Last week’s carnage against French journalists and police in the heart of Paris has shocked the world and invited condemnations from Arab and Muslim states and religious organisations, as well as Muslim associations in France and Europe. The attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was apparently carried out by French-born Muslim extremists with ties to militant organisations. The attackers claimed they were avenging Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) for offences perpetrated by the weekly newspaper when it ran cartoons depicting him in 2006 and later in 2011. The newspaper was firebombed three years ago and it goes without saying that the cartoons had upset millions of Muslims in France and across the world.
But the terrorist attack last week underlined the growing gap between the majority moderate Muslims and a minority of extremists who have chosen to declare war on the West in the name of Islam. Furthermore, it highlighted the cultural and ethical nuances in this era of globalisation where concepts about freedom of expression as they relate to criticising religions and religious symbols remain widely divisive.
Representatives of France’s five millions Muslims were quick to condemn the massacre as an affront to democracy and freedom of expression. But this would not stop ultra-right politicians and groups from using this incident to mobilise citizens against the perceived threat of Islam in Europe and Muslims in general. The reality is that the majority of Muslims around the world do not support extremist organisations such as Al Qaida and Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). King Abdullah of Jordan described what is going on today as a “war within Islam” but he also warned against extremism in general noting that such a phenomenon exists in all societies. To tie Islam to extremism is wrong and offensive to millions of Muslims who have to chosen to live peacefully in western societies.
Thus it was important that condemnations for last week’s carnage came from all over the Muslim world, including conservative countries who disapprove of offences against the Prophet. But if we are to take sides and defend the true principles of Islam we must not hesitate to distance our religion from the acts of a disillusioned minority who today present a distorted version of it.
For France and the rest of the western world, the attacks were largely seen as offences against freedom of expression, regardless of the nature and context of the motives of perpetrators. But in reality the issue is not as straightforward. Freedom of expression is a subjective issue in most countries across the world. Laws against blasphemy, sodomy and homosexuality existed in Europe until a few years/decades ago. The fact is that such laws still exist in many countries around the world. No one really knows how long it will take for the rest of the world to catch up with Europe — if ever. We have to recognise the fact that in most countries, freedom of expression is regulated by law and that cultural, ethnic and religious complexities prevent most of these countries from embracing western perceptions of freedom anytime soon. This is not an Islamic issue but is cross-cultural and can be found in many non-Muslim countries in different continents.
On the other hand, extremism is not unique to Islam, which is going through major tumult today as moderates try to battle and contain radicals. In Europe there are extremists who present their ideals under different banners. Whether it is the Christian right, neo-Nazis or ultra-right movements, extremists are trying to sway public opinion and often Islamophobia and anti-immigration are the ways to do it. Certainly, the attack on Charlie Hebdo will go a long way in aiding their cause.
But Europe’s problem with Muslims is only part of the challenge that Muslims face all around. Extremism is a threat that Muslim countries must face and address collectively. The battle must be waged in schools and in homes and not only in the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. Islam’s message of moderation and tolerance must be promoted to overcome the Salafist nihilist dogma that has found roots in our societies. It’s a long haul and the task is huge but it must be done if we are to honour and respect our religion and eventually preserve our culture.
The struggle to achieve this will be hard, but we must start now. Islam is the religion of more than a billion people and for most, it is a religion of peace and coexistence. The majority of Europe’s Muslims have integrated into society and are true defenders of Islam’s ideals. Islam remains one of the fastest growing religions in the world and that is not because of extremist ideology but a result of its moderate, open and tolerant message to all mankind.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.