Islam and Violence – getting our thoughts in order

I posted last week on my outrage and revulsion of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, 7/Jan/2015. Those of us in the UK, France, other European and Western countries, and many around the world, expressed similar outrage. Now what?

I spent a good part of the last week thinking about my own reaction, and researching all manner of Islam-related topics on the net. To my surprise, along with much to be depressed about, I found some specific and unexpected resources – all created by Muslims – that give me some hope. (See ‘Resources’ in the middle of this post).

A few reflections…

I think it’s safe to say that the main component of our anger is to do with the attack on freedom of expression – the right to have an opinion and to critique other opinions and ideas. For us Satire is one of the best forms of critique. Since the European Enlightenment, Western countries, and many non-Western countries have separated civil society from religion and built secular legal systems designed to limit the use of violence to wars and self-defence, protect citizens from crime, and enshrine various freedoms: particularly those of thought and speech, and freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, religion etc. These legal systems generally conform to a reasonable extent to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.  Religious institutions, along with all other organisations and individuals in such countries must function within the secular state, and can no longer impose rules that violate the secular legal framework. Religion’s role in the society of Western countries is now mostly in the realm of personal faith and communitarian activity. In other secular countries, the situation is similar, although unstable. Turkey for example may be sliding toward some kind of Islamism.

One of the achievements of the Enlightenment was to have normalised the understanding that ideas and opinions aren’t criminal, only acts are. People realised that it wasn’t reasonable to impose punishments (often horrifically violent) upon ordinary people for their particular choice of religion, stated opinions or other ideas. The so-called crimes of ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’ disappeared, and we rightly ridicule them today.

It’s no accident that the Charlie Hebdo attack resulted in 3.7 million people marching in solidarity in the streets of major French cities, and many more around the world: this particular assassination was an attack on our freedom of thought and expression – arguably the defining characteristic of a ‘free society’.

But what do we do now? Things are a mess. More terrorist acts appear imminent (10,000 soldiers are now on the streets in French and Belgian cities, many to protect Jewish areas); normal Muslims in Europe and elsewhere are once again worried about being victimised as supporters of the terrorists; the rest of us remain incensed, but we are not sure where to direct our outrage. Unbelievably, 200 Pakistani lawyers are striking in Karachi, burning French flags and demanding that an international law should be passed to ban sacrilegious acts against the Prophet Mohammed (my analysis of this one: it’s the ‘identity’ problem; see below).

We appear to be at a moment of great social instability.

After curbing my own personal outrage at the Charlie Hebdo act somewhat, I thought to myself, right, we need to get our thoughts straight on all of this, otherwise, what comes next – in the media, in late night TV debates, in the street – could be a complete waste of time, and may indeed turn very nasty. But what are we to think? The airwaves and internet are awash with cries to do everything from eject all Muslims to bombing the middle east (to be fair this can by now be regarded as an automatic recording from the bowels of the US war-loving extreme right) to sitting down and understanding our differences and working together to heal.

My personal view is that we have to start by asking ourselves: what kind of society do we really want? My quick answer is: well it’s the one we already thought we had – the one in which people can think what they like, disagreements of opinion are frequent and normal, we get on in the civil sphere, for example at work and at school. A key assumption here is that we don’t want a society in which some segment is treated as a pariah, or in which there is mutual intolerance between various groups. We try hard (mostly) to eradicate racism for example, and society as a whole is learning to understand and live better with LGBT minorities, immigrants from unfamiliar countries and so on. In my preferred society, I don’t want to have in my mind certain categories of people I won’t talk to, or am afraid of, or despise. There may well be ideas I despise, but we have to treat people as not being the same as their ideas, even if many of them (all of us?) are, for extended periods of time. If this isn’t the case, then I will see the society in which I live as diseased.

So far so obvious. Except things are far from obvious right now. If we just consider a few of the facts that appear before us at the beginning of 2015, it’s easy to see why everyone is shouting at everyone else:

