The shock has begun to subside after last week's terrorist attacks in Paris that left 12 dead at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and four more at a kosher supermarket — but people continue to debate why it happened.
This is understandable. When Anders Breivik murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011, people also searched for answers. They didn't have to look far; Breivik explained his motivation in a 1,515-page manifesto railing against the "Islamisation" of Europe at the hands of "Cultural Marxism." At the time, commentators did not cast him as a disenfranchised victim of circumstance, or drag up historical events to demonstrate how Norway had done this to itself. Instead, Breivik was presented as what he was — a nobody who tried to be somebody by murdering people for a cause he'd discovered on the internet.
The reaction would have been quite different had Breivik committed his atrocity in the name of Islam.
Had his murders been openly and avowedly carried out in order to bring attention to some Islamist gripe, his manifesto would not have been dismissed as ravings, but closely analyzed as the thoughts of an alienated man driven to extremes by a heartfelt sense of injustice. Editorials would have paid lip service to the horror of the killings — then explained at length how immigration and "Cultural Marxism" might indeed have gone too far. Commentators would have been invited into news studios to argue that, while blowing people's heads off for their political views is wrong, Breivik had had his cultural identity and dearly held beliefs trampled.
Elsewhere, European socialists themselves would have boldly declared that they would not give in to violence — all the time carefully editing their words so as not to offend the sensibilities of other potential Breiviks. And they wouldn't have been alone. Behind justifications centered on taste and decency — but definitely not fear! — many would have quietly adopted restrictions on political expression. Restrictions handed to us by an unhinged mass murderer.
This is the tedious pattern that has played out in the wake of Islamist violence time and time again since Salman Rushdie was threatened with murder in 1989 for writing The Satanic Verses. He was blamed at the time by liberal commentators for causing his own problems by "insulting Islam." Then, as now, people who should have been defending Rushdie's right to free speech were too busy contextualizing the hysterical reaction to a work of fiction that few of Rushdie's attackers even read. Then, as now, the cowing influence of religious violence was evident.
Take as an example Yusuf Islam — formerly the singer Cat Stevens — who seemingly declared his support for the killing of Rushdie in 1989 in front of a televised panel that included a police superintendent. The law enforcement official and the rest of the panel shifted uncomfortably as Islam discussed his hope that Rushdie be burned not in effigy, but in actuality; the only person to challenge his statements was the writer Fay Weldon.
Few last week were as forthright as the New Yorker's George Packer in identifying the murders at Charlie Hebdo for what they were — the latest episode in totalitarian Islamism's "war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance, pluralism, and the right to offend — against everything decent in a democratic society." Contrary to popular belief, it is writers like Packer who do the most to dissociate the average Muslim in the street from acts of terrorist violence by unequivocally identifying the culprits as mere glory seekers. It is those who speak sympathetically of "Muslim Anger," on the other hand, who are adopting the working narrative of Islamism, and binding all Muslims to the violence committed in its name.
'Charlie Hebdo' staff were murdered by nobodies seeking glory in the endless global conflict laid out for them by Islamism, which is now marketed more effectively than ever by slick internet campaigns.
What is Muslim Anger? What sparks it? Who has the right to claim it and how can it be placated? In 2013, two young men raised in Nigerian Christian families beheaded a British soldier on the streets of London claiming to be motivated by the suffering of Afghan and Iraq civilians. Yet no such acts of terrorism have been committed by Afghan and Iraqi refugees living in the UK (or in the rest of Europe or in the United States). British and European citizens join the Islamic State in droves, having supposedly been radicalized by the suffering of innocent Iraqi and Syrian civilians. But their desire for justice appears to quickly fade as they go about occupying, slaughtering, enslaving, and raping their way across Iraq and Syria.
The selective narrative of Islamism — and the Muslim Anger it stokes, particularly in the indoctrinated young — has a pecking order: Go to the head of the line if your suffering can be attributed to American, European, or Israeli military or political policy. After that comes any Muslim suffering at the hands of other non-Muslim governments (India's, for example). Next up, anyone harmed by Muslim authorities seen to be serving the interests of non-Muslims.
Then the list stops. There are few instances of, say, Muslim organizations vocally protesting the killing of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Darfur by the Sudanese government and its allied Janjaweed militias. Sudanese embassies across the Muslim world are perfectly safe places to work — no violent protests, no fire bombings, no emergency evacuations. Compare this non-reaction to the endless waves of jihadis radicalized by Muslim suffering in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s, and then in Iraq and Afghanistan (again) since the early 2000s. (Or compare it to the radicalization inspired by cartoons, films, and books.) The selective victimhood narrative employed by Islamism is revealed for the divisive propaganda tool it really is.
The Islamist narrative rests on a simplistic and selective worldview that has permeated so deeply into Muslim discourse that it's often as much a part of many Muslims' religious upbringing as the Quran itself. As I grew up in London in the 1980s and '90s, many Friday sermons were more a list of worthy Muslim victims of Western aggression than acts of congregational worship.
As Packer points out, "[a] religion is not just a set of texts but the living beliefs and practices of its adherents." The talk of "hijacking Islam" that we hear in the wake of Islamist atrocities is therefore an unnecessary abstraction — the fact is that Islamism is hijacking Muslims, especially the young. Islamism claims ownership over us and marginalizes, excommunicates, and threatens those who disavow it. It limits us by labeling anyone who speaks of reform and modernized understandings of scripture — especially those who might espouse a secular, personal, apolitical Islam — as blasphemous traitors and apostates. It spins a sanitized, fairytale history of past Muslim glory and an intolerant, supremacist view of a Muslim future. It blinkers and warps young minds by raising youth with a simplistic worldview of eternal conflict between a Muslim "us" and a non-Muslim "them" in which the highest aspiration is to be a warrior. Islamism robs Muslims of our individual humanity, and values us only as instruments for its wider agenda.
The question is not whether Muslims can reclaim their faith from Islamism, but whether we can reclaim ourselves from an invented ideology that seeks to label and control us. Those who accept and validate the notion of Muslim Anger after Islamist atrocities are doing Islamism's work for it — they are appointing the movement's proponents as the voice and vanguard of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims.
Charlie Hebdo staff were murdered by nobodies seeking glory in the endless global conflict laid out for them by Islamism, which is now marketed more effectively than ever by slick internet campaigns. The killers' supposed sense of offense at cartoons — like the selectively referenced suffering of Iraqis, Afghans, or Syrians — were pretexts for their actions, not reasons. And we should no more legitimize these so-called grievances than we would the murders themselves.
Follow Alaa al-Ameri on Twitter: @AlaaAmeris