What is it about Islam? Why is it that time after time, violent atrocities are committed in its name by hateful, intolerant individuals or groups who claim to be acting on behalf of their God?
In the aftermath of the murderous attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s journalists and their police protectors (one of whom – Ahmed Merabet – was reportedly a French Muslim, by the way) and shoppers in a kosher Parisian supermarket, I struggle with trying to understand why the Muslim religion seems to inspire such an ideology of intolerance and absolutism, over and over, in a substantial number of its adherents. It is not the religion itself: there is nothing explicit in mainstream Islam, or apparently in the Koran (I have not read it), that advocates murdering those whose ideas or beliefs you disagree with. In fact, Muslims are explicitly commanded not to kill women, children or the aged, nor to torture or otherwise ill-treat prisoners.
Or to put it another way, all the major religions – including Judaism and Christianity – can be said to have intolerance and prejudice against the Other built into their DNA and liturgy, yet it is overwhelmingly Muslims committing the heinous terrorist acts that repeatedly make the headlines. Why?
And the phenomenon is global, apparently wherever there are Muslim communities: from Islamic State and the Nusra Front in Iraq and Syria to the tribal chaos in Libya, El Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram and Ansaru in Nigeria, Al Qaeda in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (which covers Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria), the Mourabitounes of West Africa, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hamas in Palestine, terrorist groups in Chechnya and Russia, Egypt and Sudan, the Philippines and Thailand. How about the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan? Or Hizbullah in Turkey? Or the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen in Bangladesh? Or the Janjaweed of Darfur? The list goes on and on. Then there are the many terrorist attacks by radicalized Islamist individuals on soft targets in Western cities such as those committed in London, Madrid, Amsterdam, Sydney, and now Paris.
The common denominator is the murder, torture, rape, and terror of innocent civilians by individuals or groups who act in – and pervert – the name of Allah. When the Charlie Hebdo killers shouted “Allahu Akbar!” in the streets of Paris after their murderous rampage, they knew exactly what they were saying and who they claimed to act for. While most mainstream Muslim institutions and organizations quickly repudiated the Charlie Hebdo attack in unambiguous terms, it is pointless to deny the relationship between violence and radical Islam. But violent, radical Islam does not represent the majority of Muslim believers.
While all religions (mine included) have their share of intolerant adherents who demand absolute conformity with the most fundamentalist interpretations of their faith, it seems to me that Islam is the one monotheistic religion that has least come to terms with coexistence in a pluralistic, democratic, post-Enlightenment world. Perhaps that’s part of the answer: that many of these traditional Muslim societies have never undergone the processes of modernization, Reformation and Enlightenment that define the West today.
This is not an easy thing to discuss in public: it is easy to be branded as racist or anti-Islam (just as today many Jews fail to distinguish between those legitimately opposing Israel’s policies and anti-semitism). I am not. But that is to miss the point. We all are at risk, regardless of our religion. Indeed, a lot of radical Islamic violence is directed at other Muslims. As George Packer put it in the New Yorker this week, these killers are fighting “a war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance, pluralism, and the right to offend—against everything decent in a democratic society.” That should – and does – concern Muslims as much as Jews and Christians.
While it would be easy, even understandable, in the aftermath of an outrage such as these latest attacks in the City of Light, to see this as part of an emerging “Clash of Civilizations” – and for many Europeans in particular who have experienced rising Muslim immigration it increasingly feels like this – the reality is more complex than that. Perhaps it is closer to the truth to describe this as a war between civilization itself and those who are not yet civilized, regardless of their religious affiliation.
Whatever we agree to call it, I know where I stand: with those – Muslim, Jewish, Christian or whatever – who cherish the freedom to each think what we want, and the tolerance that permits this freedom, and will fight to defend this freedom even if we don’t agree with each other.
© Lance Berelowitz