Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Fear of Offending Muslims Should Not Stop Us Fighting Islamism

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Fear of Offending Muslims Should Not Stop Us Fighting Islamism

Article excerpt

On 2 November, the offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were firebombed, after the publication of an issue "guest-edited" by Muhammad, Islam's prophet. Its cover had a caricature of Muhammad, saying: "100 lashes if you don't die laughing."

Though no one has yet claimed responsibility, the attack bears the hallmarks of the political Islamic movement. For its followers, threats and firebombs are business as usual. Where they have political power, they forgo any niceties reserved for western public opinion and imprison and murder anyone who speaks their mind, transgresses Islamist norms and causes "offence". Under sharia law in Iran, for instance, there are more than 130 offences punishable by death, including apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, enmity against God, homosexuality and crimes against chastity.

In the west, the debate on Islam and free expression is absurdly framed within a context of racism and Islamophobia, though Islamism has been creating havoc in the Middle East and North Africa for several decades and most of its victims are Muslims. A piece in Time by its Paris correspondent Bruce Crumley (2 November) was a case in point. He blamed Charlie Hebdo for causing "offence" and "bait[ing] Muslim members". Tellingly, he seemed to see "extremists" and "Muslim members" of society as one and the same thing, rather than making the distinction between Islamism (a far-right political movement) and Muslims.

The Islamists' barbaric, medieval values are portrayed as the values of all Muslims. This is something both the far right and the postmodernist left do - albeit for different reasons. The far right blames and scapegoats Muslims for Islamism's crimes and the pro-Islamist left defends Islamism and its crimes as the ''right of a Muslim minority". Both sides oppose or defend Islamism at the expense of human beings.

Sense and sensibility

Muslims, like all other groups, are not homogeneous. Among them are secularists, freethinkers, dissenters, rationalists, rights campaigners, humanitarians and socialists. Many belong to civil society organisations, political parties and movements that are diametrically opposed to Islamism. Islamist violence and terrorism are tactics and pillars of the political Islamic movement and have nothing to do with "Muslim sensibilities". Though we are all offended at least some of the time (and often by religion itself), most of us - religious or not, Muslim or not - never resort to death threats and firebombing.

Equating the intimidation and terror imposed by political Islam to the expression of Muslim sensibilities is like equating the oppressor with the oppressed, and is intrinsically racist. If those really were people's sensibilities and beliefs, Islamist states and movements wouldn't need to resort to such indiscriminate violence.

This raises the important question of whose sensibilities one sides with - the mother and daughter stoned to death in Afghanistan in November, or the Taliban who stoned them to death? …

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