The religion of peace showed how peaceful it was yet again this week with the ruthless and callous murders of 5 of France’s top cartoonists. The deranged actions of two gunmen wiped out the entire office of Charlie Hebdo and took the lives of 12 innocent people. The courageous staff knew the dangers they faced having had their premises fire bombed before and yet still summoned the courage and the resolve not to be intimidated. As their warm dead bodies lay lifeless, one of the gunmen shouted “We have avenged the prophet Muhammad”. The staff at Charlie Hebdo dedicated their careers and ultimately their lives to a just, necessary and noble cause, that being the advancement of human values through the medium of satire and comedy. They were not Islamophobic as their satire covered not just Islam but every strand of religion and politics. Undoubtedly their cartoons pushed the boundaries of satire when it came to Islam. However it was nothing that other religious and political figureheads hadn’t already received. The Pope, Jesus and other religious figures are openly satirised every day. This is not a bad thing as it is partly the reason why most Christians will respect my right and that of others to mock Christianity. Many will even agree that this is essential for the advancement of reason. This is not the case when it comes to Islam and this must be acknowledged. While the majority of Muslims in the western world are honest law abiding people who reject violence; one has to confront the delusion that the majority of people of the Islamic faith are as comfortable with secular values as Christians, Hindus or Jews. This is simply not true and if we are to confront the reasons why the vast majority of sporadic religiously motivated atrocities involve Islamists we must accept this.
The War on Terror needs to be a war of words not weapons.
While it is understandable that the relatives of the slain and many media outlets referred to the terrorists as murderous cowards and it is true that the staff didn’t have a fighting chance when confronted with armed terrorists, the reality is more disturbing. One thing the killers cannot be accused of is a lack of bravery. The reality is the fate of most terrorists who commit these types of atrocities is either death at the hands of swat teams or a life in prison. The chances of them getting away are remote to non-existent. They were not motivated by financial or other reward either. It was a stupid, heinous and evil act carried out by terrorists whose only reward was ideological. I say this not to trivialise the justified sense of anger and rage at this senseless act but rather to point out that we are fighting a battle of ideologies. This is still true when it is the actions of a lone wolf or mentally ill individual. They are not mutually exclusive. It was a devotion to a medieval sense of governance based on mythology and superstition of the worst form that motivated the gunmen to kill for simply ridiculing an ideology so senseless that humour must play a role in its opposition. The idea that millions of the world’s adherents of one particular religion get so enraged at silly drawings of a 7th century desert warlord is so childish that it would be the stuff of “The life of Brian” were it not resulting in countless acts of senseless violence. Our fear of Islamic terror on our streets has silenced the majority of the mainstream media into a deeply unjust and unnerving form of self-censorship. Their rationale is that publishing the cartoons may provoke more violence or unjustly hurt the sentiment of Muslims. While this is a legitimate and ethical concern in the short term, it is blind sighted in the long term. Our appeasement of words has not stopped the violence on the streets and every indicator suggests it is getting steadily worse. While Muslims may very well be offended by the publication, this is a necessary step in their enlightenment. When Europe’s Christians felt the same sense of grievance at having their religious figures mocked and questioned in previous centuries, Christendom was equally responsible for many of the horrors and human rights abuses that the Islamic world partakes in today.
The Killings Had Everything To Do With Islam
While it was somewhat heartening that many Imams and other Muslims in the western world came out to condemn the killings by suggesting that the killers were not Muslim and that they had offended the prophet by their evil deed; this view is not homogenous within the Islamic world. Sharia law holds that mocking the prophet Muhammad is a mortal sin and as such the penalty can be anything up to death. In countries that adopt Sharia law such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and many more, the fate of the staff at Charlie Hebdo would be almost the exact same at the level of the State. The only difference would be the method of execution. Pakistani madrassas turn out thousands of students who study the Koran to a degree at least as high as any western scholar of Islam. They have a very clear version of Islam and it is one that is very different to the sincerely held convictions of the Muslims in France whose heart was in the right place when they condemned the killings. The same can be said for Saudi Arabia’s version of Islam. Undoubtedly Muslims who live in secular majority cultures have a much more benign form of religious belief for the most part than their counterparts in the Middle East. Islamic sentiment also becomes more benign in some of the former Soviet States. It goes without saying that the majority of Muslims in the UK, Ireland and the west do not support or condone violence but that is not enough to make them moderate Muslims.
