On the 7th of January, 3 masked gunmen got out of a car in France. By the time they returned, 2 police officers and 10 journalists were dead. It was a sickening reminder of the evil of humanity, and the horrors that can be done in the name of religion. The response has been a ritualised outpouring of solidarity. However, some parts of the public response have been less noble.
For the first time, there are disadvantages to telling people I am Muslim. When I saw posts on Facebook that seemed adamant that Islam is a violent religion, there was an immediate barrier. Admitting that I am Muslim meant that before I could enter a discussion, I had to first convince people that I believe in democracy, in the rule of law, in equality, for women’s rights. All because once again, a terrorist attack has sparked a knee-jerk reaction that justifies Islamophobia.
Where people have said that Islam is a religion of war, or that we need to protect free speech from Islam, or “what do you expect from a religion where the main guy is a polygamous, child-raping murderer?” they are all operating within the same broad narrative of “Religion of violence spurs Extremists to slay heroic free-speech journalists.” This is a generalisation, but I think it’s a fair one, given the media portrayal. Addressing the contradictions of this narrative is the only way we can force a more positive one to emerge.
Problem # 1 – It suggests Islam is responsible for either extremism or extremists’ actions.
This week, Al-jazeera reported that Christian militias have conducted ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the Central African Republic. It didn’t even make the BBC’s top ten stories. There is no public appetite for a narrative that blames Christianity for the actions of Christian militia. But the Charlie Hebdo attack slotted nicely into an existing narrative that a radical interpretation of Islam is creating ever greater atrocities.
No media outlets ever try to deal with what the Qu’ran actually says. Instead of being able to inform the views of extremists and Islamophobes alike, people are free to read quotes from the Qu’ran out of context, and walk away believing that’s what it’s about. The most the papers will give is a reference to “radical Islam”, as if to imply that that is a legitimate interpretation that one can come to after reading the Qu’ran.
There is no mention that God is frequently referred to as the “All-Compassionate, the All-Merciful,” or the “Source of All Goodness.” The papers never bring attention to the fact that “Islamic terrorism” is a logical implosion in the context of a compassionate God. Or the fact that Muhammad (pbuh) set a peaceful, humble precedent for what to do when insulted by enemy parties. When his enemies wouldn’t sign a peace treaty while it referred to Muhammad as the prophet, his scribe refused to alter it because he felt insulted. Muhammad, unable to read, asked him to point out the words “Messenger of God,” took his scribe’s pen, and struck them out himself. If only those Muslims taking offence knew.
Explaining why it beggars belief that Islam could ever motivate violence could bolster the public perception of Islam. So would pointing out that mainstream Muslim scholarship unconditionally condemns terrorism. But instead, the silence of mainstream media allows the reputation of Islam to be continually damaged without any reasonable defence being mounted.
Let us approach this another way. There have been many revenge attacks in the days following the Charlie Hebdo Massacre. Why is it that if Jean Claude commits murder then only Jean Claude is to blame, but when Ahmed commits murder it’s militant Islam? My critics might play the numbers game, and try to argue that there’s no existing media narrative for other faiths because other faiths don’t commit as many atrocities.
But let’s play the numbers game correctly: Europol found from 2006-2009 that 99.6% of terrorist attacks were committed by non-Muslims. A blog that examined evidence of US attacks found that even when taking a liberal interpretation of Islamism, attacks by Jewish groups were almost double that of Muslims (4.9% vs. 2.5%). Moreover, it found that religion was responsible for less than 7% of attacks. Professor Robert Pape, a terrorism expert, says “Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”
The question here is not whether Islam drives people to commit terrorism. The real question is, why is the public perception so different from the reality? And why do we have a double standard with Islam when it comes to pointing the finger?
Problem # 2 – It sets up an opposition between Muslims and the West
Constant media focus has set up terrorist attacks in the context of a clash of civilisations. Us vs. Them. It started when the media talked about Sharia Law. A typical article in the Daily Mail would force you to conclude that it is absolutist, unyielding system being imposed without consent on people: incompatible with Western values.
The article includes some balance, but it drowns in the volume of quotes like “He refuses to accept the notion that values of human rights are enshrined in the British way of life.” There is no mention of the fact that there is no consistent system of Sharia Law that exists anywhere, despite continual references to it. There is no recognition that the first Sharia Law was agreed upon after discussion and only enforced by consent , or the fact that some scholars believe Sharia Law was always intended to be updated with new circumstances.
These sloppy journalistic descriptions legitimise the unhelpful way both Islamic Terrorists and European xenophobes see the world. Several Prime Minister’s have echoed words like David Cameron’s: “We stand absolutely united with the French people against terrorism and against this threat to our values.” As if those values are solely European. As if you can’t be a Muslim against the misrepresentation of Islam and still want freedom of speech. Those aren’t European values, they are human ones.
