Flowers in front of the headquarter of Charlie Hebdo in Paris Foto: flickr.com Patrizia TorresThe terrorist attack in Paris has provoked a certain debate also within the Arab world which, in addition to news stories, has witnessed the proliferation of leading articles and reflections on the phenomenon of religious violence. Although Daesh, on one of its radio channels, namely al-Bayân, defined the terrorists as ‘heroes who avenged the prophet Muhammad’ and believed that this is the right punishment for ‘the review which from 2003 until today has never stopped engaging in sarcasm about the prophet’, most of the Arab newspapers have condemned the attack. The editorial board of the independent newspaper Al-Quds al-‘Arabî on the same day as the attack published an article on violence in the name of God which it said is ‘always and in all circumstances unjustifiable’ and also on freedom of thought, asking whether this can be absolute or whether, instead, it should be circumscribed by certain limits so as not to fall into insults. ‘Nothing can justify such a terroristic act, but one should also remember that to offend a religious doctrine, a Prophet or a confessional religious symbol is equally unacceptable because it wounds the feelings of millions of faithful. This is not a matter of suppressing freedom of opinion. Objective criticism with a view to serious scholarly research designed to achieve dialogue between religions is indeed allowed in Islam as well, as the verse of the Koran observes: ‘and discuss with them in the best way’.
However, to insult this or that religion, that God or this Prophet, has nothing to do with freedom of expression. The fact remains that the reaction cannot be one of killing or carrying out a massacre, and this is even more the case if those illustrations were intended for a non-Muslim readership …It is true that the West allows everybody to criticise or satirise any religion, but France herself, for example, punishes with imprisonment those who deny the Holocaust or call into question the numbers of its victims, without this being seen as a violation of freedom of opinion’. The editorial board also believes that the massacre in Paris constitutes a tragedy for Muslims in the West who now run the risk of being the victims of Islamophobia and possibly of attacks on mosques and Islamic centres in Europe.
Others try to understand the reasons for religious violence from within. On this point the Lebanese leader writer Ridwan al-Sayyid offers in Al-Sharq al-Awsat an analysis of the responsibilities of Arab political authorities and Muslim religious institutions in fostering terrorism. According to the author, the weakness of the religious leaders and their inability to provide leadership, together with the exploitation of religion for political purposes by regimes, has fostered the proliferation of fundamentalist ideologies which regularly lead on to terrorist activities. The process that led to the emptying of the meaning of religious institutions is said to have begun at the beginning of the twentieth century with the activities of the reformist movements and to have continued until the 1970s with the nationalist regimes. During this period the function of religious institutions changed: as supporting columns, together with the state, of classic Islamic society, they worked traditionally to spread the Islamic message and to teach it, and were entrusted with ‘stewarding religion in its consolidated practices’. At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, these institutions no longer managed to keep up with the times and were seen by the new regimes as obstacles to programmes of modernisation. In this logic the new Arab leaders did their best to expel them from society, depriving them of their traditional role of providing guidance. The religious institutions thus found themselves the prisoners of two radicalisms: on the one hand, the reformist-fundamentalist movements, which sought to bring back and restore the Islam of the beginnings; on the other, the regimes that wanted to expel religion from the public sphere. Ridwan al-Sayyid accuses in particular the reformist movements for changing the cardinal notions of religion with the pretext of ‘purifying them of tradition’, thereby ending up by generating forms of fanaticism that the political authorities hurried to counter on their own, in reality climbing over the religious authorities. This situation, explains this leader writer, has endangered both the state and religion. The state is in jeopardy because by now it is one with religion and has fallen prey to fanatical factions that exploit Islam in order to gain power. Religion, on the other hand, is endangered because it is out of control, given that Islamic institutions no longer perform their traditional prerogatives. Today, observes al-Sayyid, religious institutions are called upon to provide answers. How? By reconstructing the cultural edifice, paying more attention to religious questions than to their political declination, and engaging in a religious reform.
The post twittered by the Australian television producer Rupert Murdoch in which he stated that ‘perhaps most Muslims are peaceful but as long as they do not acknowledge and destroy the jihadist cancer they must be held responsible’ led the Saudi leader writer, former editor of Al-Sharq al-Awsat and director of the television channel al-‘Arabiyya, ‘Abd al-Rahmân al-Rashîd to write upon the responsibilities of the Arab world for the rise of terrorism. ‘Extremism began its history in [Islamic] societies and it prospered with the support of Muslims and their silence until it became the monster of terror which today is devouring people in every part of the world’, he explains. For this reason, Muslims are called to become aware of the danger that hesitation and silence involve when they are faced with extremism ‘because the limits of what is licit and allowed in thought have already been crossed’. Just as during the first half of the twentieth century Europe countered the German extremism which gave rise to Nazism, the author explains, so Muslims should now counter fundamentalism and go into the streets of Islamic capital cities to demonstrate, as happened in Paris. ‘The patience of the world which observes the massacre of people in the name of Islam, the kidnapping of children in Nigeria in the name of Islam, and the violence against women in the North of Iraq in the name of Islam, is coming to an end’. World public opinion, argues this leader writer, will become increasingly opposed to Muslims, without making distinctions any more between peaceful Muslims and extremist Muslims. Those who are responsible for terrorism, he concludes, are not so much Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî or Abû Muhammad al-Jawlânî, the head of Jabhat al-Nusra, as those political regimes that do not do what they should do because ‘they fear the ire of the extremist minorities that are present in their societies and do not care if beyond their borders the world is alight because of their negligence’.
Links to the articles:
Editorial, Mujzarah Charlie Hebdo: al-muslimûn hum al-dhahiyyat al-ulà
Ridwân al-Sayyid, Al-mu’assasât al-dîniyyah wa siyâsât al-dîn wa al-dawlah
‘Abd al-Rahmân al-Rashîd, Murdoch: al-muslimûn yatahammalûn mas’uliyyah al-irhâb