On 7th January 2015, two masked gunmen broke into the offices of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Armed with assault rifles, body armour and an RPG, they killed seven employees, including Editor Stéphane Charbonnier, as well as two French policemen.The video is available online, and the viewer will be unsurprised by now to hear one of the gunmen remark, rather forcefully, that ‘God is Great’ before he opens fire with his weapon.
I say unsurprised because this is the fourth time in recent history that literature with Islam as the subject has provoked violence, following the Rushdie fatwa of 1989, Theo van Gogh’s murder in 2004, and the Danish cartoon controversy of 2005. But it is the first time that the jumping to the defence of free speech and expression has been so unanimous. There was, in the case of Rushdie and the Danish cartoons, a considerable body of public opinion that felt the main issue was how offensive these works were, with the sinister implication that any resulting violence was on some level deserved.
To the extent that the social media trend ‘Je Suis Charlie’ expresses condemnation of murderous behaviour, it is really the only acceptable sentiment. But I wonder how much consolation it is to the families of the deceased and how much it really costs someone to type these few words. In this respect, it seems to be the bare minimum we can do-‘spreading the risk’ across as much of the media as possible by making it hard to target any one outlet.
In a second video, a policeman is shot down. He briefly pleads for his life before one of the pair moves close and blows the poor man’s brains out against the pavement. This is the kind of barbarism that ought never to have made it out onto the streets in the first place. This ought to have been a pre-emptive arrest, rather than a retrospective endorsement of free speech where we can all pretend to be a little bit heroic by typing a few words on a screen.
It is important to mention that this kind of behaviour is by no means restricted to Muslim extremists. The Anders Breivik shooting in 2011 saw a man kill with similar psychopathic calm. It should be noted though, that nowhere in the Bible does it sanction the killing of socialist students, whereas in the Hadith ( an accepted set of canonical texts in Islam) we are furnished there are numerous examples of those offending the Prophet being killed. In one example, a woman (Jewish, the text helpfully adds) who repeatedly insults Muhammed is promptly strangled to death by another.I would argue that this shows a more direct, explicit link between the tenets of Islam and the legitimisation of murder than, say, the Quakers or the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The warm,comforting spirituality that the religion brings many increasingly does not seem to be worth its violent side-effects
It is wrong to blame all these killings and attempted killings on Islam itself, as clearly the majority of Muslims are peaceful. But surely this is only the case because of their distancing themselves from some of the Prophet’s more brutal lessons. On a purely cost-benefit basis then, the warm,comforting spirituality that the religion brings many increasingly does not seem to be worth its violent side-effects.
Although I am a Muslim, I suggest that the West considers some sort of mild discouragement policy when it comes to Islam, perhaps with the aim of separating fanaticism from the men with guns before, instead of thinking up the pithy ways to condemn shootings after.