The debate in the aftermath of the Paris attacks is moving in multiple directions. As expected, it is about more than just what happened on Jan. 7 or why the three terrorists, born and raised in France, committed this act. The debate has once again turned into one about pluralism and what to do about the "Muslim question."
In her insightful and timely book, "On the Muslim Question," the political scientist Anne Norton applies Karl Marx's essay "On the Jewish Question" to the current debates about Islam and Muslims in Europe and the U.S. for Marx, the "Jewish question" was a test case for the Enlightenment. The success or failure of the Enlightenment project was dependent on the acceptance or rejection of Jews into the new Europe as free and equal human beings and citizens. Free from the fear of subordination, oppression and assimilation, Jews, who, as a suspect minority, had been vilified and persecuted for centuries, were supposed to be part of the new European community. The Jewish question could have opened new spaces of opportunity for multiculturalism and coexistence in the West. Instead, it ended up as one of the most horrible episodes of modern European history: The Holocaust.
Today, the Jewish question seems to have been replaced by the "Muslim question." Norton argues that what is at stake regarding the Muslim question is not Islam and Muslims per se, but the West itself and its thinking about reason, freedom, equality, justice and pluralism. From the conservative right to liberal left, the debate about Islam is shaped by domestic anxieties of urban life, migration, capitalism, unemployment, party politics, sex, race, consumerism, religion, morality and a host of other issues that can easily be discussed without any reference to Islam, Muslims or the Middle East. The social and political anxieties of Western societies present a distorted picture of both Islam and the West and poison the precarious Islam-West relations.
But referencing Islam brings a degree of comfort and convenience because it projects the problem to some "other" in a distant world. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor is thus right when he says that the current debate about multiculturalism in Western countries has become a debate about Islam and Muslims. According to Taylor, multiculturalism has become suspect and linked up with Islam because "almost every reason for toleration's apparent fall into disrepute concerns Islam."
After every crisis moment, "Islam" becomes part of a confused debate about how far multiculturalism will go. Bloc thinking and stereotyping dominates political and media discourses about the supposed true identity and soul of Europe vis-a-vis Muslim societies.
Muslim communities respond with an equally distorted and confused mindset. They apply the same bloc thinking and stereotyping to the very Western societies they complain about. The breakdown of rational communication between Muslim and Western societies reaches disturbing levels of confusion, prejudice and mistrust. According to a 2007 Gallup World Poll, "Muslims around the world say that the one thing the West can do to improve relations with their societies is to moderate their views toward Muslims and respect Islam."
Another study conducted in 2008 by the World Economic Forum and published as "Islam and the West: Annual Report on the State of Dialogue" notes that the vast majority of Muslims believe that the West does not respect Islam, whereas many Westerners hold just the opposite view and believe that the Westerners do respect Muslims. This is more than a communication breakdown. Much work is needed here to overcome this mental abyss.
The deplorable terrorist attack in Paris on Jan. 7, tragic as it is, can provide an opportunity for overcoming these mental barriers and prevent the Muslim question from becoming what the Jewish question became in the last century. Muslim, Christian or Jew, Arab or European, Middle Eastern or Western, religious or not, people of sound mind and conscience can and must work together to turn this crisis into an opportunity for the good of all.
About the author
Presidential spokesperson for the Republic of Turkey