Europe's Experience on Islamism Is a Cautionary Tale for the United States | Opinion

Is anyone paying attention to what's happening in Europe? If you care about freedom in the West, take a look now. Fault lines between Islamists and the secular West, etched over generations and deepened and fortified by failed post-9/11 policies, have tectonically shifted. Nearly written off by some, European nations are suddenly taking serious and significant action to push back in earnest against encroaching Islamist separatism and radicalization. And the United States, as an observer, stands to learn a lot.

In 2020, as the world remained deeply embroiled in the pandemic, France, Austria, and much of the rest of the European Union (EU) began to confront the Islamist ideological monster within their borders. Led by French President Emmanuel Macron and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, European leaders seem to have woken up from their slumber and realized it wasn't just the militant Islamist acts of terrorism that they needed to defeat—rather, it was the ideas that incubated them, political Islam or Islamism.

The importance of this moment in history and the accuracy of Macron's diagnoses of Islamism within his country's borders is highlighted by the fact that some of the world's leading Islamist demagogues, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called for the boycott of French products in late October. Macron swiftly and defiantly responded, "We will not give in, ever."

France's 2020 front in the cultural war against Islamism was sparked by the October 16 beheading of Samuel Paty, a middle school teacher who had the courage to simply discuss what happened in the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff in 2015, when the magazine staffers showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

After Paty's murder, Macron responded swiftly by defending free speech and defending France's character and values. He sped up his plans for a coordinated, all-of-government approach against "Islamist separatism." Macron has thus begun to lead his country in a long-overdue conversation that targets the root cause of the Islamist threat to France—"Islamist separatism." Many of us dedicated to Muslim reform against Islamism have been actually calling for such an open conversation for a long time.

In a series of speeches since Paty's murder, Macron has laid bare why Islamism is inherently separatist and "rejects freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and the right to blaspheme." He correctly laid the diagnosis and blame at the feet of leaders across the globe who are in "crisis" and fomenting "jihad." He has called for the de-"ghettoization" of Muslim communities. Macron introduced legislation reawakening France's "republican principles" and directly confronting Islamism's incompatibilities. He lifted up "laicite"France's dominant constitutional principle and consciousness of secularism—as the nation's "cement." Macron essentially declared war on foreign influence in Muslim institutions, blocking funding while surveilling mosques and imams as well as other professions.

To be clear, Islamism is the religio-political-cultural belief system that the state should have an Islamic identity and be guided only by shariah law (Islamic jurisprudence). Islamists are part of a global political movement that ultimately seeks power and international hegemony. Like all totalitarian systems, Islamism is not compatible with Western secular democratic ideals. Not all Muslims are Islamists, but all Islamists are Muslims. And while Muslim migrants in Europe are not a monolithic bloc, among them are innumerable Islamists and Islamist-sympathizers.

French President Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Macron rightly stated that the "republican reawakening" could help nourish a form of Islam compatible with Enlightenment values. It is this kind of tough love that is essential to embracing Muslim immigrants with dignity, as adults—rather than with a bigotry of low expectations that leaves them vulnerable to radicalization.

In parallel, Austria's 2020 front in its cultural war against Islamists was sparked by a terror attack conducted by an Austrian ISIS supporter in Vienna on November 2, 2020, which left four dead and 23 injured. The attack spurred Austria into action, as Chancellor Kurz almost immediately announced a new policy:

"In the fight against political Islam, we will create a criminal offense called 'political Islam' in order to be able to take action against those who are not terrorists themselves, but who create the breeding ground for such. There will be further possibilities for the closure of places of worship, the introduction of an imams register...and measures will be taken to drain financial flows for terrorist financing."

This is a culmination of programs that began when Kurz took office. Austria had already implemented a hijab ban in primary schools, as well as a face veil ban. Austrian law enforcement raided the offices of 60 Hamas- and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations last November, following the Vienna attack, and shut down some mosques connected to the terrorist ideology. On December 9, President Macron and Chancellor Kurz met with fellow EU leader German Chancellor Angela Merkel in order to develop a pan-European strategy of decreasing the infiltration of radical Islamist ideology into their nations.

Hany Ghoraba wrote for IPT News that these leaders looked to apply "swift removal of terrorist content online and establish one common instrument for all member states to this effect. ...This would give the European Parliament authority in EU member states to order service providers to remove terrorist content or disable access to it."

But Europe—and Austria, in particular—should take note here. "Bad ideas"—like political Islam—will only be defeated by "better ideas." The U.S. legal system has long upheld a very narrow definition of incitement of violence (Brandenburg v. Ohio), lest the government head down the slippery slope of censorship that violates our unalienable right to freedom of expression.

The outlawing of "hate speech" historically never works well. Time and again, the suppression of Islamist movements has only empowered them as they flourished underground and were shielded from the antiseptic effect of public exposure and competition from more appealing movements.

Will this cultural war declared by Macron and Kurz work? In the end, there is no other option. The sooner they confront political Islam, the better. Continuing the prior policy of appeasement will only invite continued attacks on our secular and liberal way of life.

Europe is a cautionary tale for the United States. We must not continue the course that France and Austria are now only attempting to alter at great cost. We must also recognize that Americanism is uniquely situated to be the West's "last best hope" against Islamism.

We must stand together against foreign ideas that are incompatible with our social and constitutional compact. Mobilize our greatest weapons against separatism and theocracy—Americanism on every plane and every front we can. Lead with an offense of reform-minded Muslims who would die for our secular republics and reject the supremacist appeal of the jihad. The sooner we stand up for our shared American values, the better off we will all be.

M. Zuhdi Jasser is the president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and a co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. and a former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander. Twitter: @DrZuhdiJasser.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.