Let’s not try to justify jihadi acts

STANLY JOHNY | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on January 20, 2015

Black and white Dont obfuscate brutality Elenasz/shutterstock.com

Radical Islamism, unlike Shiism in Iran or Palestine’s Hamas, does not pursue political goals. It targets all ‘enemies’

The attack on French satirical magazine by radical Islamists has triggered widespread condemnation. Paris saw one of its biggest rallies against terrorism on January 11 in which at least 40 world leaders took part. Commentators and experts across the political and religious spectrum deplored the attack as “inexcusable”. But the consensus stops right there. Beyond the condemnation lies a variety of opinions on the attack, its causes and consequences.

The rightwing, expectedly, blames it on Islam as a whole. An anti-Muslim rally in Germany, attacks on mosques in Paris, and Islamophobic comments that clog up social networks all point towards this dangerously retrograde position.

A brief knowledge of Nazism and anti-Semitism is sufficient to understand how problematic politics based on Islamophobia can be. But on the other side, a wide spectrum of reputed public intellectuals, mostly from the New Left, question the “political correctness” of the magazine and attempt to link the violence to its “social causes”.

For example, Tariq Ali, author and editor of the New Left Review magazine, says Charlie’s cartoons had insulted the faith of millions of Muslims. There’s a popular hashtag on social networks, #JeNeSuisPasCharlie (I am not Charlie), which apparently emerged as a response to the #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) messages that declared solidarity with the magazine.

Right to blasphemy

To be sure, Charlie has never been a politically correct magazine. Its cartoons have courted controversy several times. But accusing it of being Islamophobic may not be tenable given that it has poked fun at almost all religions as well as religious and political leaders.

The classical definition of Islamophobia is ‘prejudice against, hatred towards, or fear of the religion of Islam, Muslims, or of ethnic groups perceived to be Muslim’. In Charlie’s case, Islam is not the only religion “insulted” by the magazine. In 2011, editor Stéphane Charbonnier had noted that it was sued by Catholic organisations 13 times, and once by a Muslim one. In the words of cartoonist Bernard Verlhac, known as Tignous, the magazine defended its “right to blasphemy”. (Both Charbonnier and Tignous were killed in the January 7 attack).

The question is: why the violence. There could have been argumentative responses, counter cartoons or even democratic protests against the magazine’s contents. But that’s not what Cherif and Said Kouachi preferred.

The ‘social cause’ theorists may give a number of answers.Tariq Ali and Mehdi Hasan, the political director of Huffington Post UK, say the attackers were radicalised by the American torture of Iraqi prisoners. Adam Shatz, one of the contributing editors of the London Review of Books, describes the “otherness” of Muslims in Europe as one of the “social causes” of the attack. The untold message of this radicalisation theory is that unless the “social causes” are addressed, violence is bound to happen.

This need not always be so. Take the case of Dalits in India, for example. They have been subjected to centuries of social discrimination. They are the “other” in the world’s largest democracy. But Dalits’ response to injustice has hardly taken the form of organised violence.

No fringe group here is going to shoot down schoolgoing children, blow themselves up in public marketplaces or kill journalists in their newsrooms. This leads us to the less talked about factor in the Charlie attack discussions — the ideology of the attackers.

Method in the madness

Radical Islamism is an ideology that uses religion for resource mobilisation and believes in the excessive use of violence against anybody who doesn’t subscribe to its worldview. Its adherents are opposed to almost all values of modernity. True, American wars in the Muslim world, beginning with the CIA-Saudi-Pakistan-sponsored jihadi project against the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s, have created conditions for their emergence and contributed to their growth.

But since the Afghan jihad, radical Islamism has transformed into a transnational violent project that has multiple actors around the world. They may be representing different organisations (for example Al Qaeda and the Islamic State), or may not be organisationally coordinated at all, but what connects them all is their common faith in an extremist ideology and violence.

Unlike other Islamist streams, such as political Shiism in Iran or the resistance-based Islamism of the Hamas of Palestine, radical Islamists do not have tangible goals. They are not fighting for political power, but for hurting the “enemy”. What radical Islamists need are excuses, not catalysts. It could be a book, cartoons, your uniform, anything.

The relativist explanations of this violence ( imperialism being responsible for the Iraq catastrophe, the Pakistan army causing the Taliban massacres and Islamophobia in the West) are actually discounting the role radical Islamists play in these crises. The social causes and cultural contexts of these incidents should be analysed. But the ideology of radical Islamists should not be submerged in the socio-cultural explanations of Islamist violence.

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Published on January 20, 2015
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