The recent spate of terror attacks in Europe highlight a highly fragile relationship between European secularism and Islam. There is an urgent need to address the issue.

Europe is clearly on the edge. The recent spate of Islamist terror attacks targeting innocent European civilians has, at surface, highlighted the worrying situation of law and order, but deep within, the fundamental cracks in civilisational relationships in the European heartland.

Beginning in France with the beheading of  French teacher Samuel Paty last month, a string of jihadi attacks in other European cities sent shockwaves across the world, deeply impacting the polity and life of Europe’s citizens. It seems a new dimension of conflict has commenced in Europe which threatens to tear apart the fabric of religious harmony in the continent, threatening to ignite a large geopolitical conflict based largely on religious and institutional grounds.

The Conflict in a Snapshot

Conflicts between European and Islamic civilisations are not new; they date back to the days of the crusades- a series of religious wars sanctioned by the Vatican to regain European lands annexed by Islamic rulers and ‘bring them back’ into Christianity. These wars date back to the 8th to the 11th centuries AD. Fast forward to the 16th century: Europe’s modern age, accentuated by the Reformation and Renaissance, somehow deepened the European-Islamic conflict. Then, the primary driver of the conflict was Europe’s global quest to colonise countries belonging to other faiths and civilisations.

Colonisation reached its climax during the various treaties signed during World War I. These treaties allowed the victorious Allied powers to take over the colonies of the defeated Central powers and govern them under the aegis of the newly created League of Nations.

Among these newly gained colonies, the most prominent were the territories of the beleaguered Ottoman Empire, recognised somewhat derogatively as “the sick man of Europe”. This was particularly painful as the Islamic world then regarded Ottoman Turkey as the fourth caliphate and recognised the Ottoman Sultan as their caliph. After serving as European colonies, it was in the 1950s, after the termination of World War II, that these colonies gained independence, and emerged as many of the countries which today constitute the WANA (West Asia North Africa) region.

The civilisational clash between Europe and the Islamic World can also be traced to the works of Islamic theologian and preacher Sayyid Qutb who in his magnum opus, Milestones, articulated the inbuilt conflict between Europe and Islam, and called to overthrow the Westphalian world order and re-impose the Islamic caliphate. The Christian side too has its own share of anti-Muslim scholars and thinkers such as Robert Spencer and Gilles Kepel who contribute to the flaring up of virulent anti-Muslim sentiments in the West.

The notion of secularism across different European countries also appears to be stirring a ‘clash of civilizations’, as the American political scientist, Samuel P Huntington, puts it. Laicite which advocates the strict separation of state and religion

Laïcité, which means strict separation of state and religion in the French context, appears to be the culprit in particular. On the basis of this principal, successive French governments have banned public wearing of the hijab, closed madrassas across France, and made state language mandatory for availing jobs and certain public services. These actions alienated Muslims within France and created a sense of resentment towards France within the Islamic world. Some other European countries followed suit, and this accentuated dissatisfaction within the Muslim people.

Thus, the seeds of a fiercely conflictual relationship between Europe and the Islamic World were being sown for quite some time. They now appear to threaten European countries themselves.

Mending the Fissures

It is high time that Europe undertakes the arduous task of rebuilding the broken bridges with its Muslim minority populations. The more the distrust and contumacious behaviour between its citizens, the more the fissures within European polity and society. This will entail horrific ramifications for the unity of the European Union in the foreseeable future. Some steps taken just in the nick of time can help:

Firstly, holding interfaith dialogues and seminars on religious affairs at regular intervals. This will help European society to undertake a deep understanding of the beliefs and cultures of Islam and Christianity alike and understand their histories, religious books, and approach towards socio-religious matters.

Secondly, introducing interactive courses on Christian and Islamic civilisations in not just European universities but also in universities across Muslim countries. This step will go a long way in fostering awareness of the nuances of both civilisations and addressing fundamental differences and cultural gridlocks.

Thirdly, an overarching state-regulated programme for de-radicalisation of Islamist militants. Care should be taken to ensure that these miscreants are not released into society until promising evidence of their capability to integrate with mainstream society, fully and peacefully, is evident. Otherwise there could be a recap of what happened recently in Austria.

Fourthly, reining in the extremist elements on both sides. European governments must take strong steps to root out extremism on both sides of the religious and ideological spectra. The recent arrest of dozens of far rights activists in Germany who were planning large-scale attacks on mosques as well as Austrian and French efforts to curb radical Islamic elements and close down Salafi and Wahhabi mosques are cases in point.

Finally, introspection on the part of recalcitrant and reactionary European leaders. This is important especially in the light of current leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan of neighbouring Turkey and Viktor Orban of Romania who, through their incendiary speeches, fan the flames of communalism and promote civilisational discord. The European Union must implement stern, punitive economic and political measures to rein in such leaders.

A Better Present for a Better Future

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. This is precisely what is happening in Europe and generally in the West. Is the prophecy of Samuel P Huntington in his magnum opus “Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of World Order” slowly becoming the truth?

But not all is lost. Europe still has the chance and capability to resolve the conflict with Islam and integrate it peacefully into its socio-cultural fabric and become an example to the rest of the non-Muslim world. It is particularly important in these times that Europe embarks on this path of reconciliation and peace-seeking. Such a healing touch is necessary at a time when all civilisations are also dealing with losses of lives, livelihoods, and security.

Pranay Kumar Shome

Pranay Kumar Shome is a strategic affairs analyst and a columnist.


The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.


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