There are two things that I really dislike about Islam. How can anyone forbid drinking a nice bottle of wine and consider dogs to be unclean? But, on the other hand, in practice I know quite a few Muslims whom I consider friends who drink alcohol and who have owned and loved dogs, so as is often the case what one sees written down in an alleged holy book is not necessarily what you get in real life. And I know quite a few Christians who pride themselves on being abstainers and even more who aren’t particularly fond of dogs. None of them are my friends.
The massacre of the staff of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the killing of a policewoman and four hostages in Paris last week are somewhat difficult to comprehend with any clarity unless one believes that insulting one’s religion justifies a death sentence. Unfortunately, there is a long inter-denominational tradition of exterminating non-believers as affirmation of one’s faith.
That there currently exist numerous people in the world who regard their religion as a license to kill those who do not share their views is undeniable. Though there have been zealots of that stripe in all the major religions if one goes back far enough it is also undeniable that the current crop of homicidal bigots are nearly all Muslims. But at the same time as one is recognizing the dark side it is also very important to take a step back and recall that there are all kinds of Muslims just as there are all kinds of Christians and Jews and most of them are like people everywhere else, hardworking and decent. There are more than one billion Muslims and if they really were intent on killing all non-believers there would be a lot more carnage going on than the recent events in France.
It is important not to collectively condemn millions who have done nothing wrong and, in truth, there are many wonderful things about Islam, most particularly its sense of charity and community. When we lived in Turkey my wife and two young daughters and I were driving across Anatolia to visit Cappadocia when my car engine blew. We were in an agricultural region far from any big town or city. Eventually a shepherd came across us and went to get help. A village elder who was also the local religious leader soon appeared and he and I talked a bit before he went back into the village, promising to return. He did return shortly thereafter with a crew of five workmen carrying shovels and another man driving an old farm truck. He told me he would take care of things and then invited my family into the village to have tea and something to eat. When we returned two hours later we found that the workmen had built a ramp out of dirt and had hauled my car onto the back of the farm truck. We climbed inside and were soon off to the nearest big town where the car could be repaired, about fifty miles away.
I thanked our benefactors effusively and also offered the workmen involved money but they wouldn’t accept it. I was humbled by the experience, which I shall never forget. I am not a believer myself but I had to accept that the Turks’ simple faith had substantially driven their sense of charity towards strangers. They had helped me and my family and they would help anyone in similar straits without any expectation of gain or favor.
So the point is that though some Muslims carried out the massacre in Paris one must recognize that they were criminals and terrorists, regarded as such by nearly everyone, including the vast majority of believers in Islam. Do Muslims have legitimate grievances as a group? They certainly do. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons were, in fact, extremely bigoted and offensive. Outside of France, the United States and Israel have been effectively demonizing Muslims for quite some time and Washington has de facto been engaged in a policy of regime change directed against many Islamic states. Muslims are dying in large numbers every day, clearly visible in international media reports and even live on television, and many would quite plausibly blame the West, including France, for the carnage. There have been reports that the two shooters in Paris were radicalized by the American invasion of Iraq, which, if true, suggests that we are seeing yet another example of blowback.
In Europe Muslims are sometimes grudgingly accepted while being frequently perceived as a threatening “other.” Does this mean that many empathize with terrorist groups that loudly proclaim that they are defending their religion? Sure they do, but they also have seen first-hand the downside of terrorism. Countries in the Middle East and North Africa that were stable twenty years ago are now in chaos, producing hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees. And, more to the point and very easy to forget is the fact that overwhelmingly most victims of Islamic terrorist groups are themselves Muslims, including two of those killed in Paris. One was a police officer. Groups like ISIS might fantasize about restoring the Caliphate to include Western Europe but it is really only capable of devastating countries where Muslims predominate.
So we should hate the haters. A mass killing that appears to be linked to someone’s version of religiosity triggers all kinds of speculation regarding what has occurred, opinions that are frequently driven by what one prefers to see. One popular view in last week’s media was that Muslims cannot be assimilated, an allegation used to explain their perceived hostility or indifference towards the presumably peaceful citizens and egalitarian institutions of the host country. That charge may have a certain cogency in the ghetto-like banlieues that surround Paris, but stereotypes are frequently misleading. The example of the United States, where Muslims have been well above the national average in both education and income and far below average in criminal behavior, provides a somewhat different perspective.
