On January 7, 2015, two Islamic extremists stormed the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. They separated the men from the women and announced the names of the cartoonists they intended to kill. Their shooting spree left 12 people dead. Two days later, they took several people hostage in a printing warehouse outside Paris and killed four of them.
As with most events like this, everyone started looking for answers and wanted to know who was to blame. The main culprits emerged immediately. Islam and religion were to blame, politics were to blame, and a magazine was to blame for printing images mocking the prophet Mohammed.
According to the click-hungry web site Salon.com, Atheists like Richard Dawkins are probably also somehow responsible. Just moments after the news broke of the shooting, Salon, instead of providing a news report, first posted a piece that critiqued Richard Dawkins’ first tweet about the event. Dawkins said, “They shouted, ‘We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.’ Some useful idiot will claim it had nothing to do with religion.” And then, “No, all religions are NOT equally violent. Some have never been violent, some gave it up centuries ago. One religion conspicuously didn’t.”
Salon neglected to address the content of Dawkins’ tweets, opting instead to post a headline suggesting that he blames all Muslims for the attacks. In doing so, they sided with Medi Hasan, Reza Aslan, and C.J. Werleman in adopting the premise that Islam is innocent, and foreign policy and racism are to blame.
I have never been shy of blaming the foreign policies of the U.S. and other countries for their roles in Islamic extremism, but when a magazine is attacked and its journalists murdered over the publication of satirical cartoons, you will be stretching facts a long way to pretend that you can plant this firmly on foreign policy and ignore the massive role of religious dogma and fundamentalism.
Charlie Hebdo was attacked for insulting the prophet Mohammed, not for France’s policies on foreign relations. With no shortage of strategic targets to attack over this issue, the terrorists deliberately chose a satirical paper because of a cartoon. Ignoring this fact will only cause more damage as we look for ways to prevent this from happening in the future.
I will happily discuss foreign policy with you in the event of an attack on a military base or other strategic target in France or any other country. But this attack was on a satirical magazine and its journalists, the demise of whom would neither unsettle the French government nor change France’s policies overseas or even inside its own borders.
In fact, this Salon piece, and pieces that followed, did exactly what Dawkins predicted: they claimed the attacks had nothing to do with religion, regardless of the fact that Al Qaeda actually took credit for the attacks and the terrorists shouted, “Allahu Akbar! (God is greatest!),” and, “We’ve taken revenge against the prophet!”
Many charged that Charlie Hebdo, though undeserving of a terrorist attack, was a racist magazine that incited violence by depicting racist imagery mocking Muslims and black politicians. Those making such claims showed an amazing level of intellectual laziness by not taking the time to research the meaning of these images.
Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine and a radical left one at that. It stands up for immigrants’ and women’s rights and stands against racism, France’s National Front, and fascist right-wing parties. The magazine prints images to mock those attempting to oppress minority groups. A quick Google search will explain how each of its covers is a commentary on a specific issue in French politics or culture. What may look racist to ethnocentric American eyes is not in the least bit racist in French culture, especially when understood in the context of who is printing the images and why.
However, those who are looking to blame anything but Islam need you to believe that Charlie Hebdo is racist in order to push that narrative. If they can convince you the images are racist, then they’ve shut down the argument that the attacks were invoked to silence free speech and shut down anti-extremism.
The “anything but Islam” squad immediately claimed this attack had nothing to do with free speech. As bloggers and journalists ran to Islam’s defense, two things happened. First they justified the terrorists’ actions. Second, they blamed the victims. Claiming that the journalists would still be alive today if they had not printed satirical images is the equivalent of asking a rape victim what she was wearing and blaming the short skirt.
Writing for Huffington Post UK, Mehdi Hasan even went so far as to suggest that mocking religion is not a free-speech right, even though he did not condone the terrorists’ actions. He said, “I disagree with your seeming view that the right to offend comes with no corresponding responsibility; and I do not believe that a right to offend automatically translates into a duty to offend.”
No one has said that your right to offend comes with no responsibility, but what sort of responsibility do the journalists at Charlie Hedbo have here? A responsibility to possibly defend their cartoons? Maybe, but they don’t have a corresponding responsibility to pay with their lives.