Being a moderate Muslim involves more than condemning murders: It involves celebrating free speech
Many of my liberal friends were eager to post links about the heroic Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabet who bravely gave his life defending French secular values. He was gunned down by Islamic terrorists as he dutifully tried to protect those satirising his faith from those extremists of his own creed who did not share his version of what it meant to be a Muslim. He was a moderate Muslim but more importantly a hero. He is the vision that both liberals and moderate Muslims want the Islamic religion to be. However it is delusional to believe that there are not millions of Muslims in western countries who do not share these liberal ideals. Even many of those who condemned the murders could not be described as moderate Muslims. One could always argue that the word moderate is subjective which it is, however when taken in a western context, Muslims who do not support free speech and want to curtail it by invoking anti-blasphemy laws could only be deemed as fundamentalist extremists. It is fair to say that an enormous number of western Muslims (if not an outright majority), support anti-blasphemy laws with strong penalties. In Middle Eastern Muslim society, anti-blasphemy laws are the norm and are often enforced by special branches of religious police. Perhaps increased levels of religious sensitivity among Muslims are the reason why Islam gives rise to so much senseless violence. The corollary of this is that violence and terrorism may very well be reduced when the majority of the world’s Muslims realise that it is healthy and indeed necessary to engage in satire and allow critical dissent.
Dr Ali Selim is a case in point
This week Ireland witnessed what can only be described as a threat to democracy that took place on Prime Time television. On the day of the massacre one of the spokesmen for the Islamic Cultural Centre in Dublin warned that if any media outlet published the cartoons that resulted in the murders, he would seek to punish them under Ireland’s outdated anti-blasphemy legislation. His chances of securing a conviction under this law are near to impossible as most writers and critics wish to stand in solidarity with the slain and are not acting in an effort to produce mass religious offence. Offence is a secondary consequence of legitimate argument and necessary ridicule of the absurdities and ultimate harm caused by tyrannical unquestioned ideologies, religious or otherwise. The anti-blasphemy law explicitly states that comedic or academic value and intellectual argument are fully covered against prosecution. The fact that he went on to use the denial of the murder of millions of the world’s Jews during the holocaust as an example of a limitation of free speech only furthers my opinion that he is an extremist. It is perverse in the extreme to compare the satire of a 7th century figurehead with the genocide of millions. It is deeply ironic that he has written articles about Islamophobia in Ireland and the dangers of stereotyping Muslims. While I’m sure there are many moderate Muslims living in Ireland, Ali Selim is not one of them. Neither are Muslims who support his dictatorial views. He is an extremist and a threat to democracy. Moderate Muslims who support democracy and secular values need to distance themselves from him. This is not because they have anything to prove to non-Muslims, but rather he may very well cause genuine anti-Islamic sentiment and genuine Islamophobia. It is in the interest of moderates who wish to experience as little prejudice as possible to accept criticism and ridicule of your religion as a normal everyday experience. Christians do and even those of no faith are often criticised. Acceptance of criticism is a duty we all owe as members of a civilised society. This is rightly the case for every other religious and political leader.
Those who ridicule Islam are not haters in the same way those who ridicule the Pope or George W Bush are not haters either. No matter how opposed one is to any given ideology it does not constitute hate or intolerance. Not even if that ideology is ridiculed or lampooned in the most extreme way. On the contrary attempts to censor free speech for these reasons are an act of intolerance. If a Muslim is aggrieved by an argument or cartoon it is perfectly acceptable for them to argue their case against the views of their opponent and even attempt to ridicule them but it is never OK to let ones outrage cause oneself to seek to move toward censorship or violence. Unfortunately many Muslims do not share these values and the outrage shown to trivial things results in a minority taking this inappropriate rage to its most extreme form as in violent acts of terrorism.
