Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the BIS Select Committee, the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Stratford on Avon.
You can’t kill an idea by killing people. The sickening attack on Charlie Hebdo has shown that to be true. As France mourns her dead, millions around the world are discovering the work of her bravest satirists. Nous sommes Charlie.
Unfortunately, the same is true of the terrorists. Bin Laden may be at the bottom of the sea, but his poisonous ideology lives on. As long as it inspires deluded young men to kill, these attacks will keep happening. We can’t win this fight unless we also win the battle of ideas.
This is an urgent task. Thousands of EU citizens have travelled to the Middle East to serve under ISIS’s black banner. Many will return with combat experience and carrying the virus of radicalism. Some will be eager to put their new terrorist skills to work. It’s vital that we stop them.
Our security services have an important role to play, but research suggests that the most effective way of tackling terrorism is “changing the narrative”. That means challenging the stories used by extremists to justify their twisted worldview.
First and foremost, this means rejecting the idea that this this is a clash of civilizations: Islam versus the West. The reality is that jihadists have claimed more lives in the Islamic world than anywhere else. In December last year, the Pakistani Taliban gunned down 132 schoolchildren in their classrooms. On the same day as the attack in Paris, a car bomb exploded in Yemen killing at least 38 people. Muslim-majority countries, as much as the West, have a clear interest in stamping out this ideology.
It’s time the Islamic world took a leadership position on this issue. When the news from Paris broke, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan were quick to condemn the attacks. Yet all three have legal systems carrying the death penalty for blasphemy. In virtually every Muslim-majority country, publishing a magazine like Charlie Hebdo would earn you a fine or imprisonment.
These laws support the idea that religious offence is a crime to be punished rather than a price we must pay for freedom of expression. They also fuel extremist violence. In Pakistan, blasphemy charges are often levied at religious minorities on the flimsiest of pretexts. Those accused are sometimes lynched by vigilante mobs while awaiting trial. Politicians who’ve dared to speak out against the laws have been assassinated.
One of the best tributes we could pay to the brave men and women of Charlie Hebdo would be to use our diplomatic influence to get some of these laws repealed. Change won’t happen overnight, and we will have to be patient with these countries. After all, the last successful prosecution for blasphemy in Britain was as recent as 1977, and the laws only came off the statute books in 2008.
I am not arguing that we should preach to Islamic governments; but nor should we turn a blind eye to this issue. Reforming attitudes to blasphemy would send a powerful message to extremists: freedom of speech isn’t just a Western value – it’s our common birthright as human beings.
And we shouldn’t be frightened of having a conversation about religion here at home. Talking about religion doesn’t come naturally. As a culture, we ‘don’t do God’. Yet it’s vital that mainstream Muslims feel comfortable discussing their faith in public. They, not the Government, are best placed to take on the dodgy imams and self-appointed sheikhs in open debate.
The Qur’an is clear that it’s the role of Allah, not man to judge unbelievers. In the 7th Century, Ali bin Abi Talib, the cousin of the Prophet and a leader of the original Islamic Caliphate, said: “Whoever does not accept others’ opinions will perish”. There’s a sound Islamic case for freedom of expression, and it needs a good airing.
Last, we have to practice what we preach. If we want Muslims to come out and say “not in my name” every time there’s a terrorist atrocity we too need to be vocal in our condemnation of attacks on Muslims and mosques in the West.
Charlie Hebdo was a target because humour is dangerous. You can’t be the all-powerful Islamic Caliphate and be the butt of someone else’s joke. The goal of terrorism is to frighten us – so laughter is one of our most powerful weapons.