  • all terrorist acts perpetrated by Muslims in the West are justified by them as being in the name of their faith, in defence of Muhammed, in revenge for slights to Islam etc, sometimes in addition to various political justifications (e.g. that the US should leave the middle east).
  • many terrorist acts and acts of war perpetrated by Muslims on Muslims elsewhere in the world are also justified by their perpetrators as being in the name of their religion, generally a more ‘pure’ or ‘proper’ Islam that must be installed in Muslim populations / states that have lost their way.
  • about 1/4 of the planet’s population, or 1.6 billion people, are Muslim. Most are clearly not interested or involved in any kind of religious violence against the West or internally, or none of us would be here.
  • ‘Islam’ appears politically incomprehensible to many non-Muslims. Non-Muslims can’t figure out if it is represented by:
  • Muslim organisations in the West and around the world routinely and publicly condemn both kinds of violence: e.g. 45 Muslim organisations on the Charlie Hebdo massacre;
  • Islam is opaque to many in terms of denominations: what about all those strands of Islam – Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Wahhabi, Salafi? There is a problem of understanding.
    • It is clear from Muslim blogs, chat rooms and public debates that many young Muslims in the West don’t necessarily have a clear idea themselves (although I have discovered that Wahhabis are very unpopular indeed), and are in fact vulnerable with respect to where they ‘get educated’;
  • The US has hundreds of military bases around the world, including in every middle eastern country except Iran.
  • The US provides $3bn per year in economic and military aid to Israel, making a total of $140bn since the 1970s.
  • Israel continues to ‘settle’ the West Bank, the part of Palestine occupied since the 1967 Six Day war.
  • Of the 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), as rated by the Economists Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy, none are full democracies, while 36 are authoritarian regimes (dictatorships)…. Muslims are over 23 percent of the world population and produce barely eight percent of global GDP [source].
  • There is a recognised ignorance in the West about what the vast majority of Muslims not engaged in violence think. Do they secretly support the bombers, or are they appalled? Opinions on this question range from Bill Maher’s ‘hundreds of millions support violence’ to the opposite extreme (Reza Aslan’s response to Bill Maher and generally unbalanced argumentation is worth a look).

No wonder we can’t talk to each other. There are so many reasons for everyone to be angry. Unfortunately, most of these reasons are about incompatilibilities, and lead to incompatible anger.

Over the last week I have been doing a lot of research on many of these issues (I’m sure many have, google seems to know my every next search term even before I type it). My basis was some knowledge of Islam from books I have read in the past like Malise Ruthven’s Islam in the World. So I knew something about the difference between Wahhabism and Shi’ism (they’re friendly in they way that Catholics love Jehovah’s Witnesses), a little of Islamic history, Sayyid Qutb, and a few other things.

I started out trying to construct a set of coherent thoughts of my own on the whole topic, in order to get to a conclusion of some kind. There are monumental numbers of books and articles to read, and even among globally recognised authorities on Islam, such as Bernard Lewis and Edward Said, there are huge disparities of opinion. Is Islam fascism [wikipedia]? Is Islam compatible with democracy [Middle East Forum review of Esposito and others]? Is Islam reconcilable with liberalism [Abdal-Hakim Murad]? Is Shari’a compatible with the modern idea of freedom [Andrew G Bostom]? What are the Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam [Reza Aslan]? Perhaps one of the most useful books is Ibn Warriq’s Why I am not a Muslim. A lot of this scholarship will probably make you more afraid of Islam. However… let’s remember that what goes on in Saudi Arabia and Iran is another world to the average Muslim in the UK, France or anywhere else in the West, as well as many other Muslim countries.

One thing I can say is that after a week’s worth of slogging through commentaries and interviews of all kinds, some reference points started to stand out. The kind I am especially interested in is that which talks not only about the problems in Islam, but about what Muslims in the West think about them.


To this end, I have made a small list of resources – written by Muslims – that stand out above everything else I have read for the last decade, let alone the last couple of years. This is a completely ad hoc list, and I’ll add to it over time.

The first is a set  of articles published in the Guardian in 2007 by Ali Eteraz:

I can’t recommend this particular set of articles highly enough – no other short resource so clearly draws together the threads of what’s going on in the Muslim world today with ideas about how it could evolve. (NB: the links provided on the Guardian pages are broken, which is why I provide the whole lot here). This article, on Islamism’s false narrative is also worth reading.

Critical Muslim (CM), a quarterly published by the Muslim Institute, London also appears to be a good resource. From their ‘about’ page:

We are proud of our strong Muslim identity, but we do not see ‘Islam’ as a set of pieties and taboos. We aim to challenge traditionalist, modernist, fundamentalist and apologetic versions of Islam, and attempt to set out new readings of religion and culture with the potential for social, cultural and political transformation of the Muslim world. Our writers may define their Muslim belonging religiously, culturally or civilisationally, and some do not ‘belong’ to Islam at all. Critical Muslim often invites writers ofopposing viewpoints to debate controversial issues.

If you think Muslims have no sense of humour, CM has some articles to make you laugh and learn: 10 species of angry Muslim Men10 things we love about Pakistan.