A fitting tribute to the deceased staff at Charlie Hebdo
One way to honour the values of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo would be for the world’s superpowers to realise that Islamic extremism should be defeated by the argument of words and cartoons and not by bombing countries far away in the hope that they will assume democracy. Just as the Christian enlightenment happened by words and not violence so too will the Islamic version. There is hope. I just heard a Radio Kerry interview with a member of Atheist Ireland, Peter Hinchliffe and Dr. Rizwan Khan, a genuinely moderate Muslim spokesman who believed in free speech. Self-righteous US conservatives who openly cheered the war in Iraq while simultaneously stigmatising those who argue against religion have now created a monster. That monster is ISIS. It is the reason why we need to have the courage to stand up for secular values even more. World leaders and Islamic spokesmen continually wave the idea that it is the extremists that hijack the religion. I disagree. With the exception of some of the former soviet Muslim majority states such as Azerbaijan, most other countries with Muslim majorities are repressive in nature. If all the other indicators such as economic deprivation that are often cited as arguments for the growth of extremism really were the causative agent for Islamic violence then why do we not see as many sporadic bombings and killings in the name of Christianity among its poor and disadvantaged? Certainly poverty does not help the problem of any form of extremism, however Islamic extremism cannot be solely blamed on this as oil rich nations such as Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are also repressive in nature despite having huge financial resources at their disposal.
Today I heard yet another variant of Islamic apologetics from Reza Aslan. It is the argument that the so called “New Atheists” are unsophisticated in their treatment of Islam and that they generalise too much. He went on to say that there is no one Muslim State and that Islam is encompassed by several different cultures. Atheist critics of Islam don’t need to be told this as we already know. It is the very reason why it is not racist, bigoted or in any way intolerant to point out the inherent failings of Islam. Its worst failings are in its very birth place of Saudi Arabia. It has reduced one of the richest nations on earth to the level of human rights abuses of some of the poorest. Due to poverty and corruption, Christian extremism is rampant in many African nations notably such places as Nigeria and Uganda; however the degree of Christian extremism is greatly surpassed by that of Islamic militancy. Al Shabaab militants and tribal warlords have reduced Somalia to one of the most dangerous countries on earth. While Nigeria has its fair share of problems with Christian preachers such as Helen Ukpabio who are doing untold damage by instilling the notion of childhood demonic possession that results in a generation of lost children; again this tragedy is dwarfed by the affairs of Boko Haram. On the same day as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Boko Haram was responsible for the loss of life of up to 2000 people in Baga town Nigeria. When Islamic apologists deflect an argument by saying all religions have their extremists, it is them who are generalising and not the critics of Islam. One point that he did correct Bill Maher on was the issue of female genital mutilation that is not specifically a Muslim tradition although there were cases of Muslims in Europe being sent abroad to have this procedure. Aslan even suggested that Indonesia was an ideal Muslim State. This is a country where 76% of adherents wish to have sharia law and almost half of those support the stoning to death of adulterers and the amputation of limbs for petty theft. Indonesia recently imprisoned Alex Aan for coming out as an Atheist. He was assaulted by work colleagues who were not prosecuted and had to receive the assistance of Amnesty International to act on his behalf. In France one poll suggested that 16% of French Muslims supported ISIS. This amounts to a rough estimate of up to 700,000 French Muslims who essentially want to usher in a period similar to the 14th century Christian crusades.
Islamic terrorism is not an extremism problem. Violent extremism is an inevitable outcome of extreme literal interpretation of 7th century texts and a predominantly serious culture that is unable to laugh at itself.
Muslims have to realise that their religion itself is extreme. The bar chart below goes to the heart of why the Islamic world is torn.
The vast majority of Muslims of all cultures and skin colour believe the Koran is the inherent word of the creator of the universe and wish to implement a legal system based on a 7th century mind set. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims equate the insult of Muhammad as being as bad as any crime committed against another human. One can only refer to Sam Harris “mother load of bad ideas” expression. Such a view of the world is not compatible with genuine scientific and ethical progress.
We must not be afraid to criticise and satirise Islam. Innocent Muslims must have full protection from those who would oppress them. Our enlightened society recognises their right to practice their religion privately. Violence against Muslims or their property is never an acceptable outcome of our genuine concerns about where this religion is going. In times of Islamic terrorist atrocities their communities and mosques need protection from criminal thugs who serve no useful purpose. However we have no duty to grant intellectual respect to any religion especially when it results in deaths on our streets. In these instances ridicule and satire as well as peaceful protest are essential. Our reluctance and inability to do so has ultimately driven us to war with violent extremists, a minority that stem from an extreme form of religion itself. The staff at Charlie Hebdo were not guilty of this failure of global politics. Their fearless dedication to liberal free speech cost them their lives.
This blog is dedicated to the memory of all who died defending freedom in Paris and to those who still summon the courage to confront militant Islam without fear.
Nous sommes tous Charlie
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