Sunday, January 11, 2015

Charlie and Ahmed: Two Sides of the Fight against Violent Extremism

The attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office and kosher market in Paris that left 17 dead this week defy human language: words like unthinkable, unconscionable, inhuman, and barbarous simply don’t go far enough to describe the shock and sorrow felt by people all over the world. Thankfully, it is unimaginable to most people to commit such heinous acts of violence against a group of people simply for drawing a cartoon or writing an article. Whatever your opinion of the “offensive” work of Charlie Hebdo, most voices seem to be in agreement that no one deserves to die for causing offense. (Most.)

Yet as shocking as the attack is, it is not all that surprising. That it occurred in the middle of Paris, a Western city in a Western country, is slightly out of the ordinary for a contemporary terrorist attack. Much more often, we read about attacks from the supposed safety of Western communities as Islamabad, Baghdad, Kabul, Aleppo (and on and on) burn and bleed. This type of terrorist attack (akin to small-scale urban warfare) is growing more commonplace nonetheless, and attacks like the ones in Paris this week and the Boston Marathon bombings show that the West is far from immune from extremist violence. The growing pains (to put it mildly) felt by European nations as they struggle to forge common bonds among citizens from diverse backgrounds speak to similar struggles in the Muslim-majority world to bridge communal divides. Regardless of their vastly different political landscapes, efforts at integration and harmonization have similar effects in both regions: usually division, sometimes violence.

Just as France attempts to bridge the divides between xenophobes and Muslim citizens, conservative protectionists and liberal integrationists, so too do Muslim-majority countries attempt to bring together secularists, liberals, and conservatives; Sunnis, Shi’ites, and other religious minorities. The result in recent decades has been a rise in Islamist extremist violence that has affected Muslims more than any other group. The vast majority of victims of Islamist extremist terrorism – about 98 percent from 2006-2008 – are themselves citizens of Muslim-majority countries, and most are Muslims themselves. The attack in France took the lives of 17 French-born citizens, but some came from Muslim-majority countries (such as Mustapha Ourrad, an Algerian-born immigrant) and the policeman that the gunmen executed, Ahmed Merabet, was himself a Muslim. Four Jewish French citizens were murdered on Friday as well, and Jews are the second most-affected group by extremist terrorism since 2000.
Ahmed Merabet: French citizen, policeman,
killed by terrorists (he even looks like a nice guy)
That Muslims are overwhelmingly the victims of such attacks of terror points to the real battle being waged by groups like Al Qaeda, Islamic State, and Boko Haram: while their stated war aims may pit Muslims against the West, their real battle is between their tiny sliver of the Muslim world and the entire rest of humanity, including the “wrong sort” of Muslim. Ahmed Merabet’s Islam couldn’t save him because he represented “bad Muslims”: he worked for a hated Western state and wore the uniform of its supposed oppressors. For this, despite his religion, Mr. Merabet was executed in the street by men proclaiming to share his faith. When an accomplice took hostages in a kosher grocery store on Friday, a Muslim employee, Lassana Bathily, hid shoppers in a walk-in freezer, shielding them from the gunman's wrath. It is other Muslims, just as much as it is satirists, and liberals, and secularists, and Jewish people, who threaten the extremist ideology of these terrorists. By integrating in and participating in democratic societies in the West, and fighting back against bigotry and repression in Muslim-majority countries, these Muslims wage an everyday war against extremism.

Of course, the perpetrators of Wednesday's attack have been denounced as no “true Muslims” by many leaders in the Muslim community. The terrorists' ideology is not one shared by the majority of Muslims, and their actions are viewed as sacrilege committed in the name of God. Yet difficult conversations need to take place within all communities in the Western world, be they staunchly atheist or devoutly pious, and these cannot occur without honest examination of why these attacks are occurring at the hands of Islamist extremist groups that use religious arguments to justify their violence. As Yascha Mounk of Slate puts it:

“The terrorism of ISIS and al-Qaida no more defines Islam than the Crusades or the Inquisition define Christianity. But just as no historian can make sense of the nature of the Crusades without grappling seriously with the religious beliefs of their protagonists, so too it is impossible to make sense of Islamic terrorism without taking seriously the religious motivations of those who perpetrate it.”

Islam no more promotes violence than does Christianity, or Judaism, or any of the other major world religions, especially in their modern incarnations. But those who wish to change the status quo of offenses given and taken by both sides, leading to xenophobia and violence, must be willing to confront the origins of these religious and political messages, whether individuals receive them in a mosque or at a Marine Le Pen rally. Anders Breivik, the far-right terrorist who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, was just as much a terrorist as the perpetrators of this weeks attacks, and his violence was begotten from the opposite corner of the political spectrum. Unless the sources of these hatreds are identified and addressed, the unending cycle of violence will continue.

Divided societies produce disenfranchised people on either side of any debate, some of whom are willing (and unhinged enough) to commit atrocities in the name of their “cause.” Without freedom of expression, assembly, and organization of civil society, there is no hope to combat these forces of bigotry and hate. The satirists of Charlie Hebdo challenged extremism head on, with sometimes offensive cartoons and articles that nonetheless are a crucial component of free debate; Ahmed Merabet challenged extremism in a much more common way, by integrating into French society and even donning a police uniform to protect it. The current swell of Islamic extremist terrorism is only one example from the pages of human history, which are splattered with the blood of victims of extremism of all colors. Society requires both Charlies and Ahmeds to combat it. Governments, societies, and, yes, religious establishments must fight back against extremism using all of the weapons in democracy’s arsenal: universal human rights, open debate, education of citizens, cross-community cooperation and, eventually, integration.

The pen may have lost to the proverbial sword in Wednesday's attack, but in cutting down ten of French journalism’s most controversial satirists, the terrorists have only reinforced the ideals their victims fought for. Their satires have circulated more widely than ever, their names will forever be recorded in history as defenders of free speech. If the international community, especially French citizens, are able to react to this attack not with racism and xenophobia, but compassion and inclusion, then the pen will have risen up once again, to prove that guns can kill an idea no more than a cartoon can kill a religion. For that to happen, people must look within themselves, and their own communities, to question how and why four young people could twist a religion's message so much, and cause so much carnage as a result.

**For more information about the 17 victims of this week's attacks, please see this article and learn about their lives. Out of respect for the victims and survivors, I refrain from giving more notoriety to the terrorists by naming them in this article.

No comments:

Post a Comment