To claim Islam is monolithic is to ignore the actions of the brave French Muslims whose primary instinct was to protect others before themselves.
It has been a few days since the tragic horrors of the Paris attacks. On January 11, over 3.7 million people marched in solidarity in Paris and other cities around France. They walked, clapped and shouted slogans peacefully to express their outrage at the actions of armed assailants, who killed 17 people over three days.
Social commentators, experts and political figures of all backgrounds have penned their thoughts to explain the actions of the attackers. All kinds of theories have been put forward. The neo-Marxist-multiculturalist-leftists hold that the legacy of colonialism and racism affect Muslim groups in France and suppress their existence, limit their opportunities and deny their liberty in all but name. Those on the center-right of the political spectrum argue that there is a “cancer” of jihadism within Islam that eats away at all that the West holds true. That the ideals of liberty, freedom, equality and fraternity — as particularly expressed in France — are compromised precisely by something inherently wrong with Islam, even if they agree that Muslims are more often the victims of this violence. Those on the far-right paint Islam with the darkest of shades, castigating the faith and its entire set of followers across the globe with the same brush, dismissing the religion as primitive, even evil.
Broadly speaking, those on the right see the problem as Islam itself; those on the left see the issue as one of racialized social conflict that has local and global impacts; and those at the center sway between liberal multiculturalism and conservative cosmopolitanism.
But as the emotions calm and life returns to normal in France, there is one topic that continues to resurface. It is this niggling question for many at the center who seek to ask: Why are Muslims not doing more to quell the fury of other Muslims? Somehow the Islam of jihadists is a problem that everyday Muslims must own and solve themselves.
Since 9/11, whenever there has been a terrorist attack where the perpetrators have invoked the name of Islam, sharp rejoinders are often put squarely at the feet of Muslims. Why are you not doing enough to speak out? Why are you not able to deal with what is evidently a problem of your faith?
Courageous Muslims, from leaders to young activists, have regularly stepped forward to denounce terrorism, arguing that the actions are nothing more than violent extremism and political radicalism. That indeed there is nothing Islamic about the actions of criminals, even though these very same individuals might claim otherwise. Just because the violent offenders say their actions are in the name of Islam doesn’t mean they are acting within the faith’s teachings. After all, how Christian is the Ku Klux Klan? How Buddhist is the monk who killed Muslims with impunity in Myanmar?
While the criminals who brought terror to the streets of France may have called themselves Muslim and argued that they were defending Islam, it doesn’t mean a diverse global faith comprising 1.6 billion people should somehow be held accountable. Yet whenever there is a terrorist attack, the same questions resurface. So, why do they? There are five key points that must be addressed.
First, it is merely a case of woeful ignorance. Individuals who wish to point fingers at Islam have little or no understanding of the vast and rich faith. Such people are essentialist and reductionist to the extreme — inasmuch as people would aim to denounce Christianity or Buddhism in a similar vein.
Second, there is the issue of political expediency. Many who argue that Muslims must speak up do so to take a political stance that aims to legitimize the status quo. The legacy of the Crusades, colonialism, scientific racism, post-war immigration, discrimination and racialization, combined with an ethnocentric and Orientalist gaze, is at the heart of this conundrum.
Third, there is an anti-Islam agenda among certain media, corporate and political actors that imbues the global society with fear, mistrust and shortsightedness — all in an effort to maintain control and authority over populations seeking assurances that their values are not under threat.
Fourth, many Muslims speak out against the violence that is carried out by those who seemingly share the same faith, but few people listen. Religious leaders in Europe tirelessly strive to improve inter-faith relations, reaching out to all, engaging at every level. The youth are combining their identities as Muslims with being French, German or British, developing and modifying fashions, tastes, sound and vision. But they are not reported or focused on in a way that is fair or representative in the ever-precious media, which remains the realm of influence for so many.
Finally, there is a growing segment of the educated, professional and even liberal-minded society that is anti-religion per se. Such groups have no time for religion as a system of belief. Rather it is history, art and science that have something to offer the world today.
On January 9, Lassan Bathily, a Malian-born Muslim Frenchman working at a Jewish supermarket in Paris, saved the lives of 15 people by hiding them in an underground storage room as Amedy Coulibaly savagely murdered four customers. On January 7, Ahmed Merabet, a French Muslim policeman who had just passed his detective exams after passionately committing himself to the force, was brutally killed while protecting the rights of satirists to mock his faith.
To claim Islam is monolithic is to undo the actions of these brave Muslims whose primary instinct was to protect others before themselves. If anyone asks Muslims to speak out against “Islamist extremists” or “Muslim terrorists,” they ought to remind people that not only are they speaking out against such heinous crimes, but they are also laying down their lives or putting them at immense risk when called upon. They do so because they are first and foremost human beings, which is what being a Muslim means.
As Islam teaches, to save a life is to save humanity. And to take a life is to destroy humanity. A reminder of Merabet and Bathily’s actions is the best retort to all.
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