And how do they not have a duty to offend? Charlie Hedbo calls out crimes against humanity, racism, and social injustice, thereby offending right-wing fascists in France all the time. Should they be careful not to offend those people? Or is Hasan only against offending Muslims because he doesn’t want to be offended by images that confront the villainy inside Islam?
I am sure some Charlie Hedbo readers found the images of Mohammed offensive, but so what? Offense is taken, not given. Anyone who blames the magazine fails to appreciate the context in which the cartoons are represented.
Islamic apologist Reza Aslan, like all members of the “anything but Islam” crowd blamed something other than religion. Speaking on CNN, he said:
Europe is facing nothing short of an identity crisis. Look, the fact of the matter is there have been these seismic changes on the continent, culturally, racially, religiously, politically. And that’s resulted in this intense anti-immigrant, and more specifically, anti-Muslim backlash. In France, one of the largest parties, the party of Marine Le Pen, The National Front, is a virulently anti-Muslim party and very well may win the next elections. You have the UKIP party in the UK, the Pegida [party] in Germany. This is a party whose sole platform seems to be, “Let’s get rid of all Muslims.” They have had, for the last few months, every week thousands and thousands of supporters marching in Germany in this notion that Muslims are some internal enemy. In Sweden we’ve had three mosque attacks over the last week. So this has created this sort of intense tension among the Muslim population in Europe and non-Muslim population.
He was then asked directly about the Charlie Hebdo attack and continued:
Well, it’s not a justification by any means at all, but what Charlie Hebdo represents for a lot of people in Europe is precisely this clash of civilizations. Look, the editors of Charlie Hebdo would unapologetically say that they make fun of everybody, every religion, and they make fun of Muslims for a very specific reason to sort of show, or maybe demonstrate, that look, if you maybe want to be in this country, if you want to be in France, then you have to deal with these French values, you have to rid yourself of your own values, ideals, norms, and you have to take on French values. And there have been a number of laws passed not just in France with regard to prohibitions on Islamic dress, but throughout Europe about whether you can build mosques, about whether you can build minarets, et cetera. And this tension, this polarization, I’m afraid, has led to a lot of acts of violence. Not just the tragedy yesterday…
. . . Charlie Hebdo was representative of this distinctly French value and an argument that unless you agree with that value, well, then you are not really French. And that’s an argument that a lot of young Muslims—and particularly young immigrants who come from different cultures—they just don’t buy into it and enough of them feel angry—perhaps threatened—enough to actually take up violence.
. . . And particularly in France, an aggressively secularizing country that has never really tolerated multiculturalism or the kind of cultural religious diversity that is the hallmark of the United States, you can see how that would create the kinds of tensions that would bubble up occasionally into acts of violence on both sides.
By being quick to first blame the magazine for its imagery and for making fun of Muslims, Aslan demonstrated that he doesn’t understand the covers or the cartoons inside the magazine, something that five minutes of research on the internet would remedy. But he then went on and blamed a lack of tolerance of Muslim beliefs and a lack of multiculturalism.
Aslan is correct in part of his assertion that violence and oppression against Muslims in France and Europe is abhorrent. But that does not mean that harmful beliefs carried by some Muslims must be tolerated in the name of multiculturalism.
Biologist Jerry Coyne noted this exact sentiment on his blog:
What is wrong with “multiculturalism”? That depends on how you define it. If you mean “tolerating or celebrating the customs of people from another land,” it’s fine—and desirable. The US would be bland and uniform without its many immigrants, their celebrations and holidays, their food, their politics, their philosophies, and so on. But when multiculturalism involves importing antidemocratic ideas into a democratic culture, then it becomes problematic. The kind of “multiculturalism” that Charlie Hebdo opposed, and wished to be dissolved by “French” values, was Islam’s veneration of sharia law, its institutionalization of the subjugation of women, its calls for the death of apostates, gays, and adulterers, its belief in corporal punishment for criminals, and the Muslim habit, in some places, of patrolling the streets, looking to find and admonish young Muslims partying, drinking, listening to music, dancing, and associating with members of the other sex. Fun is a no-no.
