In December 2014 Islamists were responsible for the deaths of approximately 2,500 people. The figure for January 2015 is likely to be higher, in large part because of the recent massacre perpetuated by Boko Haram in Nigeria. These figures are shocking but they are nothing new: Theo van Gogh was murdered in 2004, the Twin Towers were destroyed in 2001, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was issued in 1988. We have been living with Islamist violence for a quarter century, a period of time comparable to the Troubles in Northern Ireland but with the major difference that this is a globalized phenomenon and one that shows no sign of abating.
The sheer number of people who have died at the hands of Islamists is appalling but the killings should not distract us from the “secondary” acts of violence being carried out in Islamic regimes such as amputations and public floggings. These are acts which in more normal times would be the focus of international intervention and opprobrium but given the climate of extreme brutality in which we are living have been pushed to the sidelines. On the 9th January, when my hometown of Paris entered its third day of siege, Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian blogger, was publicly lashed for having insulted Islam.
And these “secondary” acts of violence should not blind us to a form of tertiary violence that denies women in Islamic countries the most basic of rights and which denies young people of both genders the most fundamental right of all – that of freedom of thought.
Sunday’s march which drew 4 million people to the streets of France was the largest gathering ever recorded on French soil. Part of me hopes that this is the start of something new in French and European society and that this marks the beginning of the end of Islamist terror. But part of me cannot help but think of other such gatherings in France and how these outpourings of emotion are often no more than that – cathartic moments that fail to translate into action and fail to address the underlying problems. French people love a good “manif” and this was as good as they get. But will French society now have the courage to address its demons head on? Or will it fall back into more of the same?
When Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the National Front made it to the second round of the Presidential election in 2002, 1.5 million people took to the street in protest. In the election that followed this huge demonstration left-leaning voters were forced to grit their teeth and support the right wing candidate, Jacques Chirac, and as a result the National Front was defeated. Except it wasn’t – Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine, is getting ratings in the opinion polls that her father could only dream of. The National Front won the most recent European elections and some opinion polls suggest that were there to be an election today France would have its first ever National Front President.
In 1988, 1.5 million people also took to the streets to celebrate France’s victory in the World Cup and to pay homage to a team (and by extension a society) that was described as “Black, Blanc, Beur”. The idea then was that France had put its racial divisions behind it and was able to celebrate multiculturalism. Football would bring the country together. As events have shown that didn’t happen – French society remains as divided as before, perhaps even more so. The unity didn’t even hold within the French football team; open-minded liberal figures like Lilian Thuram and Vikash Dhorasoo have given way to the likes of Nicolas Anelka and Samir Nasri who publicly proclaim their support for the anti-semitic “comedian” Dieudonné. Anelka was born in France to parents from Martinique, Nasri is a French-Algerian citizen. Both speak multiple languages, have lived and travelled in numerous countries and earn annual salaries of millions of pounds. These are impressive success stories and men like these could be valuable role models to young men issued from immigration. Instead they prefer to preach the convenient and invidious lie that the problems of young Muslim men are caused by the Jews.
I live in the centre of Paris, far from the difficult “banlieues” that you read about from time to time in the foreign papers. I will never forget the day when I was waiting to cross the street with my daughter outside a shop that sells hunting equipment. Two young men were discussing which weapons they would like to buy. Their choice fell on a gun armed with a bayonet that they could use to “stick up a Jew’s arse”. I crossed the street and walked away but the incident remained with me, and for a few days last week I was given an insight into what must be a simple fact of existence if you are Jewish and French – the constant possibility of violence.
Was I scared last week? Yes, I was. Does that mean the terrorists have won? No. But they will have won if we think the problem is solved by marching in the streets. And they will have won if we refuse to look squarely at the facts and if we refuse to think honestly and to say what we think.
It is this refusal of free thought that is the ultimate and underpinning violence of much of contemporary Islam. And sadly this is not a phenomenon that is unique to Islam. The liberal press, the very people who have been vociferously proclaiming “Je suis Charlie” over the last few days have fallen, for different reasons, into the very same trap.
The Guardian gave £100,000 to Charlie Hebdo last week to ensure it can continue publishing. This is a generous gesture but Charlie Hebdo’s problems at the moment are not financial. Indeed, I supect the magazine is in better financial health at the moment than ever before. Nor is its problem that it has lost the majority of its most gifted cartoonists. Its problem is that it and a few other publications like it are swimming against a current of silence and cowardice. When The Guardian and The New York Times and a host of other publications refused to publish Charlie’s cartoons they were exercising their right to take their own editorial position. But by doing so they were in essence saying “You are Charlie and I am not”. And at the same time and under their breath they were saying “And I am glad I am not”.
One can hardly blame them for this; who would want to put their life on their line if they didn’t have to? But let us not forget that the only reason they are able to take this position while also proclaiming their belief in freedom of expression is because others are prepared to do the dirty work. But for how much longer will those others be prepared to do so if they are abandoned by their own brothers and sisters? It is all very well for millions of people to take to the streets but the true solidarity is to look honestly, to think freely and to say what you want and need to say. The State can guarantee freedom of the press and freedom of expression but if these rights are not exercised then to all intents and purposes they do not exist. I am not saying that everyone should become a cartoonist and start publishing scatalogical images of Mohamed but if one is not prepared to speak the truth, regardless of the consequences then no, “Tu n’es pas Charlie”.
