The Guardian: The Paris attackers hijacked Islam but there is no war between Islam and the west
The attack on Charlie Hebdo compels us to be clear and to be consistent. We have to condemn what happened in Paris absolutely. I said the same after 7/7 and after 9/11. And after Jordan and Bali and Mali.
It is particularly important to be clear about where we stand, for the attackers said things that cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. They said they were avenging the prophet. That was wrong. In fact, it is the message of Islam, our principles and values, that have been betrayed and tainted. They refer to Islam to justify what they did. From a religious viewpoint, I feel it is my responsibility to say that this has nothing to do with the message of our religion. I would expect anyone, if something was happening in the name of their country or in the name of their religion, to take a stand. As a Muslim scholar I have to take that stand.
That said, there is also a wider political side to this equation. We condemn what happened in France. We condemn the violent extremism that is targeting westerners. But it is not only westerners. We are reacting emotionally because 12 people were killed in Paris, but there are hundreds being killed day in, day out in Syria and Iraq, and still we send more bombs. We have to look at the big picture. Lives matter, but it is important to be clear that the lives of Muslims in Muslim majority countries have as much value as our own lives in the west.
What happened this week is a tragedy heightened by familiarity, for I met the cartoonist Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier), the editor of Charlie Hebdo, who was among those killed on Wednesday. We had a debate in which I told him that I respected his freedom to say whatever he wanted to say, and that there was no justification for any kind of censorship.
But I also told him that he had to be clear about the way he was using that right. In 2008 his magazine fired a cartoonist who made a joke about a Jewish link to President Sarkozy’s son. Where was the freedom of expression there, I asked the satirical magazine. I was told that when it comes to freedom of expression that there are limits, not everything can be said. The double standard is troubling, to say the least.
I am shocked that something as terrible as this has happened to Charb and his colleagues, but less surprised that there was a backlash against them. There had been controversy concerning Charlie Hebdo on an almost six-monthly basis, and lots of threats. To have a sense of humour is fine, I told them, but to target an already stigmatised people in France is not really showing much courage.
The shootings have been described as an act of war. I can understand why some might characterise it that way. But they are wrong to do so, for isn’t this exactly what the violent extremists such as Da’esh, so-called Islamic State, want? They want to say the west is at war with Islam, but if we are to take the action of marginal groups and use that as evidence that there is a war between Islam and the west, aren’t we merely falling into a trap?
George Bush fell into that very trap immediately after 9/11 by calling it the war on terror, but actually he promoted it with his rhetoric. The most we can reasonably say now is that we are at war with violent extremists, wherever they are coming from. But why play that game at all? Let’s be specific: these are criminals exploiting Islam. The great majority of the victims are actually Muslim.
There are tensions in many countries, but things have been very difficult of late in France. Two recently published books reflect the atmosphere: very negative and very demoralising. The French Suicide by Eric Zemmour expresses the fear that millions of Muslims might be colonising and transforming the country (he is hoping they will be helped to leave), and Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, which predicts that in 2022 an Islamic party will take over France. Three years ago, Houellebecq said Islam was the most stupid religion in the world.
In the UK, in terms of daily life, the situation is better. There isn’t that feeling of permanent stigmatisation in the discourse as happens in France. But even so, things feel as if they are changing for the worse. It is no accident that Ukip has been on the rise, and in such a climate one feels the public discourse changing. There are parties happy to target migrants and to target Muslims. It’s a drift we have to stop, for in my view we actually have a shared responsibility. Politicians, intellectuals, journalists, Muslims and people of other faiths (or none) must be clear and united about our common principles. We need politicians with more on their minds than winning the next election.
One sees difficult days ahead as yesterday’s dramatic events in France showed; and there is the issue of media organisations intent on publishing the most offensive Charlie Hebdo cartoons, claiming that it would strike a blow for free speech. I support free speech, but I would urge them to desist, for what they plan to do is not courageous and will do nothing to afford people dignity. It will be another example of targeting all Muslims. It would say that if our fellow Muslim citizens are not part of the equation, we will target not the extremists – but Islam itself. It would hand the extremists a victory they could scarcely have achieved for themselves.