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Islamist radicals are a threat. But do you need to attack their religion?

A British activist group satirically bestowed upon Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump the title "Islamophobe of the Year." (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

"I think Islam hates us," Donald Trump said last month on CNN. "There’s something there that — there’s a tremendous hatred there. We have to get to the bottom of it. There’s an unbelievable hatred of us."

Trump's wording here is important, as casual as the Republican presidential front-runner may be at times with language. It's Islam that hates us — not individual Muslims, not a radical fringe, but a whole religion that, to varying degrees, is followed by more than a billion people. And we have to plumb the depths of this vast, billowy entity — "get to the bottom of it," he says — and, presumably, somehow, defeat it.

In the meantime, Trump has proposed bans on all Muslim arrivals to the United States, the closure of mosques, the surveillance of existing Muslim communities and the use of torture. He has dismissed the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees. It is for such sweeping statements and gestures that a British activist group satirically bestowed upon him the accolade of "Islamophobe of the Year."

But Trump is hardly alone. He reflects only the bluntest form of anti-Muslim sentiment that has permeated the political conversation in the West. The specter of Trump's "hateful Islam" has loomed all the more in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, carried out by proxies of the Islamic State militant group. It has fueled growing divisions over Europe's future, and it has shadowed the U.S. presidential race.

A vast spectrum of people sees Islam, writ large, as a problem on both sides of the Atlantic — including atheist scientistsliberal celebritiesfar-right bigots. Others have dwelt on the link between the violence of extremists and the nature of their Islamic beliefs.

This week, the French prime minister mused whether Islam could ultimately be "compatible" with his country's secular values. Others in France are more convinced that it can't be.

A recent editorial in Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French newspaper that was once targeted by al-Qaeda-linked militants, lumped the militants who carried out massacres in European capitals alongside the devout Muslims in their midst and argued that Western multiculturalism has enabled jihadism to flourish.

"In reality, the attacks are merely the visible part of a very large iceberg indeed," the editorial stated. "They are the last phase of a process of cowing and silencing long in motion and on the widest possible scale."

As my colleague James McAuley observed, there's even a backlash against the very notion of Islamophobia among some intellectuals in France. Anti-racism, says the in-vogue French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, "will be to the 21st century what communism was to the 20th." His view is shared by many U.S. conservatives.

The fallacy of a clash of civilizations

But is it worth fighting a culture war? Of course, Islam is not a monolithic thing. It's embraced by multitudes that speak different languages, think different thoughts and grapple with different challenges every day. It has no central, governing institution and no shortage of internal debates and schisms.

Some analysts point out that the attacks on Islam aren't really about religion, per se. "Their ‘cultural racism’ portrays Muslims as an irremediable, jihadist fifth column," writes journalist and critic Adam Shatz in an incisive essay about the Charlie Hebdo editorial and its boosters. "Their fear of Islam has less to do with the religion than with the people who practice it."

That was very much on show in the face of Europe's migrant crisis, when fears of a "jihadist fifth column" consumed a segment of the Western public and shaped the response to what aid groups and the United Nations desperately plead is, first and foremost, a humanitarian tragedy in the Middle East.

Given the violence in Brussels and Paris, these fears are understandable. But it's a case of seeing a vast forest when there are only a few trees.

"Claiming that Europe faces a Muslim invasion has become standard fare for a range of politicians and political parties in Europe,” noted Nate Schenkkan, the project director behind a recent Freedom House report on the rise of illiberal politics in parts of the continent. "This kind of speech undermines democracy by rejecting one of its fundamental principles — equality before the law. There is a danger that this kind of hateful, paranoid speech will lead to violence against minorities and refugees."

This "hateful, paranoid speech" has its obvious political uses, though. Fiery populists on both sides of the pond have pointed to the threat of Islam when campaigning, often with success, in recent local elections.

The trouble is that pinning the radicalization and criminality of a small minority on whole communities — a whole religion, even — obscures more than it reveals. It reduces to abstraction what are far more complicated and important problems to consider, such as lapses in security and intelligence as well as troubles over assimilation and integration.

And, as myriad experts on counterterrorism policy and the Middle East have argued, it trades in the same logic that is employed by Islamist organizations.

"Promoting a clash of civilizations and destroying the reality of productive coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims was always at the heart of al-Qaeda’s strategy. The Islamic State has avowed the same goal of eliminating the 'gray zones' of toleration," writes Marc Lynch, professor of international affairs at George Washington University. "With American political discourse these days, the prospects for escaping the iron logic of this strategy have never looked more dismal."

Seeing the distinction between conservatism and radicalization

This is not to say that religion isn't important or has nothing to do with the ideological motives of the terrorists who plainly kill in its name. One also should not ignore the fact that the attitudes of some European Muslims diverge worryingly from the liberal mainstream, as illustrated by a controversial survey of British Muslims publicized this week.

But there's little to be gained from painting with a broad brush.

Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, for example, has called for a "hopefully nuanced, informed" debate on "how religious motivations and political context (such as civil wars or governance deficits) interact in the case of the Islamic State and other religiously influenced movements."

Nuance and a substantive understanding of the issues, as WorldViews has noted repeatedly, are two things not particularly apparent in the current U.S. political conversation about Islam, Muslims and terrorism.

Subsequent investigations of the militants involved in the Paris and Brussels attacks have found that some had very little ideological fervor or real knowledge of Islamic doctrine. The premise that "Islam hates us" is not a useful entry point into understanding the nature of their radicalization and alienation from the society around them.

If looking for nuance, consider this recent piece by the British scholar Kenan Malik, a secularist who has championed issues of free speech and scientific rationalism.

"We should be rightly concerned with the degree of illiberal social attitudes within Muslim communities, especially as it was very different just a generation ago. We should not simply shrug our shoulders and say ‘That’s what happens in a plural society,' " he writes.

But that, according to Malik, requires considering a complex and sometimes distinct set of issues: the "silo-building" identity politics of British society; the distinction between holding illiberal views and failing to integrate; the way that many European extremists become religious only after they have joined radical organizations.

"Illiberalism, integration and jihadism are all urgent issues that need tackling," Malik writes. "But we will not tackle any of them by drawing facile links between them."

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