The extremists can't resist a public platform. So let's subject their ideas to real scrutiny

In the Telegraph yesterday, Julie Lenarz argued persuasively that Germany cannot craft a coherent response to Islamist terrorism until it analyses the challenge. And the challenge is the presence of a certain strain of Islam in our midst, the one usually identified as Wahhabism.

Mrs Merkel might consider some historical parallels, in particular that of another female ruler, one who is generally accounted a failure, but who in one respect had the right idea. Catherine de Medici, faced with the renewal of religious war in France, called together various Catholic and Protestant divines for a conference known to us as the Colloquy of Poissy.

The Colloquy was essentially a theological conference, and it was attended by a Papal legate and several very important religious figures, such as Theodore Beza on the Protestant side. Given that this was the year 1561, and that both sides of the religious divide cordially hated each other, that the Colloquy took place at all was something of a triumph. That it failed to bring about ecumenical reconciliation should surprise no one, but that was always a bridge too far – and it still is.

But as a political ploy, as opposed to a purely religious event, the Colloquy did have a lot to recommend it. To get both sides to talk to each other was certainly preferable to the alternative, namely war. It failed, of course, but was surely worth a try.

Governments nowadays are in a position to convene conferences in the same way Catherine de Medici was. Some public figures still do, such as the estimable Prince Hassan of Jordan. It is rather a pity that his work does not get the attention it undoubtedly deserves. But if Mrs Merkel were to convene a conference of Muslim scholars in some nice German spa town to discuss, for example, the role of compulsion in religion, and the relationship between freedom and faith, that might just make the headlines and spark a national, indeed global, debate.

There are some Muslim scholars (I am doubtful of their standing in the Muslim world, or their scholarly credentials) who undoubtedly think that violent jihad is justified, indeed necessary. If they were invited to put their case in a public forum, that would be very useful. Until now the trend has been to ban the so-called preachers of hate: but I think it would be more worthwhile to subject them to public scrutiny and perhaps public ridicule. Would they come to a public forum? My guess is yes, as even those who pine for a Caliphate can’t resist publicity or the all too modern lure of television cameras. Look at our own homegrown jihadis, such as the delightful Anjem Choudary: give him a platform and a microphone and he can’t resist. He is of course currently detained, but there must be others. They should be invited to a forum where they can engage in (and, I am confident, lose) a war of words.

Multiculturalism has meant that we have extended tolerance to the intolerable, as we all know. It also means that we have extended the idea of respect too far. Jihadism is a ridiculous creed: it deserves to be challenged, discredited and ridiculed. The war on terror will never be won until it becomes a war on the ideas that justify terror. They can be defeated, but first we need to call their bluff. The current platitudes that dominate the reaction to the Berlin attack are not good enough. People like Mrs Merkel need to engage with Islamism, and should not be frightened to do so, as rationality has a good chance of winning the day.

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Jan 20 2016 cover