Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo attack: Islam, extremism, and the elephant in the room

I wrote a few days ago about some of the possible reactions and consequences of the Charlie Hebdo attack. In the mainstream liberal media, there have been a number of articles (see here and here) by Muslims attempting to put the actions of these terrorists into context. More exactly, the two examples highlighted attempt to put distance between the authors' faith and the perpetrators' interpretation of it.

This is all good and well, but misses the larger (and more glaring) point that many others (in the comments sections) were happy to remind them of: that there are many acts of terror committed in the world today, and a large number of them are by Muslims. In this sense, Islam appears unique in the 21st century in its adherents' motivation to plot and carry out many acts of terror across the world on an almost daily basis (aimed at Muslims and non-Muslims alike), compared to any other religion (or ideology, for that matter).

The lunatics running the asylum?

One of the writers compared to the Charlie Hebdo attacks to the Oklahoma bombing by Timothy McVeigh, saying that as Christians were not required to apologise for that individual's action, so therefore neither should all Muslims have to apologise for the actions of a few "lunatics". This thinking is wrong on two counts: first, McVeigh's hate was aimed at the government, and not fueled primarily by his religion; second, yes the Charlie Hebdo attackers may have been "lunatics", but there seem to be an awful lot of "lunatics" that are using Islam as an excuse to kill.

Those "lunatics" may be hijacking the religion, but that also begs the question: why is it so easy for so many "lunatics" to hijack Islam in the first place? Another article (although highly-satirical) talked about how Christians weren't all blamed for the actions of Anders Breivik, but again, this misses the point: the number of violent Christian extremists in society is very small indeed, while the number of Muslims who consider themselves to be "fundamentalists" is comparatively large. Besides, Christianity mostly dealt with these issues three hundred years ago. By comparison, it appears that Islamic extremism has been undergoing a "renaissance" in recent times. This tells us that there is a fundamental weakness somewhere in how the faith is interpreted, if it allows so many people to use it as an excuse to terrorise society. The extremists are winning the battle within Islam because the moderates seem to lack the intellectual or doctrinal weapons to neutralise (or successfully ostracise) the extremists in the faith.

More bluntly, when there are spectacular attacks like these, regardless of if they are aimed Muslims or non-Muslims. it is not enough to say "they're not true Muslims". The actions of ISIS, for example, are applauded by many in Saudi Arabia; likewise, the Taliban are supported by a significant number of Pakistanis. And in the West, from Bradford to Bordeaux, police uncover terror plots by home-grown extremists almost every week. While there was a great deal of terrorism in the seventies and eighties, by the likes of the IRA in Britain, such a level of continual terror activity by those professing to one faith alone, is unprecedented. This is what makes it unique. And if ordinary Muslims cannot (or refuse to) see that, they are deluding themselves.

The enemy of my enemy...

As said earlier, the number of people professing to be "fundamentalist" Muslims seems to have undergone a "renaissance" in recent decades. This also includes Western converts.
By a strange coincidence, it's worth considering the rise of modern-day Islamic fundamentalism in concert with the rise of economic neo-liberalism. Both of these "ideologies" emerged as a world force around thirty-five years ago: more exactly, the year 1979 was pivotal to both.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became premier of the UK, and initiated the neo-liberal project, to be followed shortly afterwards by fellow neo-liberal disciple, Ronald Reagan in the USA. Since that time, this doctrine, also known as the "Anglo-Saxon model" has been responsible for the rise in the corrupt financial system: after markets became deregulated, banking abandoned economic logic and any remaining moral scruples, which led to the financial crisis of 2008. This disastrous doctrine is still the economic orthodoxy in the West.

In 1979, the Islamic revolution overthrew the rule of the Shah in Iran. Later that year, Islamic militants seized the grand mosque in Mecca. In Saudi Arabia, the social effect of the seizure, after taking it back, was to make the country even more fundamentalist than before, which has existed ever since. In Iran, the theocratic regime encouraged the spread of Islamic fundamentalism through entities such as Hezbollah. Further afield, Islam took a stricter course in Pakistan with its new military ruler, Zia ul-Haq in the same year, instigating a process of cementing stricter Islamic values, for instance, by making blasphemy a capital offence.
The Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, also in 1979, made ul-Haq a useful ally to the USA in its fight against Communism, and thus began the relationship between Islamic fundamentalism and the West, in the theatre of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda became one beneficiary of this. Thus the USA and the UK, the two arms of the "neo-liberal" model, became key financial and military allies of the regimes of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. This has continued to the present day. It should also not be forgotten that Reagan did a deal with the Iranian leadership for the release of the US embassy hostages - after he became president in 1981. There was also the infamous "Iran-Contra" imbroglio.

At this point, conspiracy theorists may be having a field day. The relationship between the Bush family and the Bin Ladens is well-established; others may well talk darkly of a convenient overlap between elites in the Middle East talking up their anti-Western rhetoric, and the "military-industrial complex" in the West talking up the threat of terrorism. That's for others to consider.

Many Muslims talk about extremists who carry out acts like the Charlie Hebdo being "bad apples"; coincidentally, this was the same excuse that was said of those at the banks who were responsible for the financial crisis. It doesn't wash. It was structural failures, and failures of the system itself, that brought about the financial crisis; likewise, it is problems with the structures and implementation of Islam that have brought about the "extremism" crisis in Islam today.

Swimming against the tide

The talk since the 1990s, and especially after 9/11, has been of a "clash of civilisations". More specifically, this is a dialectic played up by ideologues on the far-right in the West, as well as elements of the so-called "neo-cons"; similarly, it is the same rhetoric used by the radicalised edge of Islam, now fronted by the likes of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. For both it is a convenient card to play for their own ends: since the first "intifada", the fall of Communism and the first Gulf War, events have been used by Muslim extremists to justify their actions against the "Great Satan"; likewise, since 9/11, "neo-cons" and other far-rightists (e.g. in Europe) have used terror events and "the enemy within" to play up the threat, playing into the hands of the extremists to play the "victim" card, and turn more recruits to their cause.

In a wider sense, the stance taken by extremist Muslims, such as those who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attack, was a symptom of the inter-connected nature of today's world. Globalisation and the mass accessibility of the internet means that the cartoons designed to appeal to CH's narrow consumer base (itself a segment of French society) could be easily seen by fundamentalist Muslims in the Middle East, the last people who would be expected to be readers of CH. The same point could be made of the infamous "Danish cartoons", which resulted in furious protests as far afield as Indonesia. Only in the 21st century could a cartoon drawn in Denmark result in violent protests on the other side of the world!
In this sense, what these extremists (European far-rightists, as well as Islamic fundamentalists) are doing is stubbornly and violently swimming against the tide: their anger and violence is a reaction to the powerlessness they feel against the opening-up of global society. They want to turn the clock back to a time when their religion and values were unchallenged, and are prepared to use violence to make it happen.

Ultimately, they will fail, as the Counter-Reformation failed. Terrorism is the counter-reaction to the opening-up of global society, and the way that technology and ideas are spreading to places where they didn't exist before. There is no easy answer to the threat of terrorism; it may be the price that society must pay until global society eventually turns the corner and wins the intellectual battle. This is the battle that Islam is also going through, an intellectual battle to find its place in the modern world.

We must all wait, patiently, until that ends.

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