The past few weeks since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris have set in motion a maelstrom of debates in the media about free speech, Islam and the integration of Muslims in the western world. The violent attacks on the offices of the French satirical magazine have given the green light for many to voice what they may have thought in private but never articulated openly before.
The debate has yielded some insightful writing and discussions in the media but for the most part it has felt more like a free-for-all mob out to have a showdown with Islam, the bogeyman of the free world. Politicians are getting in on the act, writing to Muslim organisations throughout the country asking them to clean up shop and do their bit to stamp out the violent extremism, the implication being that somehow they had been remiss in doing so before.
Let’s get things straight. The gunmen who committed those hateful murders may have proclaimed they were doing it to avenge the prophet Mohammad but in truth these men were no more Muslims than Richard Dawkins is. These men were part of a terrorist organisation with a terrorist agenda which happens to cloak its vicious objectives in Islamic rhetoric.
The Taliban overlords who peddle heroin in order to finance their power struggles, the ISIS leaders who extort vast ransoms through the kidnap of innocent aid workers and slaughter en masse innocent civilians in Syria and Iraq, the Boko Haram fighters who butcher entire villages in Nigeria. These are not God-fearing people. These are cynical, ruthless and power hungry men for whom religion is a convenient tool for brainwashing their drones. By all accounts the Paris gunmen weren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the shed. They were drones doing their masters’ bidding whilst parroting the words of their Al Qaeda mentors.
Is the growing power of these pseudo-Islamic terrorist groups a cause for global concern? Absolutely. Let’s not mince our words here. We are at war. The rise of pseudo-Islamic terrorism presents one of the greatest dangers to societies both in the West and in the East. This is not, as is often portrayed, a conflict between East and West, between the Islamic world and the secular/Christian one. It is a conflict between anarchic, power hungry thugs and the rest of us.
The front lines of this war are being fought in Africa and the Middle East – witness the thousands of civilians that have been killed this past year in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and so on – but the global world we live in means no country is totally safe from attack. The terrible massacres at Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher grocery store, horrifying as they were, are just another manifestation of this global war. To see them uniquely in terms of an attack on free speech is to miss the point. The cynical masterminds of these various plots are well aware of the impact such attacks on Western soil can have, how they can further marginalise Muslims within society and create fertile ground for recruitment of more “drones”.
So we come to Charlie Hebdo, which published cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad in a manner that many people (both Muslims and non-Muslims) found offensive. With a mere readership of 60,000 this publication caused ripples rather than tidal waves. It did not spur imams throughout the country’s mosques to incite their congregation into murderous retaliation. However, for Al Qaeda here was an opportunity to put themselves back into the spotlight again. To whip impressionable men with questionable pasts into a vengeful frenzy was easy enough to do. The calculating minds behind such a plan would surely predict the reaction to such an attack. Yet more cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad, yet more backlash against the Muslim population, yet more impressionable recruits. By publishing this week’s cover with prophet Mohammad wearing a shirt saying “Je suis Charlie”, the magazine played into Al Qaeda’s hands, doing exactly what it wants it to do.
Naturally in the wake of these horrific murders, people were shocked, angry and scared. They wanted to find a way to express these emotions. They wanted to stand up for democracy and free speech. Thus people of all faiths came together on the streets of Paris and other major cities in a show of solidarity against the terrorist extremists. This unity did not last long. The dust had barely settled before questions began to be asked of the Muslim community. Was the religion itself inherently violent? Were Muslims at fault because they failed to prevent radicalism amongst themselves? Are freedom and democracy compatible with Islam?
Pressure like never before has been put on Muslims to denounce these acts of terrorism and to prove that they are not “fifth columnists”. Social media has been inundated with cartoons mocking Muslims and articles showing contempt for their beliefs, particularly focusing on women’s rights or lack of them. Like any religion, there are many shades of Islam. Some women in Islam wear the hijab (veil), some wear the niqab (face cover) and others don’t wear any head cover at all. The starting point for all Muslims is an affirmation of their belief in God and that Mohammad is a messenger of God. Beyond that many differences of opinion emerge. The Koran, the holy book of Muslims, is open to different interpretations but the one clear message it preaches over and over again is to do good, help the poor, be respectful of others, do no harm, and follow the path of truth. It is a powerful message, one that has inspired more than 1.5 billion people worldwide (23% of the world population) to follow this faith.
There is nothing here for the western world to fear and no conflict with its democratic traditions. Muslims do not need to justify their beliefs or apologise for them. It is time to stop pointing the finger of blame at Islam and for all decent people to stand united against a common threat to our peace and prosperity.