The assassination acted like a disruption to weary Europe

Critics of Islam are an indicator. As long as they can speak freely, the West is intact. If they feel threatened here or even have to go into hiding, the compass in Europe is wrong.

On the way to recovery after a knife attack: the writer Salman Rushdie, here in a picture from Zurich, 2019.

Karin Hofer / NZZ

Salman Rushdie not only created great literary works and described the reality in the Muslim world in an impressive, unsparingly honest way. He has broken Muslim taboos and shown pioneering courage. He is a role model for many people, including Muslims, who do not want to follow the revelation to the letter. But Rushdie was wrong in one respect: His desire for freedom and normality led him to underestimate the murderous endurance of his hateful opponents – with fatal consequences.

The assassination attempt on Salman Rushdie has an Islamist background. It is important to note this, even if relativizations can already be heard and there is an attempt to reverse the victim and perpetrator, according to which the act fuels anti-Muslim racism. This is an attempt to suppress the larger picture to which this act belongs. In fact, this attack must be added to the meanwhile very long list of acts of terrorism and attempts at intimidation, all of which have the same perpetrators and accomplices and which are all legitimized with an understanding of Islam that creates the basis for such acts.

Already in 1984 attack on Nobel Prize winner

The victims are always the same. It hits those who dare to take a critical look at Islam and break Muslim taboos that are considered untouchable. Just a few prominent examples from recent years should be mentioned: the murder of film director Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands in 2004, the violent protests after the publication of the Mohammed cartoons in Denmark in 2005, the attack on the editorial office of “Charlie Hebdo” in Paris in 2015, the bestial murder of Samuel Paty in 2020 and the subsequent calls for a boycott of France in the Muslim world. The Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Nagib Mahfouz was assassinated in 1984 because Islamists had declared him an apostate. He barely survived.

These and many other attacks show how life-threatening it has become, even in the West, to criticize Islam, and how people branded in this way remain a target over long periods of time. But the perpetrators are concerned with more than just revenge on critics of Islam. Their concern is to impose their own standards and taboos on Western Europe.

In doing so, they pursue two strategies to prevent criticism of Islam: a soft and a hard one. With the soft strategy, political Islam actors pretend to be democrats and anti-racists in order to then discredit any criticism of Islam as Islamophobic, racist and intolerant. The hard method, on the other hand, simply chooses the path of intimidation and violence. Over the past seven years, I have had to experience first-hand that it is hardly possible to state such truths objectively today, because just like Hamed Abdel-Samad and Seyran Ates, to name just two names, I live under police protection.

Under the father’s thumb

The proponents of the hard strategy are part of a group that identifies solely through religion. Their image of God is the reflection of their fathers, who expected blind obedience and ruled over them with the suppression of every individual desire. In such an environment it is hardly possible to develop a healthy self-esteem. Instead, characters are formed who are deeply insecure and unreflected and who seek their support outside, especially in religion.

In addition, they grow up with violence, whether at family, religious or possibly even state level. Because most of them live in or come from authoritarian countries that lag far behind the West in every comparison, whether it is about prosperity, democracy, freedom, equality or technical progress. The majority of Muslim countries have been mired in a self-inflicted crisis of meaning for decades.

In this social and political environment, politicized Islam offers a way out. “We are the solution,” he promises, “we are strong because our God is strong! We renew the glory of the past!” However, this psychological dynamic is not about Islamic spirituality, not about the religion itself. Rather, it is about twisted and obdurate interpretations of Islam that dock on to authoritarian and patriarchal systems and, instead of self-confidence, primarily promote immaturity and literal faith.

Children who question or doubt are considered «disobedient». In the schools of the countries of origin, people learn by heart instead of discussing. In the mosque, only the revelation of the Holy Scriptures counts – questioning and critical thinking have nothing to do with it. Individuality has no value. Only the collective identity, the family, the large group, the religious community has validity.

Image from a Pakistani protest against Salman Rushdie's knighting in the UK.  Islamabad, June 22, 2007.

Image from a Pakistani protest against Salman Rushdie’s knighting in the UK. Islamabad, June 22, 2007.

Paula Bronstein/Getty

The others are always to blame, the West, Israel

When societies glorify their real or imagined past, they lack energy and imagination for the present and future. Political Islam could not and cannot deliver what it promised, neither in Egypt nor in Iran, nor in Turkey. However, it is impossible for the infallible holy message or the handling of it to be to blame for this – it is always others who are to blame, the West, the State of Israel, criticism of Islam.

As a result, people raised in this way encounter both the West and themselves with inferiority complexes and a deep-seated fear of being exposed. For them, religion is a kind of burqa that covers their weaknesses and gives them a clear collective identity that sets them apart from others.

Faith and religion is all they find support in. Criticizing this religion seems to them to question their very existence. But this prevents progress and innovation, but above all any individuality. Ultimately, Salman Rushdie’s opponents do not want to protect Islam or their god. In any case, very few have read his books and thought about his statements. No, they basically just want to protect themselves.

Despite everything, unprepared Europe

Just like when Salman Rushdie published his best-known work, The Satanic Verses, in 1988 and a fatwa was issued against him the following year, calling on all Muslims to blame the British-Indian author for his insults to the Prophet and Islam kill, the most recent assassination attempt on Rushdie caught Europe completely unprepared.

At that time the knowledge and experience with this kind of fanaticism was scarce. At the time, very few people thought that such thoughts and actions could also gain significance in and for Europe. But even now the assassination attempt comes at what appears to be the most inopportune time. Even now, in 2022, when knowledge and experience of Islamist fanaticism has grown—and due to terrible events—the attack on Rushdie seems more like a disruption. Because Europe seems to have grown tired of defending its own fundamental values. Apart from a few Sunday speeches after each attack, little is heard.

The spokesmen of the public discourse are now actors who follow a simple black and white ideology. An ideology according to which only white, old, European men can be perpetrators. Muslims, on the other hand, are always victims of discrimination. Criticism of them, their beliefs and actions is not considered an achievement of the Enlightenment, but reviled as an expression of anti-Muslim racism, as right-wing ideas, and consequently as grist to the mills of populist parties.

Rushdie as a yardstick

What if Muslim actors like Salman Rushdie express this criticism? This is irritating and viewed with suspicion. A network of “leftists” is trying to “protect” a majority of Muslims in Germany from the minority of their Muslim critics. It doesn’t seem to bother them that they are working together with Islamist actors and, intentionally or unintentionally, become their useful accomplices. This anti-racism ideology is too tightly knit.

The fact that criticism by believers and non-believers alike of a religion that is being misused as an instrument of domination was once a core element in the self-image of the political left has been forgotten more and more. It seems all the more absurd when the Greens, the Left and even the Social Democrats scold the Muslim critics of their own religion.

Salman Rushdie and his fellow intellectuals are a yardstick for the West. As long as they can speak freely, as long as they are listened to, Europe is healthy. But as soon as they feel threatened in Europe or even go underground, it means that the compass in Europe is wrong. This culture war can only be won with education, clear communication and a resolute defense of values, including the consistent enforcement of constitutional principles.

Ahmad Mansour, psychologist and Islamism expert.

Ahmad Mansour, psychologist and Islamism expert.

Adrian Baer / NZZ

Ahmad Mansour is a psychologist and Islamism expert, has lived in Germany since 2004. In autumn 2022, S. Fischer Verlag will publish “Operation Allah: How political Islam wants to undermine our democracy”.

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