The truth is that Al-Quaeda’s victims are disproportionately Muslims, as high as 85%. The first victim of the Charlie Hebdo attack was a Muslim police officer, Ahmed. He is an important example of how terror hurts everybody. His role cannot be emphasised enough.
Problem # 3 – It canonizes the victims, giving credence to anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant agendas
The attack has consistently been held up as an attack on the freedom of speech and by extension, Western ideals. But this is not necessarily accurate. What if the purpose of this attack was to further stimulate the West into making its Muslims feel more marginalised, thereby boosting their own cause.
This latter interpretation makes far more sense than the nonsense that freedom of speech is in any real danger of being abandoned. I’m just not convinced that satirical magazines are going to stop taking the piss because of an attack that everybody agrees was barbaric. The media reaction on the 8th of January on Twitter showed solidarity (and rightly so), proving that it is not threatened.
The narrative that free speech is really in danger from Muslims only supports those who would only escalate tensions further. The Sharia Law, the terrorist attacks, and now Charlie Hebdo have all been used to portray the West as under threat, needing protection, requiring rescue. If the far-right had their way, I have no doubt that good Muslims who contribute to society would be further scrutinised and marginalised.
It will be Muslims who require rescue and protection when further Islamophobic attacks are seen, policies like the Burqa ban are expanded, and diplomatic solutions to the crises in the Middle East become ever more elusive. By making a public enemy out of Islam, we will only be giving our young Muslims the political motivation to oppose us. Remember that political motivations, not religious ones, are the primary reason for people to adopt terrorist tactics.
Problem # 4 – It implies Charlie Hebdo and the West are categorically good, unbiased advocates of free speech.
What has happened to the journalists of Charlie Hebdo is nothing short of martyrdom. Encouraging the victims to be portrayed as free-speech heroes is an oversimplistic and ultimately inaccurate viewpoint. The blog Counterpunch writes:
“In 2002, Philippe Val, who was editor in chief at the time, denounced Noam Chomsky for anti-Americanism and excessive criticism of Israel and of mainstream media. In 2008, another of Charlie Hebdo’s famous cartoonists, Siné, wrote a short note citing a news item that President Sarkozy’s son Jean was going to convert to Judaism to marry the heiress of a prosperous appliance chain. Siné added the comment, “He’ll go far, this lad.” For that, Siné was fired by Philippe Val on grounds of “anti-Semitism”. Siné promptly founded a rival paper which stole a number of Charlie Hebdo readers, revolted by CH’s double standards.”
The #JeSuisCharlie movement was also disappointingly one-sided. A very impassioned Facebook friend of mine observed, “in practice people tend to bring out the free speech argument not when they want to speak up in support of oppressed people, but when they want to punch down.” It’s a good point. We cannot claim to be in support of unedited free speech in any context while turning a blind eye to the West’s free speech record. Occupy was globally disciplined for inconveniently protesting in public places. The UK places sensible limits on free speech that stop people espousing violent views or inciting hatred. But even here, anti-terror legislation was even used to silence a dissenting 82 year old Nazi refugee during the Labour Party conference in 2005.
This is the exact reason why allowing suicide bombers to pass themselves off as martyrs is so damaging. It makes them seem like they’re undeniably good. The reality of the West’s involvement in international affairs is steeped in human rights abuses, corruption and torture. Recent abuses include the CIA report on torture, the UN’s Oil-for-Food program, and the still open-for-business Guantanamo Bay. When it comes to our governments, we are steeped in as much blood as the terrorists. And if we continue to scrape the barrel of inflammatory rhetoric our abuses will get worse, not better.
What I want to see is this. When atrocities like this happen, I want to see the West respond as Norway responded to Anders Breivik. Breivik was a man filled with hate, who wanted to see action taken against Muslims to further marginalise them. Were people calling for retribution? Well, yes. Professor Frank Aarebrot, a Norwegian political scientist, was in Britain at the time. “These liberal Brits immediately said, ‘Why didn’t they shoot him? Why didn’t they shoot him?‘” Norway’s response was the total opposite, and utterly inspiring. Their prime minister said, “Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity.“
Norway had the strength and goodwill not to let an atrocity stimulate a desire for revenge. But instead, I expect UKIP, the Front Nationale and other far right forces will undoubtedly experience a boost in support after this tragedy. That is the most harmful path we could possibly choose. We’ve already started to go down it by shooting the perpetrators instead of championing that other bastion of Western civilisation, the rule of law. The West should reject aggressive rhetoric, confrontation and revenge. It can start by embracing, including, supporting their Muslim communities. By calling them friends and treating them so. Such a response would undoubtedly right many wrongs.