Given the current tensions between many Muslims and the West, further events like the bleak Parisian January cannot unfortunately be excluded. Such tensions, however, will only be further exacerbated by the selective application of free speech and culturally-insensitive, one-sided provocations.
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By Vladimir Ninković
In 2012 the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published caricatures which stirred such controversy that French embassies and schools in twenty countries were shut for several days. The caricatures mocked and belittled Islam through depictions of the prophet Muhammad in obscene poses, which triggered further outrage throughout a Muslim world already upset by a short YouTube film presenting Muhammad as a womanizer. Two and a half years later, the Charlie Hebdo shooting shook the world.
The facts of the attack were instantly conveyed by global media: two masked gunmen, later identified as returnees from Jihad in Syria – the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi – stormed the satirical magazine’s premises, where a staff meeting was being held, and opened fire. The outcome was twelve casualties, including journalists, caricaturists and the editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stephane Charbonnier, and two policemen. After an extensive two day manhunt, the perpetrators were killed on 9th January. At the same time, a policewoman was killed in Paris by another member of the ‘same Jihadist cell’, Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked a kosher supermarket in east Paris on January 9th, killing four people and taking a number of hostages before he was himself gunned down.
The shootings were received with shock, disbelief and revolt. The attack was proclaimed an attack on free speech, free thought and Western civilization itself. Social media was swarmed with the words ‘Je Suis Charlie’ and pictures of a pencil being broken in two, giving rise to two more pencils. ‘Je suis Charlie’ protests were organized in most European cities. In a sign of solidarity, many media outlets republished controversial Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures. Christian and Muslim leaders condemned the attacks and expressed grief for the victims.
Many, however, treated the ‘attack on free thought’ thesis with a great deal of skepticism. After the first wave of shock, the fairness of Charlie’s cartoons has come under scrutiny. Salah-Aldeen Khadr, Al-Jazeera English’s editor and executive producer, who had accused the redaction of Charlie Hebdo of solipsism, stated that, “defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile.”
Solipsism is a good description of publishing insulting caricatures in a country where over four million citizens profess Muslim faith, where social unrest occurs on regular basis (mostly due to ghettoization of first and second generation immigrants from Muslim countries), and where Islamism or political Islam (we should keep in mind that terrorism is always a political, not a religious act, with political and not religious goals) has become a popular alternative to mainstream politics among the alienated and disenchanted youth from poor neighborhoods of French cities.
Even though France is believed to be one of the most liberal societies, French law allows freedoms to be suspended in cases of serious security risk and political/social unrest. It is curious why key freedoms were not invoked in some recent, less controversial cases; for instance, when pro-Palestine rallies were forbidden and public appearance of the comedian Dieudonne (himself a Muslim), whose idea of humor includes tasteless anti-Semitic jokes , banned. Charlie Hebdo’s own past record was far from immaculate. A cartoonist was sacked on the grounds of anti-Semitism for commenting on a news item that Nicholas Sarkozy’s son converted to Judaism in order to marry a rich heiress of Jewish descent: ‘This boy will go far’.
“Why do Muslims take these ‘jokes’ so seriously?” – is a question often posed on social media. Is violence something inherent to Islam, are Muslims really that fanatically religious that they are ready to take someone’s life for a bad joke? This is not the case. Religion certainly plays a significant part in the lives of many Muslims, but there are socio-political reasons that can help us to better grasp this and controversial subject. The growing feeling of humiliation and the sense of being treated unfairly is prevalent in the contemporary Muslim world, including Muslim communities in Europe and the USA. In some instances, as shown by the previous paragraph, their grievances are rather justifiable. It should also be noted that Islamist terrorism in Europe is relatively rare compared to acts committed by separatist, extreme left and extreme right groups.
In his seminal work, “The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation and Hope Reshape the World”, French political scientist Dominique Moisi argues that the emotion that shapes and influences the Islamic world is humiliation; compared to fear in the Western world (fear of the other, of the future and of a loss of identity, as exploited by populist movements) and the prevalence of hope in eastern Asian cultures. According to Moisi, “the culture of humiliation helps unite the Muslim world around its most radical forces and has led to a culture of hatred.” This is a recent phenomenon, influenced and triggered by geopolitics and historical events in the twentieth Century; not something inherent to Islam.
Without delving too deep into history, the Twentieth Century was a relative disaster for most Muslim states and believers – apart from a few Gulf monarchies. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East and the North of Africa was divided between Western colonial powers – primarily France and Great Britain – which installed puppet leaders supportive of colonial or semi-colonial rule. The creation of the state of Israel on land which was for more than a millennium controlled by Muslim rulers and which contains some of the most sacred places in Islam was seen by Muslims as the ultimate disaster. It was seen as Muslims unfairly paying for the crimes against Jews committed in Europe.
