Thursday, January 8, 2015

Going to extremes - The Charlie Hebdo massacre and Islam in Europe

The massacre on Wednesday at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris should be of grave concern to Muslims worldwide.

Whenever crimes like these occur, there are always Muslims there to condemn it, to tell us that Islam is a religion of peace, “real Islam.” Unfortunately, religions tend only to be as healthy as those practicing them, and the reality is that many Muslim communities today are in a state of turmoil, whether in the Middle East, Asia or Europe.

But blaming “Islam” for what happened this week makes no more sense than blaming “Christianity” for every abuse inflicted by Christians on their own societies or others. And yet the blunt reality is that, as Europeans have watched the panoply of violence taking place in recent months, they have seen that in most cases the perpetrators happened to be Muslim.

From the rolling atrocities carried out by ISIS in Iraq and Syria or Boko Haram in Nigeria and Cameroon, to the hostage crisis in Sydney in December, to the Charlie Hebdo killings this week, it seems that crimes are being carried out in the name of one particular religion. And if this hijacking of Islam is unacceptable to believers — and most of them insist it is — then Muslims have a duty to reclaim what they consider to be their true faith.

This is more essential than ever with anti-Islamic sentiment rising in many European countries, illustrated most recently by the large Pegida demonstration in Dresden. Muslim communities in Europe are facing the risk of pariah status. While there are many more Europeans, perhaps a majority, who refuse to condemn all Muslims for the crimes of a few, it is up to Muslims to take the lead in averting such an outcome.

How might they do so? The representative of France’s Muslims, Dalil Boubakeur, pointed his coreligionists in the right direction in a statement he made on the steps of the Elysee Palace, after meeting with President Francois Hollande and representatives of France’s other religious communities. “We feel the need to do everything possible, each in [his or her] religious community [and] family, to mobilize the faithful [on behalf of a] feeling of conviviality, of [a desire to] live together, and at the same time of prevention,” Boubakeur stated.

Those are worthy objectives, but they are easier said than done. Muslim communities are as pluralistic as non-Muslim communities, and radical groups, along with their preachers, are never easy to marginalize. Worse, extremists often hold the upper hand because of their ability to intimidate the majority.

And yet Boubakeur is correct in saying that French Muslims must focus on propagating coexistence while also working actively to prevent the perpetuation of crimes. In this regard, there was a particularly poignant message in the fact that both the policeman coldly executed by the gunmen while lying on the ground and a Charlie Hebdo proofreader were Muslim. It is often Muslims who suffer the most from Islamic extremism.

The great transformation in the secular West came when religion was banished to the realm of personal belief and taken out of public life. Many Muslims accept this, but many do not. Perhaps that’s because Islam has historically been as much a project for governance as a guide for personal behavior.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre was a logical extension of the assumption that religion is somehow superior to the rules of society, so that murder in response to religious satire is somehow regarded as justifiable. Most Muslims likely reject such a principle, but until they can impose the legitimacy of a separation of church and state on even the most recalcitrant members of their communities, deep problems will persist.

Part of the difficulty is that the European ethos contains an ambiguity. On the one hand it mandates freedom of opinion, so that Muslims are allowed to think more or less as they please; on the other, demanding that Muslims shut their religion, an essential part of their identity, away in a suitcase and unequivocally embrace secularism seems to limit such freedom.

Respect for the law can erase this ambiguity, but not everyone navigates the fine line in the same way. Just as freedom of expression allows one to insult religion, it can allow others to insult those doing the insulting. Nor is it only Muslims who miss the nuances. Throughout Western societies there are countless people who will defend freedom, for as long as that freedom doesn’t lead to attacks against what they hold dearly.    
The irony in the case of France is that it appears to be a country where relations between the religious communities are good. A Pew Research Center poll conducted last year found that 72% of the French held a favorable opinion of Muslims, making France the European country with the least critical attitude toward Muslims. The unfortunate talent of the far-right in France has been to persuade people of precisely the contrary.

That is not to say that all is perfect between France’s different communities, but it does mean that there is something to build upon and that the narrative of communal relationships need not be characterized by perpetual antagonism and hostility.

It also means that moderates in the Muslim community must be proactive in putting extremists on the defensive and upholding the secular values at the heart of European societies. At the same time non-Muslims must stop exploiting communal differences in destructive and demagogical ways, to satisfy their prejudices or advance political agendas.

The lessons are perhaps not that difficult to grasp. However, as communal tensions and incomprehension rise in Europe, they will be infinitely more difficult to implement. 

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