Some in the conservative media have even taken the opportunity afforded by Charlie Hebdo to resurrect the grossly overstated nonsense spewed by Bill Maher, that Islam is “the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” Maher nevertheless has a point. Islam definitely has a public relations problem when it comes to how it appears to outsiders. Of all the world’s leading religions it undoubtedly has what might be described as the bloodiest edges where it interacts with other faiths, something that might be described as a violent fringe. As I write this I read about a man accused of blasphemy in Pakistan who was shot dead after leaving the courthouse while in Saudi Arabia a man who is a blogger was publicly flogged for insulting Islam. America’s puppet regime in Afghanistan recently sought to execute as a blasphemer a man who converted from Islam to Christianity. In Africa Boko Haram has carried out a massacre of 2,000 villagers. In Egypt, Jordan, Malaysia and Pakistan Muslims overwhelmingly believe that abandoning Islam, referred to as apostasy, merits the death penalty.
Another argument that runs in the opposite direction by blaming the victim is that Charlie Hebdo should not have posted satirical cartoons of Mohammed and other leading Muslims, that encouraging ridicule of someone’s religion would lead to unfortunate consequences. To me that argument is specious because, as a firm believer in the First Amendment, I maintain that anyone who wants to insult a religion should be free to go ahead and do so. And the proposal that one should avoid being offensive has real world consequences, and not just for Muslims. It inevitably leads to demands for the expansion of so-called hate crimes that seek to control what people think, say and do, a pointless enterprise in any case but one that criminalizes free speech. Once you start declaring what one says might be a crime it becomes a political football with whoever has the most votes in congress or parliament deciding whose commentary should be considered illegal.
And free speech runs in two directions, or at least it should. Charlie Hebdo satirizes relatively marginalized and powerless Muslims freely and is applauded by many but it fired a cartoonist who was perceived as being critical of powerful and wealthy French Jews. And the French government is fully engaged in the hypocrisy through selective enforcement of its already existing draconian hate laws, which are so broadly written that they have including the censoring of restaurant reviews on Google. Denying the holocaust is a crime but it is okay to question the Armenian Genocide. French citizens have been prosecuted for the crime of “inciting discrimination and racial hatred” for publicly advocating a consumer boycott of Israeli products. In 2013, the French authorities ordered Twitter to remove content worldwide that it considered anti-Semitic. Fashion designer John Galliano was convicted of making anti-Semitic comments and fined $8,000 after an alcohol fueled argument in a Paris café in 2011. Comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala has been accused of anti-Semitism and has been banned from YouTube and not allowed to perform in many parts of France to avoid offending “public order.”
There also already exists considerable extremely vitriolic but widely tolerated commentary regarding Muslims in the United States, not only from funny men like Bill Maher, most notably at websites like Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs but no one has died as a result. Nevertheless the loonies on this side of the Atlantic are piling on. Leading Israel firster Alan Dershowitz is even blaming the French themselves for the slaughter, apparently because they recently voted in favor of Palestinian statehood. Simultaneously, there has been considerable pressure from Jewish groups to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, making it a hate crime. Sensible Muslim and Jewish Americans would be wise to ignore the drumbeat innuendo and legislators should be equally careful to avoid a hasty recourse to curtailing the fundamental liberty referred to as “free speech.”
Part of the problem with Islam in Europe and America is that in spite of all the smoke there has been too little serious examination of the issues and too much vitriol intended either to stoke fear or to avoid the discussion altogether on grounds of political correctness. I would bet that very few Europeans or Americans actually believe themselves personally threatened by local Muslims or regard Islam as an existential danger. The real issue is much more likely to be the level of overall immigration. No one ever asked Europeans or Americans whether they wanted to receive mass migration from the third world but the political class, which is largely unaffected by any consequences arising from its decisions, has allowed it to happen for various reasons.
Serious questions can and should be raised about the actual impact of pervasive multiculturalism on the indigenous culture and the quality of life. And its implications for national security should also be squarely on the agenda. The appropriateness and effectiveness of French government responses to home grown radicals whom they have identified and whose behavior they are supposedly monitoring should also be examined carefully, if only to establish “lessons learned” from the tragedy.
Anti-Muslim sentiment will surely increase in Europe. But as the established Muslim communities are not going anywhere it is to be hoped that it does not take the form of collective punishment, which turns the innocent into enemies and guarantees more violence. Concerns that the killings will lead to a backlash that will bring to power European right wing parties are probably overstated and quite frankly are themselves objectionable as many conservatives have long been rightly demanding a serious and open debate about the implications of current immigration policies. As noted above, such a discussion is long overdue and has been avoided by the elites on both sides of the Atlantic.
Other concerns that the attack will bring about a major overreaction by the French authorities that will produce more alienated young Muslims who will seek to become jihadis are perhaps of greater concern, though there is no clear evidence that the attackers were part of any broad conspiracy directed from abroad even though at least one of them reportedly trained with al-Qaeda in Yemen. In truth, atrocities empower terrorist groups because they signal to the alienated and disaffected that someone on their side is capable of striking back. The government in Paris must walk a fine line in which justice is seen to be served impartially while avoiding anything like the vengeful response that took hold in the United States after 9/11.