For Moisi, “the unresolved conflict between Israel and its neighbors has helped turn the culture of humiliation into a culture of hatred. Over time, the conflict’s national character has shifted to its original religious basis – a conflict between Muslims and Jews, if not a clash between Islam and the West at large. The combination of the deepening civil war in Iraq and the fighting in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel has reinforced a sense of outrage in many Muslims that has been fully exploited by Iran and its allies.”
The culture of humiliation also found its place among Muslim diaspora. There is disenchantment with the ‘modern world’ and the sense that roles are definitely set – the West and the highly-developed East Asian countries will be rulers; Muslims will be slaves. This has prompted many Muslims to turn to religion as the only comfort available and the escapist dreams of the “Golden Age” of the Caliphate. Moreover, this has deepened the gap and increased animosity between East and West. As societies in the West become increasingly secular, so societies in the Muslim world are getting more religious and conservative.
In such societies in crisis, totalitarian ideologies flourish; and not without Western influence. Indeed, the Manifesto of Muslim Brotherhood, written in 1936, contains ideas that arguably bear much resemblance to European totalitarian ideologies. Communism and Fascism rose from the alienation of the ‘common people’ from the ruling elites and a shared odium towards liberalism as a degenerate ideology. Unlike in Europe, however, the situation in the Muslim world after World War Two did not improve. Political Islam has been further radicalized by the teachings of Sayyid Qutb, which stress the need to return to ‘pure Islam’, adherence to strict Sharia law, vigilance against ‘Jewish and Christian conspiracies against Islam’ and on offensive Jihad for the sake of establishing an Islamic society, not only in Islamic states, but all over the world. The execution of Qutb by Nasser’s forces in 1966 gave Qutb an aura of martyr which served to further promote his ideas.
Qutb’s ideas additionally radicalized Islamist movements (apart from the Muslim Brotherhood, which in today’s terms may be considered moderate), which continue to gain popularity. Nevertheless, some Islamist groups and organizations radicalized enough to commit terrorist acts only after the Islamic revolution in Iran, which signified the dethroning of a corrupt, albeit liberal supported by the West, Shah Reza Pahlavi. The first such attack occurred in Lebanon in 1983, by the Shia-organization Hezbollah, supported by Iran. Soon afterwards, other Muslim countries started using terrorist organizations as proxies – Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Pakistan – to name a few. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan meant the establishment of Mujahedeen – Jihadi guerilla with volunteers from all over the Muslim world (financially and materially supported by the West) that would gain important battle experience fighting against well-trained and equipped Soviet forces. Terrorist acts proliferated in the next decades, albeit mostly in Muslim countries with tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims, but also in the Israel and Russia. The ‘Arabic Spring’ brought Islamist parties to power in some countries, whilst causing ongoing civil wars in others; thereby further exacerbated the security situation in the Middle East and Northern Africa, resulting in the creation of ISIS – arguably the biggest achievement of Islamist radicals so far.
Facilitating causes of recent instances of Islamist extremism and terrorism can be found in new technologies, especially in the field of communications and IT. Wars led by the West in Muslim countries, with easily accessible images of atrocities, served as an amplifier and fuel for hatred. The presence of radical Islamist organizations on the Internet is ubiquitous, especially on social media, which are ideal recruitment vehicles through videos, images and texts which directly impact their feeling of humiliation and anger. The videos of atrocities and war crimes committed by the ‘other side’, the peaceful faces of ‘shaheeds’ killed in action, preaching of radical mullahs and terrorist leaders with their solemn expressions and humble clothes leave a huge impression, particularly on young and disposed people. The number of European volunteers in Syria is growing, particularly volunteers from France. Returnees from Jihad increase the risk of terrorist attacks, in particular those with lethal outcomes; with the Kouachi Brothers providing living proof of this thesis.
Given the current tensions between many Muslims and the West (but also against Russia, for instance) – which are, among other things, the fruit of mismanaged foreign policies towards the Middle East and the poor socioeconomic status of European Muslims – further events like the bleak Parisian January cannot unfortunately be excluded. Such tensions will, however, only be exacerbated by the selective application of free speech and culturally-insensitive, one-sided provocations. Ridiculing Islam will not lead to moderation, as the extremist narrative is too powerful to be challenged by banal humor. This does not imply advocating of any sort of censorship: freedom is and must remain the highest value of a civilized world. However, free choice, free expression and free speech that disregards the reality of the context are unlikely to bring any constructive good.
Vladimir Ninković is a project officer for security at TransConflict Serbia.
This article is published as part of TransConflict’s project, Confronting Extremism, which aims to improve understanding about the concept of extremism itself, plus the groups and ideologies that manifest extremism in their aims, rhetoric and activities. This article does not reflect the views of any particular organization.