As someone who writes fiction that would be banned in many (if not most) countries in the world, I’m obviously outraged and alarmed by the murder of the cartoonists and other staff of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo.
However, I think it is foolish to disregard the genuine outrage felt by many Muslims throughout the world to what they regard as blasphemy when the magazine printed a front cover that yet again features the Prophet Mohammed.
However, we should disentangle all this outrage and anger.
ISIS, Al Qaeda and countless other jihadist movements throughout the world are currently winning in their battle against the West. What they have done is needle and antagonise the West to overreact again and again in defence of its stated policies of tolerance and freedom of expression. And although it can be argued that the West’s response to the various terrorist attacks are proportionate, this is not how it is perceived by those in Pakistan, Afghanistan and throughout the Islamic world who are more concerned about the ever-present drones flying above their heads or whose mosques are attacked by right-wing extremists. And they may very well see the publication of images of the prophet Mohammed as a very direct assault on their faith.
So, from the point of view of devout Muslims, the West’s response is nothing more than an affront that is further antagonism which in turn acts as propaganda for ISIS, Boko Haram and the others. All these jihadist movements are now stronger, richer and more of a threat than they were before 2001. In fact, you could argue that the West’s response in invading countries and trampling over local sensitivities has been nothing but a trillion dollar recruitment campaign for the very organisations that it’s supposed to be attacking.
Nonetheless, there is a good reason to vigorously oppose the various jihadists. The main sufferers of these movements are actually other Muslims who for reasons of geography or being not exactly the right flavour of faith find themselves in the firing line. It can even be argued that the jihadists do not represent the Islamic faith. Most Muslims in the world (even in the Middle East and Pakistan) do not subscribe to the jihadists’ narrow interpretation and, furthermore, careful analysis of the history of Islam (i.e. Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword) casts at least as much doubt on the historical veracity of the Koran as countless other studies have for the Torah and the New Testament. And even within the bounds of a theological view of Islam, there is only a very weak case that Allah is especially bothered by illustrations of the Prophet (this is less to do with an explicit command and more to do with a conveniently extreme interpretation of the source texts).
It could be argued that the West has played into the hands of the extremists. After all, one of the stated aims of terrorism as a means of facilitating political change is to destabilise society and promote a response that sets the section of society that the terrorists represent against the government and state. It also has the aim of radicalising its own community and further nudging it towards a more extreme uncompromising position. And in this way, the terrorists have already won and, despite the protests in Paris and elsewhere, continue to do so even after its slaughter of unarmed cartoonists and satirists.
My own views are very much in line with the protestors who took to the streets in such large numbers in defence of the freedom of speech and expression while also being fairly sceptical that the protest has done anything more than further consolidate the artificial divide between Islam and the West. After all, it takes a fairly nuanced and subtle understanding of the situation to see the protest as a defence of liberal values rather than an attack on the principles of Islam.
And the words ‘subtle’ and ‘nuanced’ are not ones we would normally ascribe to the response encouraged and inculcated by either ISIS or Al Qaeda.