra responsibility which is not theirs. So I can fully understand their reasons,” said Ruud Peters, professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Amsterdam.
Yet the Internet is filled with blogs – mostly from Westerners but also by some Muslims – asking why Muslims are not expressing revulsion at the attacks. They see the silence as giving the terrorists strength.
“Isn’t silence, justification, fear and hesitation in condemning terrorism, a factor in the encouragement of these individuals to appear on numerous platforms and satellite channels and claim that they represent a religion in the absence of active influential groups and institutions?” asked a blog entry by Ahmed Al-Rabei, a Kuwaiti journalist who works for London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.
“Isn’t it a tragic crime to label the millions of European Muslims as guilty because of the rhetoric of a few professional lunatics, while the rest remain silent and wallow in self-pity? We have to admit that Islam has been hijacked particularly in European countries.”
Muslim leaders say they and other Muslims have marched in a number of anti-terrorism rallies in Europe – the largest was held on the first anniversary of Madrid’s 2004 bombings – and Muslims can’t be expected to pour into the streets every day. They also say they have condemned the attacks in the media.
Surveys indicate a small but significant chunk of Europe’s Muslim population supports the terrorists.
In a poll of British Muslims after the July 2005 suicide attacks on London’s transport system, 6 percent thought the bombings were justified. Another 24 percent condemned the attacks but had some sympathy with the bombers’ grievances.
Many Europeans blame the Continent’s Muslim leadership, which they accuse of making ambiguous and qualified condemnations that give the impression they are making excuses for the bombers: grievances over the war in Iraq or the West’s support for Israel.
“It’s the leaders who are most responsible,” said Rory Miller, senior lecturer of Mediterranean studies at King’s College, London.
Europe’s Muslims, who originate from 57 countries, differ in culture, language and even the strain of Islam they follow. They came at different periods and for different reasons. Some were born here and consider themselves as much French or British as they are Muslim.
Condemnations by most of the Muslims interviewed for this article had no strings attached.
Azahaf, 23, was among the thousands who marched in Amsterdam against Van Gogh’s killing. “I demonstrated not for Van Gogh but for freedom to talk, to say what you want,” he said.
Olivier Roy, a respected French scholar of Islam, says Muslim silence is a “classical psychology of immigrants” – wanting to be “normal” and become mainstream. “For them, integration means to be recognized as citizens. They don’t want to be recognized for their specificity.”
Sue Vogel, a psychologist who practices in Muslim-populated Bedford, in central England, said that after last year’s bombings in London there was a great sense of guilt among some of her Muslim patients. “I had to do a lot of work to convince them that I saw them as people, rather than as Muslims,” she said.
Lamia Hamdoun, 33, a teacher at a boys’ school, emigrated to England from Tunisia 12 years ago. Last year’s London bombings were so overwhelming for her, she says, that she prefers to remain invisible.
“When these incidents happen, I’m always scared. … I shrink,” said Hamdoun, who lives in a tiny apartment in north London with her Egyptian husband, Mohammed, and 9-month old-son, Sammy – whose name was chosen because it’s common both in the Muslim world and the West.
She said she fears that her husband may be arrested in a police sweep just because of his looks or name. “I wish we could change his name so people don’t know.
“I just don’t want to think about it, I want to just get on with my life, deal with my personal problems. It’s something I can’t deal with.”
Many of Europe’s best-integrated Muslims say their lives are so far removed from those of the radicals that it simply has never occurred to them to protest.
Alia Kdeih, 50, came to Paris in 1977, at the height of a civil war in her native Lebanon. She got her degree from the Sorbonne, married a Lebanese and presents a cultural program on the Arabic service of French government-owned Radio Monte Carlo. Her elegant Western-decorated apartment in a middle-class Paris neighborhood has only a few flavors of Lebanon.
Kdeih said she will not go into the streets to condemn the attacks even though she’s appalled by them – pointing out that her identity is not defined by Islam.
“It’s not something I want to stress,” she said. “I don’t feel responsible for what happened even if they are Muslims.”