This is written late on Wednesday evening when the details of the story are still fluid. I was shocked this morning by the murder of 12 people, including two policemen, at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by three masked gunmen who appear to have been wearing bullet proof vests and carrying AK47 assault rifles.
The French police are reported as stating that witnesses said the attackers shouted “Allahu Akbar” and “we have avenged the prophet”. Assuming this information is correct, the attackers were clearly seeking to kill Charlie Hebdo journalists in retaliation for their past satirising of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
The attack has been condemned around the world. There is a compendium of condemnations by Muslim organisations at this link.
Condemnation is of course totally appropriate. Indeed I would be horrified by any person or organisation unwilling to condemn such barbarity. However, by itself condemnation is not enough. We also need to think through the issues which this attack brings into sharp focus.
Were the killers Muslims?
Whenever there is an atrocity of this kind, for example the recent killings of schoolchildren in Peshawar, I encounter some Muslims who argue that people who carried out the crime cannot possibly be Muslims. The implication is that such conduct automatically disqualifies one from being a Muslim.
This argument is seductive, because it allows law abiding Muslims to say “the killers are nothing to do with us.” However it is wrong.
If you looked at the behaviour of the Peshawar killers (for example), you would see people who prayed regularly, read the Quran, fasted, etc. They would be indistinguishable from other (law-abiding) Muslims. Committing a crime, whether it be theft, or the murder of one person, does not stop you being a Muslim; it shows that you are a bad Muslim. The same is true if you kill many people, regardless of your motivation.
Accordingly law-abiding Muslims (along with everyone else) need to ask the question “What has caused these particular Muslims to become killers and how can we stop it happening again?”
Is it wrong to highlight the terrorists’ religious beliefs?
I encounter many Muslims who complain about the emphasis given to the religious beliefs of terrorists such as the 7 July London 2005 bombers, or now the Charlie Hebdo killers.
Sometimes the religious beliefs of a terrorist are irrelevant; sometimes they are critical.
For example many, probably most, Kurdish PKK terrorists are Sunni Muslims. Their religious beliefs are irrelevant since they are fighting for political goals, and indeed fighting against a Turkish state which is primarily composed of other Sunni Muslims. The press consistently gets the PKK situation right; I have never seen them referred to as “Muslim terrorists.”
Conversely, sometimes it is clear from the terrorists’ own words that their religious beliefs are integral to what they are seeking to do as terrorists. Reading the transcript of the suicide video left by Mohammad Sidique Khan (the leader of the 7/7 bombers) leaves no doubt that his religious beliefs underlay what he did. At the simplest, if he had believed that the act would send him to Hell for all eternity, he would not have done it.
Freedom of speech and blasphemy
Freedom of speech is a fundamental value for any free society. Hence the first amendment to the USA Constitution.
Since the publication of Salman Rushdie’s book Satanic Verses, some Muslims have taken such offense at certain publications that they have sought to kill those responsible. In doing so they attempt to impose their view of Islam upon everyone else, Muslim or non-Muslim. In my view their understanding of Islam is defective, as explained by Usama Hasan here and by Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, the late President of Indonesia, here.
However, regardless of how different Muslims understand Islam, our position as a free society should be unequivocal. Publishers must be free to publish; if you don’t like a magazine like Charlie Hebdo, complain about it, boycott it, but that is the full extent of what you can do.
At present, we don’t know where the killers received the military training that they displayed during the attack. However, it is clear to me that the issues the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill 2015 is seeking to address are very real. In particular, it shows the need for:
- The provisions to stop UK citizens travelling abroad in connection with terrorism-related activity.
- To control UK citizens reasonably suspected of involvement in terrorism-related activity overseas returning to the UK. (I support amending the Bill to bring in proper judicial oversight.)
- The imposing of a duty on specified public sector organisations to prevent people being drawn into terrorism.
We need to be firm on the values that people are required to sign up to when they become British citizens. One of those must be freedom of speech, with its over-ride of any beliefs that person may hold about blasphemy.
Foreign preachers who believe that blasphemy should be punished by death, regardless of whether in today’s society by direct individual action, or by state action in an idealised Islamic state, should be banned from ever entering Britain. British Muslims themselves need to ensure that such beliefs are not taught to impressionable young Muslims by preachers who are British citizens.