The attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris on Wednesday was a tragedy. Of that, there can be no doubt. Whether the magazine was offensive in its satire is irrelevant; the dastardly nature of these murders is established beyond doubt.
Discussions around free speech, what is or is not sacred, are not the point. They ought not be discussed on the back of a massacre that is far more insulting to the sense of the sacred than any cartoon could be. Beyond that, the question now relates to how France, and Europe, will respond – and the potential pitfalls are already becoming clear.
After attacks of this nature, where the perpetrators are suspected of being inspired by religion, there are usually two things that are repeatedly asked in the mainstream of the West. The first: why aren’t Muslims condemning these outrageous actions? Secondly: shouldn’t we be discussing the roots of the evil ideology and demanding an Islamic reformation?
It’s deeply problematic to demand that a faith community of more than 1 billion people condemn the actions of a few individuals. The implicit assumption being made is that mainstream Muslims have sympathy for such acts – which, of course, is precisely what the terrorists want. They want the world to see Muslims as secretly harbouring good feelings about what happened in Paris, so as to encourage a further divide between Muslims and non-Muslims.
But that assumption is dubious. While the attackers may claim to have killed in the name of the Prophet’s honour, they killed someone with the Prophet’s name in the process: a French policeman called Ahmed Merabet. As a Frenchman, he was targeted by extremists; as a Muslim, his community is targeted by extremists worldwide; and as a French Muslim, his local community stands at risk of an anti-Muslim backlash.
Muslim terrorists kill far more Muslims than non-Muslims, and far more Muslims than non-Muslims are fighting these extremists. The day of the Charlie Hebdo attack, several dozen Muslims were killed by radical extremists in Yemen. Many others die every day in Iraq and Syria.
Within hours of the Paris attack, Muslim religious leaders and prominent figures on every continent condemned it. They included the Mufti Emeritus of Bosnia and the Azhar University in Egypt, the Arab League and the UAE. Rather than recognising these denunciations as more typical of Muslims worldwide, there are some in the public arena who continue to ignore them.
Pundits and politicians are already using the attacks as “proof” that their own negative views of Muslims are justified. This has shown up in different parts of the Western press, the comments of right-wing populist politicians and reports of attacks on mosques after Wednesday’s tragedy.
The disgraceful attacks on Charlie Hebdo may have further consequences, such as entrenching the false notion that Muslims and non-Muslims simply cannot coexist, or that civil liberties need to be rethought, with yet more powers given to the state, diminishing the commitment to human rights. That is merely giving the attackers a further victory, rather than honouring the loss of life that took place.
On calls for a “reformation”: Islam simply does not have a structure similar to that of Catholicism where a figure such as Martin Luther could emerge.
Moreover, modern religious extremism is itself a product of the closest thing to a reformation Islam has ever had. ISIL emerged out of a radical, minority interpretation of purist Salafism that is sometimes called Wahabism – which, in itself, was a reformation exercise.
That is not to say that there is not a problem that needs to be addressed. The point is: why do a minority of Muslims disagree with the mainstream by considering such attacks as laudable, and how best to address that? That does require a genuine revival exercise within Muslim religious institutions, one that addresses the quality of education they provide rather than issues calls for reformation. Revival has taken place before, from within the Islamic tradition. It can happen again.
Condemnation of vile acts does very little. The strengthening of religious narratives to counter radical discourses is needed. The empowerment of those counternarratives, however, includes granting them independence, including that to criticise state abuses.
The world faces a radical, extremist ideology that has a number of aims. The killing and murdering of innocent people in France is a facet of that. The killing of others within the Muslim world is another; the creation of a cultural war between Muslims and non-Muslims is yet another; and the deterioration of civil liberties within France and elsewhere is another still. The international community at large must recognise all of those facets and be clear: we won’t play the terrorists in a game where they make the rules. What they did in Paris, as they do in Yemen and elsewhere, is criminal – and the full force of the law must be brought to bear upon them. We must not sacrifice one iota of the ethics that underpin our societies. That is what they are really trying to get us to do. We must not let them succeed.
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC
On Twitter: @hahellyer