I am a poet who at a certain point in my life abandoned the religion of my birth. The first part of that sentence sometimes raises a few eyebrows when I bring it up in conversation; the second less so. But it is on the second that I wish to focus. To many secular Westerners religion is something that we as a society have outgrown. But we have so internalized this absence of religion that we ignore the fact that the possibility of outgrowing religion is something that is only possible in cultures like our own. In Saudi Arabia, cradle of Islam and home to its most sacred sites, the punishment for apostasy is death. If you are convicted of abandoning Islam you have three days to repent before you are publicly beheaded. Your freedom of belief will last 36 hours, approximately as long as the killing spree that hit France last week.
Another blind spot that secular Westerners have when it comes to religious belief is to underestimate the importance of religion in a believer’s life. We talk about respecting people’s beliefs but if we were to truly respect their beliefs we would acknowledge that religion for many people is the most important thing in their life; it is this which alleviates their suffering and which allows them to give meaning to their life. I happen to believe that this can at times be a force for good – some things in life are all but unbearable and I would not snatch the rosary from the hands of a grieving widow or poke fun at a mother’s Kaddish. But this same faith can also be a force for bad. The killers last week, like the jihadists in Iraq or Yemen or Syria are killing in the name of Allah. They are killing because of faith.
This inability to understand the primordial importance of religion means that secular commentators will tend to look for secular explanations to problems – it is economic underprivilege that causes terrorism, or prison overcrowding or our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. These factors undoubtedly have a role to play but excluding religion entirely from the equation is at best an incomplete analysis and at worst a dishonest one. Either way, a refusal or an inability to understand the importance of religious motivation in determining people’s action will paradoxically doom to failure any efforts to create a progressive secular society.
It is no surprise to me that this clash between free speech and religious fundamentalism has exploded so violently in France; not just because France has a long tradition of free speech and is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern, secular values. And not just because France has the largest Muslim population in Europe. But also because France for too long has been naïve about the role of religion in public life, thinking that by ignoring it it would cease to exist.
One final failure on the part of secular commentators for whom any religion is an unfortunate vestige of an earlier phase of human existence is to lump all religions together; for them religions are all equally stupid and those who espouse any form of irrational faith are equally deluded. Again, such a posture is deeply damaging to the very secular project it proclaims since it ignores the fact that certain forms of faith are easier to escape from than others and that certain forms of faith are more hostile to secularism than others. There are powerful currents in contemporary Islam that are profoundly violent and profoundly intolerant of free thought. Al Qaeda and ISIS and Boko Haram are examples of this but to say that the problem is limited to these radical groups is as myopic as saying that the attacks last week were the actions of a few “lone wolves”.
Of course the majority of Muslims in France or other European countries are decent and peaceful people. But we do everyone a disservice (we do truth a disservice) if we pretend that the people who killed the staff of Charlie Hebdo or the customers of the Jewish supermarket are not Muslims. For how much longer can we remain in the posture that says Islamist murderers are not Muslims? We are as deluded as the conspiracy theorists who would have us believe that they are not murderers, that it was actually Mossad or the CIA behind it all. If I shout out my Christian or Buddhist belief and you come and tell me that I am not a Christian or a Buddhist where is your respect for my religion? These men unfortunately are Muslims and I say it is unfortunate because if they were not men of faith it would be that bit easier to put a stop to this violence. For just as religious belief can be a force for good if it allows people to lift themselves above the values of this world it can also, and by the very same token, be a force for evil.
To state the truth that these men were Muslims is not to stigmatise other Muslims. It is simply the necessary first step in removing the cancer of Islamic extremism, for the good of Western society, for the good of Islam itself and for the good of humanity as a whole.
The real question we should be asking is not whether these men were true believers. Of course they were. Nor is the question to ask whether Muslim values are compatible with secular ones. Of course they are. The real question is how many people in the West and around the world share the beliefs of these men. But this is a question we do not want to ask because we, as secular Westerners, do not want to be confronted with the idea that there are men in liberal democracies in the 21st Century who are willing to die (and to kill) for a belief. And perhaps also because we do not want to admit that the number of such people is far greater than we think.
That 4 million people were marching in France yesterday is wonderful but of the 62 million people who were not marching how many are young Muslims locked into the ignorance and hatred that the Wahhabist regime has been peddling for decades? How many – beyond the hundreds who have already left French territory – are in the hands of Salafists preaching Jihad? And how many are denied the possibility of leaving this obscurity by our failure to speak the truth?
If we restrict our freedom of speech and our freedom of thought because we are scared or through a misguided sense of religious respect we have failed to live up to our own values. And we have failed the millions of young people around the world who are currently victims of a loathsome, authoritarian and nihilistic form of Islam. How can a young Muslim in the UK learn the truth about his religion and hence arrive at a richer and better understanding of that religion if the BBC has a code of conduct that mirrors Sharia law and forbids all representations of the Prophet Mohamed? How can they place Islam into historical context if there are no documentaries exploring the historical figure of Mohamed? How can they know that there have, from the very start, been schools of thought within Islam that permitted and continue to permit representations of Mohamed? How can they test the veracity of what they hear from the radical preachers if there is nothing to test it against other than the xenophobic attacks of the Far Right? We are failing these young Muslims through our silence and ultimately we are contributing to the very violence we claim to oppose.
Although I have left the religion of my youth there is a teaching within it which always moved me: the truth will set you free. As a writer I would be inclined to temper it slightly: it is the quest for the truth that will set you free. It is by continually seeking the truth and being ruthlessly honest in our expression that we will move towards truth and maybe, in some small way, will help others to do the same.