In 2015, 14 Islamist extremists murdered 17 people in a killing spree that started at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo. As a satirical magazine in France, Charlie Hebdo had published “Mohammed cartoons” that triggered a violent assault turning a newsroom into a scene of carnage, blood and gunpowder.
The French newspaper Le Figaro commented on the events with a headline that read “Charlie Hebdo, freedom or death.” Writing in Gatestone Institute, Giulio Meotti explains,
“At first glance, yes, the battle is lost, explains the French newspaper. Political Islam, hand-in-hand with the cultural left, ‘advances under the guise of human rights and the fight against discrimination.'”
On the eve of another 9/11 anniversary and years after the Charlie Hebdo attack, it seems we’re no closer to getting this right.
Why are we so lost when it comes to Islamist extremism?
Islamist extremism isn’t an issue landlocked to one national boundary or another; it transcends barriers. When it comes to free speech, Islamist extremism is an ongoing issue in the public eye ever since 1989, when Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa for Salman Rushdie’s head over Rushdie’s publication of The Satanic Verses. Thirty years later, we’re no closer to addressing the gridlock over free speech as it pertains to religious extremism.
Added to the cocktail of frustration and failures, there’s an almost overwhelming confusion on who is the extremist: There’s the open self-identifying extremist and then there are overnight self-activated extremists as we saw (for example) just five days ago in Sweden.
Five days ago, Sweden witnessed a horrific round of extremely violent riots after two far-right activists recorded themselves lighting a Quran on fire. Within one day, the number of Muslims who became demonstrable Muslim extremists far surpassed what Swedish authorities and leaders had tallied on record as radicalized Muslims.
How do we distinguish between extremists and peace-loving Muslims?
I’ve heard that question so many times, and because it’s still seen as a legitimate question, we know why we’re so lost when it comes to Islamist extremism. Missing the mark on this is also why political Islam continues to thrive and now be reinforced and emboldened by other social movements.
First and foremost, whether it’s the accused in the Charlie Hebdo case, the Muslims lighting Sweden on fire or the theocratic leaders of a nation-state — all these people are Muslims. So are others in the faith who might not act violently but don’t see an issue with violence and brutality over ‘offending Islam.’ We don’t get to cherry pick between extremists Muslim and peace-loving Muslims. The fact that we have done so and continue to do so with self-sabotaging gusto is in part why political Islam front-facing image thrives.
Second, we need to understand that extremists are driven by obsessive identity drivers, meaning, the totality of how they see themselves is framed within the context of religious identity. We know from our work in preventing violent extremism that a perceived attack on an identity is one of the triggers that supports the “us versus them” narrative. This “attack” can cause the “offended” to justify violence to protect that identity.
Sure, Muslim or not, we don’t like that this is how they’ve interpreted their religious identity — but we cannot do anything about that until we first at least accept that that is their reality. To add to that, not every Muslim extremist is an Islamist; not all of them are bothered by social causes or movements. There is no catch-all net for violence rooted in religious identity other than that religious identity. While some people may feel uncomfortable entangling religious identity with extremism, that discomfort doesn’t serve a purpose when it comes to addressing the problem; it only shelters it.
When I say Muslim extremists are driven by faith-based identity drivers, I am not saying these Muslims are acting on behalf of the religion nor that this is what Islam sanctions. What I am saying is that some Muslims have interpreted their faith through a distorted lens which has colored in their entire sense of self.
Put another way: Islam isn’t the vehicle in which they are the driver; they are the driver and Islam is strapped in for the ride.
If we want to address the problem of Islamist extremism, we will benefit from coming to terms with the fact that that our reality as peace-loving Muslims is not the reality of other Muslims who — whether or not they actively go partake in violence — don’t see an issue with retribution for a perceived slight against a religious identity.
How many times have I heard from even the most generous South Asian aunties, “Well, why did they have to go publish the cartoons. They shouldn’t have done it.”
The mark is missed completely when it comes to freedom of speech.
Some of these demographics are too old to be educated on principles of human rights and free speech, while other segments of the population don’t value universal human rights. Both demographics, however, do value Islam.
That’s a very important, because unless we can have an open conversation on what is and isn’t Islam while accepting that not everyone is going to jump on the universal human rights bandwagon, we have no hope of tackling these extremist and distorted interpretations of the faith.
In addition, we have no way of tallying who is an extremist or who will be one tomorrow when “set off.”
None of these conversations or resulting initiatives should be combative.
On the contrary, we need an engaging and disarming effort to rekindle an authentic Islam, a return to Islam’s origin story so to speak and re-frame how we look at the messages of the faith.
So how do we do this?
When we look at Charlie Hebdo’s republishing of Muslim cartoons, there will be many more non-violent Muslims who will question the principle of free expression and thereby indirectly justify violence against the newspaper.
While none of those people are “extremists,” conversations that do not recognized a common good boundary give soft ground to extremism. We can prevent that rhetoric from taking root by countering with rhetoric from within the faith.
For example, when the Quran says there’s no compulsion in religion, we have an opportunity to apply that dictum in a new context. No compulsion in religion was never meant to be an exclusive privilege for Muslims; rather, it there shall be no compulsion or force by Muslims toward others, Muslim or not.