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Response for Mary

Reader comment on item: Two Germans vs. Islamism
in response to reader comment: The Dangers of Paranoia

Submitted by Aidan Maconachy (Canada), Jan 9, 2006 at 00:03

I have lived in both N.Ireland and Canada, and in both countries I found that broad-based assumptions about people based on religion and/or ethnicity, simply don't hold up in practice.

In Belfast I was on good terms with catholics who hailed from neighborhoods some might have regarded as IRA strongholds. The automatic assumption on hearing that so-and-so was a catholic from say the Ardoyne or Falls Road, was to jump to the assumption that the individual had to be a rabid Sinn Fein supporter. However, on the contrary, many of the people I went to college and university with who hailed from these areas were in fact disgusted by the extremists and their tactics. They were open to dialogue with moderate protestants and were genuinely seeking a way out of the religious and political impasse.

It is my conviction that if there had been an escalation in the targeting of catholic citizens in their districts and draconian measures such as attempts to "tag" people suspected of hate speech, introduction of loyalty tests etc - it would have driven many of these moderates toward a more hard-line position.

In both hard core loyalist and catholic areas, there was only a certain percentage who were radicalized to the point that they posed a danger to the safety and security of the average citizen. Most people in these areas though, struggled to get by, to hold down a job, to raise their kids and most of the time they kept their heads down.

When I lived in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver I had the privilege of knowing a number of Muslims, some of whome were fairly recent immigrants to Canada. In no single instance did I detect any hint that these people were even remotely interested in promoting or facilitating anything that could be described as an Islamist agenda. In fact, in conversation it was made clear to me on a number of occasions that they rejected everything the likes of Osama bin Laden stands for. These were people who were absorbed with their work and families 24/7. Professional people with skills and a level of cultural sophistication that enabled them to deal effectively with the new society they had entered.

I'm not naive enough though to believe that we don't have radicals in the Muslim communities here. Not so long ago a spokesperson, one Mohamed Elmasry, went public on a radio show with comments that were virulently anti-Israeli. He basically announced that any Israeli citizen over the age of 18 was a legitimate target for assassination. As a result of the uproar that followed, Elmasry apologized.

Other Muslim spokespersons publicly criticized Elmasry's remarks, and many in the mainstream Muslim community made it clear on the media that these remarks did not reflect their point of view.

While it it is easy to magnify the implications of this anti-Semitic slur, such rash assumptions may prove to be wide of the mark. By contrast, we have another Muslim voice here in Canada, one Irshad Manji, the author of the acclaimed book "The Trouble with Islam". Ms Manji speaks out courageously in media debates and targets extremism with her compelling arguments. She infuriates many hard liners and has received death threats, and yet she also has a strong following among many Muslims who are seeking a new understanding of their religion within the context of a Western democratic society.

I realize that a problem exists that needs to be addressed, however I am very dubious that taking a negative and punitive approach will yeild the best results. My suspicion is that such an approach could backfire and prove counterproductive. We do need to be vigilant and the authorities obviously need to be firm when handling mullahs who engage in active proselytizing on behalf of radical groups. We also need to have patience I believe, as the desired results won't happen overnight.

The peace in Northern Ireland has only just been brokered after decades of conflict; conflict that in many ways was driven by the tendency of both groups to demonize and dehumanize the other. Fear can badly warp judgement, and can induce a level of suspicion that makes communication between opposing factions close to impossible.

In the case of Islamist radicals, we need to proceed firmly and cautiously without resorting to kneejerk remedies we may later regret. It is my belief that in due course the appeal of Wahabbism will wane in the West. Already in some N. African countries we are seeing support for Osama bin Laden plummet in the polls. The one sure way to keep his appeal alive, is to adopt measures that are widely viewed as discriminatory and unjust.
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