In other words, the more “enlightened” French are uncomfortable with those tenets of Islam that conflict with the values of the Enlightenment; and it’s just too bad if asking Muslims to conform to those values makes them uncomfortable. By all means keep your Ramadan, your delicious food, your clothing (except, perhaps, the veil), your prayers, your mosques, and so on. But don’t you dare try to quash freedom of speech, beat your wives, kill your daughters, or try to practice sharia law in France.
It surprises me that Aslan can’t fathom that multiculturalism can be seen in several different ways, some of which are commendable and others odious. Actually, I’m sure he can, but he’s so committed to Islamic apologetics that he won’t admit that anything about Muslim “culture” is inimical to democracy.
It is no surprise that the attack was more than just revenge for images of Mohammed, something Coyne didn’t miss:
… It was a combination of the magazine’s publication of images of Muhammad (proscribed by many interpretations of the Qur’an), a perception that the journal was a beacon of Islamophobia (it wasn’t; it shone its light on Islamic perfidy), and, most important, a general hatred of the West and its democratic (and perceived “anti-Islamic”) values.
Yet this combination of things does in fact lead back to Islam. I do believe, as others have pointed out, that if Islam didn’t exist, militants still would. They’d just be fighting under another ideology. But that provides no excuse for the ideology they are fighting for. The ideology of Islam is what made Charlie Hebdo a target. If the ideology chosen by the terrorists was not religious, especially Islamic, these images would not have incited violence, and the extremists would have been more interested in political targets, not journalists.
Yet writers like C.J. Werleman claim that the blame for such radicalization lies solely at the hands of both Western governments and governments inside the Middle East. Writing for the web site Middle East Eye, Werleman said:
The fixation on religion as the root of the world’s problems is completely at odds with reality. In fact, it’s utterly delusional. What is at fault in the Middle East is not Islam, but despotic, autocratic regimes that rule with the benefit of America’s patronage. What is at fault in the West is not Christianity but free-market fascism: free trade, mass pollution, climate change, income inequality, wealth disparity, racism, and immigration overflow from countries that have descended into social chaos—many as a result of Western policies (free trade, climate change, war on terror, and the drug war).
He’s right if you simply cherry-pick only the issues at hand. However, the Christian right’s stance against same-sex marriage or abortion rights in the United States has little to do with the free market and everything to do with religious belief. Werleman is even right about much of the Middle East’s problems, but he ignores things like honor killings, female genital mutilation, and blasphemy laws, all of which are rooted in religious belief and have little or nothing to do with the despotic, autocratic regimes that he is so eager to blame.
Sure, Saudi Arabia’s government is solely at fault when it executes someone for speaking out against it. But you can’t blame the government alone for Saudi blogger Raif Badawi’s sentence of 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison for the crime of insulting Islam. To do so is an insult to Badawi and the countless others killed in the name of blasphemy, like those at Charlie Hebdo.
Werleman knows politics, and he is often correct about the political climate in the US and elsewhere. He is also often correct about the steps we need to take politically to ease tensions and remove a powerful recruitment method from these extremists. But he seems too wrapped up in his own ideological position to see the damage done by ignoring all of the problems of Islam, thereby exempting it from any responsibility.
While there seems to be a growing number of non-Muslim Islam apologists, this rule of “anything but Islam” does not seem to transfer to all religions, making the argument even more spurious. When Christians attack an abortion clinic and say they were inspired by religious belief, we take them at their word and rely on moderate, liberal Christians to speak out and condemn such actions. But when Muslims chant religious text while blowing themselves up or gunning down a magazine staff, and then religious terrorist groups take credit for the attack, the faux-liberal Islamic apologists claim religion had nothing to do with it. Anyone who claims otherwise a racist and Islamophobic.
If we continue to ignore religion’s influence on Islamic extremism we are allowing these groups carte blanche to exploit religion as one of the most effective recruitment tools in their struggle for power.
Let’s remember that most victims of Islamic extremism are other Muslims, and we owe it to them to address both the political and religious problems that cause their continued victimization. We cannot claim to fight for social justice if we neglect to put Islam on the list of the causes of oppression.
This article first appeared in American Atheist magazine’s 2015 First Quarter Issue. You can subscribe to American Atheist magazine here, in which a new Danthropology column appears there.