The gunmen, who caused the sickening tragic events in Paris over the past two days, are a product of a long tradition of Muslim’s denial. A denial of the relationship between Islam, as it is understood in the modern time, and violence. Charlie Hebdo tragedy: Is it Islam or a denial of Muslims?
Although one of the police officer victims, Ahmed Merabet, is believed to be a Muslim, the militant madmen called themselves Muslims as well. It is time for Muslims to modernise the religious thinking of Islam. Condemnation does not seem to be enough. The first victims of such violent actions are principally Muslims as the image of Muslims and their religion degenerates.
Going back to 2012, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque and former president of Al-Azhar University in Egypt, Ahmad Al-Tayeb issued an angry statement, following Charlie Hebdo publication of caricatures of prophet Mohammad, condemning the constant ‘western’ assault against Islam. He considered those carrying out such an assault are secular and Christian extremists. Al-Tayeb’s statement came a week after eruption of violent acts in several Arabic and Muslim-majority countries against the anti-Islamic movie ‘Innocence of Muslims’, a controversial movie produced by the Egyptian-born Mark Basseley Youssef in the United States.
Al-Azhar Imam said to Alarabiya news in 2012 that the ‘West’ has not dealt with Islam respectfully referring to what he called a series of hatred campaigns against Islam starting with Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘The Satanic Verses’, then the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in Denmark to the 2011 publication of other caricatures of the prophet by the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. “The ‘vehement hatred campaigns’ to defame the prophet of Islam have started since the ninth century,” Al-Tayeb explained.
Yousef Al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian Islamic theologian and the chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars commented on the Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the prophet Mohammad “it is not a freedom of speech but a destruction of the beliefs of Muslims.” Although Al-Qaradawi condemned any violent acts against any western country on Qatar TV in 2012, he related destruction of the beliefs of Muslim to war and respecting them to peace.
Several Arabic newspapers reported the Parisian terrorist act describing those who committed the atrocity as militant Muslims and the style of the French newspaper as rude, cruel, blasphemous, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and xenophobic. The debates in general fell short in addressing the real reasons motivated the gunmen. Some went to describe the act as a terrorist one and a part of a conspiracy aims at destroying the solidarity of the French community with all its faiths and diversity, some others went to blame the direct style of the newspaper itself.
In a response to the attacks against the satirical newspaper, Saudi Arabia condemned the attack in a statement to the governmental Saudi Press Agency “The kingdom strongly condemns and deplores this cowardly terrorist act, which the Islamic religion as well as all other religions and faiths refuse, and [the kingdom] offer their condolences to the families of the victims and the government and people of the friendly republic of France, and wish the injured a fast recovery.”
The League of Arab States strongly decried the attack, while Al-Azhar Mosque and University described it as terrorist and declared that Islam refuses any acts of violence.
The French Council of the Islamic Religion (Conseil français du culte musulman – CFCM) expressed a strong disproval and deplored this act of violence. “In the name of Muslims in France, we declare that it is a very dangerous barbaric attack against democracy and freedom of journalism,” the CFCM stated.
Castigating responses against the attacks in the Arab world followed. Among others, the Gulf Cooperation Council, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Iraq strongly condemned the terrorist and criminal attacks against the French newspaper. Even Hasan Nasrallah, the secretary general of the terrorist organisation Hezbollah in Lebanon decried the killings saying that the violent actions by some Muslim militants have hurt Islam more than those they attacked.
As there are statements blaming the ‘West’ for violating the holiness of Islam on the ground of freedom of speech, such as in the case of Charlie Hebdo newspaper, there are more statements and condemnation against such violent actions. Al-Azhar condemns the newspaper at the time of publication and decries the attacks when they happen. This controversy is due to either a lack of religious vision or a denial of the need to modernise and reform the Islamic thinking. Every time such a criminal action happens, Muslims become the first victims not only in the western world but also in the heart of the Middle East such as in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Unlike Christianity, Islam is a decentralised religion and carries many different and conflicting interpretations of the principle sources of Islam, the Quran and the sayings and traditions of the prophet Mohammad. Muslims need to scrutinise interpretations and collections of ancient Islamic scholars such as, among others, Mohammad Al-Bukhari and Muslim Al-Hajjaj, Persian Islamic scholars lived in the ninth century. The Former authored the hadith collection Sahih Al-Bukhari including 7257 sayings and acts of the prophet Muhammad, whereas the latter authored the hadith collection Sahih Muslim including 9200 acts and sayings of the prophet Muhammad. These two collections along with other four books might in some parts contain discriminatory, violence-inciting and illogical arguments. Unfortunately, they are considered the most authentic books in the Sunni Islamic religion and accepted to be a part of the official Islam.
Reformation of Islamic thinking necessitates the willingness of the political as well as religious elites to stop instrumentalising religion whenever it deems convenient. The Grand Mofti of the Syrian government, Ahmed Hassoun, said in a press conference in 2011 “the moment the first bomb launched against Syria, the sons and daughters of Syria and Lebanon will be sent to be martyrs on the lands of Europe and Palestine. I say to whole Europe and the United States, we will prepare martyrs, who already live in your countries, if you attack Syria or Lebanon.”
Recently, Egyptian president, Abdulfattah El-Sisi, has launched an initiative to revolutionise religious thinking to fight against extremism. “I am not saying ‘religion’ but ‘thinking’—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralised over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonising the entire world,” El-Sisi said in a speech celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, which coincided with New Year’s Day. “You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it [religion] and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective,” he added.
Reformation of religious thinking might be a necessity for the Arab world and there should be a collective action to encounter extremism by several governments and religious institutions in the Arab and Muslim-majority world. Any form of religious instrumentalisation, extremism or fundamentalism should be forbidden.
The problem is not that the gunmen joined or learned from the Islamic State (IS) but rather why they were inclined to join and support IS, or Al-Qaeda. Radicalisation is a process that takes several years to crystallise. There is hardly evidence that people become radicalised because of a two or three months visit to IS. But evidence suggests that people who join IS are already prepared to embrace, learn and instate such an extremist ideology.
The newcomers to IS or any other terrorist organisation are more likely to have developed their radical religious thinking in their home countries. It could be at schools, home, religious books and interpretation or religious sessions. Therefore, the reasons that incite violence could be in the books held most sacred by Muslims and these books should be scrutinised by Muslim scholars. Reformation, revivalism and modernisation of religious thinking should start from religious schoolbooks, ancient collections of religious sources and the religious speech.