There are various progressive Muslim voices I notice in the blogosphere in the UK. Here are a few: Adam Deen; Inspire – a non-governmental advocacy organisation (NGO) working to counter extremism and gender inequality (this post on Muslim reaction to the new Charlie Hebdo issue, also featuring a Muhammed cartoon on the cover, is worth a read); BritishMuslimTV; Islamic Society of Britain. There is nothing to say that these particular sites, people or movements are normative, but they appear to me to be based on precepts of a) human rights and b) religion as faith rather than political control.

Some early conclusions

I don’t pretend to have come to anything like a final analysis. Many questions remain unanswered. However I do have some recurring thoughts to jot down:

  • Islam isn’t Islamism. I struggle with this myself (it’s so easy to think that all the evils of Islamic terrorism are built into the religion), but my rational side says: look at the evidence – it simply isn’t the case that all Muslims or even a majority talk and act like the violent extremists, ergo, we have to conclude that despite claims to the contrary, Islam is as much an interpreted religion as any other, and very little can be treated as if it were ‘built-in’.
  • We can’t really talk about ‘Muslim countries’ when making statements about Islam in general. The differences between Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran and Tunisia are so great as to make common conclusions nearly impossible. Reza Aslan on this (CNN).
  • Non-Muslims in the West generally need to make an effort at self-education on Islam and Muslim thought, and also geographies and demographics; if we don’t, our anger at each atrocity will most likely be misdirected.
  • We also need to make sure we are clear on what we think are our own inviolable rights are. Do we all understand the idea of ‘free speech’ in the same way, for example? Could we explain them to someone else? More generally, do we understand what modern society got from the Enlightenment?
  • We need to make sure we don’t start thinking the West has everything right. On the contrary, if we forget about religion for a moment, we can get back to fun topics like: the US is an oligarchy, not a democracy; climate change (2014 was the hottest year ever); the arms trade; the causes of the financial crisis; and many other ‘Western’ niceties. The lessons learned from the Enlightenment may guarantee freedom of thought, but with no moral framework, it can easily lead to all kinds of wrong.
    • In the same way that non-Muslims often talk as if all Muslims were Wahhabis who want to stone everyone to death for the slightest blasphemous comment, some Muslims talk as if every non-Muslim inherently agrees with the endless US democracy promotion in the Middle East, or with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, both claims as laughable as the first one. So let’s all do our homework and stop making easy but wrong accusations.
  • The word ‘Islamophobia’ has been hijacked by the politically correct left: a ‘phobia’ is just an irrational fear of something; a typical reason for such a fear is not knowing what level of danger you are faced with. Fear of Islam isn’t hard to understand since 9/11 (at least), given the level of atrocities and the level of ignorance. Misuse of this word prevents proper debate just as much as belligerent Islamists. People who express fear of Islamic violence should not be demonised for doing so.
  • There is a problem of co-optation of identity among Muslims in Western countries, supported by numerous analyses (e.g. this one). The essential problem is that a young Muslim who asks the wrong questions, or suggests that e.g. apostasy should no longer be a crime, may instantly be accused of being a bad Muslim, siding with the infidels and so on. Because Islam is an all-encompassing political and religious system, it has made ‘being Muslim’ a/the primary part of personal identity. Unfortunately, human psychology makes us automatically defend against what appear to be attacks on our identity, regardless of whether they are rational.
    • a person’s capacity for offence felt at criticism of a cause is proportional to the level to which they personally identify with that cause.
  • Muslims and non-Muslims in the West (and as far as possible, elsewhere) need to get into a dialogue. One of the things we non-Muslims will discover is that there are already movements in the Islamic world aimed at creating a new Islam that looks a lot like the way we keep saying it should be.

None of this is to apologise for any of the violence, or indeed for the oppressive elements of Islam, Shari’a law or anything else non-Muslims find problematic, or even the concept of religion at all. My point is a practical one: there are already many Muslims who find the same things just as problematic, and are working on ways to change things, so let’s start to understand what they are up to and help where we can.

As I said in my last post, I think the real enemy of us all is absolutist ideology, i.e. any set of fixed ideas defined in terms of absolute rights and wrongs. There are many who think that Islam is such an ideology, but in as far as it is practiced in the real world, only some versions of it are, and only some people subscribe to the ideological form.

And let’s remember, only some wars were started over religion, but all wars were started by ideologues. And in the areas of human existence where we make progress – the sciences, arts and law – advances rely on the continual breaking down and replacement of previous ideas. What survives the process of endless questioning is what we can potentially rely on. The UN Declaration of Human Rights, although not perfect, comes to mind.

And on that very note… consider that Raif Badawi is recuperating after the first 50 lashes of his punishment of 1,000 lashes and 10 years imprisonment. See here for the extent of his crimes. It seems that we do all want the same thing: freedom to think what we like.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s