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It Doesn't Matter That Islam Inspired the 'Charlie Hebdo' Attacks

What's imperative is to demonstrate that those who believe it was an act of "true" Islam are wrong.

The Charlie Hebdo offices after being firebombed in 2011. Photo by Pierre-Yves Beaudouin via Wikimedia Commons

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Unlike recent jihadi hits in the West, where lone—or, as Max Abrahms perhaps more accurately calls them, "loon"—wolves have carried out terrorist attacks in a bid for death and martyrdom, the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo last week was a hit-and-run, not a suicide mission. A hit-and-run where the emphasis was on the killing, not the dying.

The two gunmen— brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi—may have gone out in a hail of police bullets. But martyrdom didn't seem to be their intention on Wednesday morning; it appeared that they wanted to escape.


The attack also isn't without parallel or precedent. The magazine's offices were firebombed in 2011, after printing a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad. Many commentators have noted too that it is a continuation of, as Geoffrey Goldberg puts it, the "brittle, peevish, and often-violent campaign to defend the honor of Allah and his prophet" that began in 1989 with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. But the more salient reference point for thinking about last Wednesday's attack and the possible motives behind it may be the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh on an Amsterdam street in 2004.

Van Gogh's killer, a Moroccan-Dutchman named Mohammad Bouyeri, acted alone, shooting Van Gogh several times as he rode his bicycle to work. Following the attack, he made no attempt to flee the murder scene, slouching off instead to a nearby park, where he readied himself for more violence.

Bouyeri's plan, as he made clear at his court trial in 2005, was to die as a martyr to his faith in a shoot-out with the Dutch police. It ultimately didn't work out that way; instead, he took a bullet in the leg—not the fatal shot he'd hoped for. Minutes later he was apprehended, very much alive and un-martyred.

At his trial, Bouyeri explained that "the law compels me to chop off the head of anyone who insults Allah and the prophet." He then elaborated further, directly addressing Van Gogh's mother: "I don't feel your pain," he told her. "I don't have any sympathy for you. I can't feel for you because I think you're a nonbeliever. I did what I did purely out of my beliefs. I want you to know that I acted out of conviction and not that I took his life because he was Dutch or because I was Moroccan and felt insulted. If I ever get free, I would do it again."


Van Gogh was first and foremost a provocateur, and was known in the Netherlands less for his films than for his outrageous remarks about almost everything. He was also notorious for calling Muslims "goat fuckers." However, his most serious offense—as Bouyeri saw it—was to have insulted the honor of God by making, with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born political activist and former Muslim, a blasphemous film about Islam.

This controversial film, titled Submission, was broadcast on Dutch television in 2004 and featured lines from the Qur'an, detailing a man's right to beat his wife, projected onto the naked bodies of several young women. For this act of sacrilege, Van Gogh would have to pay. Bouyeri was not only adamant that the divinely mandated punishment for blasphemy is death, but that it was his own personal religious duty to carry it out.

The killers who struck on Wednesday were clearly in a different league from the hapless Bouyeri, but their motives may prove strikingly similar. Wednesday's attack was a primarily faith-based initiative, a sacramental act intended to please God, in much the same way that Van Gogh's death was a sacrificial gift to God from Bouyeri.

This raises the issue of Islamic jurisprudence on blasphemy and the permissive way in which jihadis interpret it. In his expert evidence at Bouyeri's trial, Professor Rudolph Peters—a renowned Dutch scholar of Islamic law—testified that Bouyeri had been strongly influenced by a text called The Obligation, authored by the classical Islamic thinker Ibn Taymiyya.


This text was interpreted by Bouyeri to mean that it is mandatory for Muslims to kill anyone who insults the Prophet. But this, as Peters observed, was a serious misreading on Bouyeri's part. Taymiyya had stipulated that only after a trial and the proper substantiation of the facts could a person guilty of blasphemy be put to death.

"Bouyeri," Peters wrote in a paper on the Van Gogh murder, "misunderstood this and took it as an obligation for individual Muslims to take the law into their own hands." It may well be that the killers on Wednesday were laboring under the same misapprehensions as Bouyeri about the nature of their religious obligations.


As we try to take in and understand the events of last week, one issue up for discussion is Islam and its possible connection to murderous violence.

On one side, there are those who claim that the shootings had nothing to do with "true" Islam, and that they were in fact a monstrous distortion of an essentially peaceful and humane religion. On the other, there are those who insist with equal vehemence that the attack was everything to do with Islam, and that it was in fact a logical or direct manifestation of what is an essentially illiberal and despotic religion.

Only, both sides are mistaken, ignoring that Islam—like any religion—isn't a fixed entity that exists over and above the people who interpret and practice it. Whether Islam, however the religion is defined or understood, promotes or inhibits violence isn't the point. The point, rather, is that there are a growing number of people who believe that "true" Islam does permit the killing of those who, in their judgment, are guilty of blasphemy and apostasy.

If we're to take away anything constructive from this tragedy, it should be this: It is imperative to demonstrate that these people are wrong, not according to an imagined pristine Islam, but by the lights of fundamental moral values that all societies share—and, more immediately, to punish their crimes and stop them from committing future outrages.

Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at Kent University. He is a member of the editorial board of Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. His book The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam is out in February, published by Hurst & Co.