Progress in interfaith relations in Europe is a sign of hope

Sunday 07/08/2016

It took only days after the terrorist killing of Jacques Hamel, an 85-year-old Catholic priest in northern France, for demonstrations of interfaith solidarity to take place.

Particularly significant were the stands taken by French Muslims against recent horrendous acts perpetrated there in the name of Islam and which have cost the lives of more than 200 people since January 2015.

A number of French Muslims attended Hamel’s funeral at Rouen cathedral. Rouen’s Archbishop Dominique Lebrun told his Muslim guests that by their attendance they were “affirming that you reject death and violence in the name of God”.

Muslims attended mass in other French cities as well as in Italian churches compelling Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni to laud Italian Muslims for “showing their communi­ties the way of courage against fundamentalism”.

Another important development was the petition signed by more than 40 prominent French Muslims, including business leaders, lawyers, doctors and academics. The petition, pub­lished by the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, denounced jihadist attempts to “set part of the French popula­tion against the other and destroy the national harmony that is still binding”.

This is an accurate diagnosis of one of the main aims of the jihadists who would like nothing better than to see a war of civilisations and religions erupt within Europe and the rest of the world.

Signatories to the petition touched on an emerging dilemma for Muslims in a number of European secular societies: Should Muslims in Europe consider faith a private matter or start acting as a community? “We were silent because we learned that in France religion is a private affair. Now we must speak because Islam has become a public affair and the current situation is intolerable,” said the signatories.

They noted that 75% of the 5 million Muslims of France are French nationals and are in their majority “young, if not very young”. They argued this must be taken into consideration when fashioning a narrative destined for “French Muslims in a secular republic”.

Now it is time for France’s naturalised or migrant Muslims to start playing a more active role as communities and as individu­als to counter extremism. Muslim institutions will have a role to play especially when it comes to financing and managing mosques but as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said: “The most important challenge is not that of institutions. It is that of our citizens of the Muslim faith who in their families, their neighbourhoods, must feel concerned and take their responsi­bility in hand.”

Institutions representing the Muslim community must build on the progress made in recent weeks to review the financing and management of France’s 2,500 mosques, about 200 of which are said to be under the influence of radical salafists. The use of mosques as venues for radicalisation and recruitment has proven to be one of the factors leading to terror in Europe and in Muslim countries.

A proactive attitude by French Muslims could determine the future of not only France’s 5 million Muslims but that of inter­faith relations in much of the world.