Saturday, January 10, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the murders in France: Is there a problem with Islam?

The Kouachi brothers - Said and Cherif
Is there a problem with Islam?  The horrific murders carried out this week against  the staff of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and at a Kosher supermarket in Paris, follow a number of attacks carried out in the name of Islam.  These include attacks by individuals, such as the attack on a cafe in Sydney Australia, and the Canadian parliament in Ottawa.

They also include attacks by organizations such as that on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya by al-Shabab, the kidnapping of 200 school girls and the mass killings in northeast Nigeria by Boko Haram, and the beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers, as well as the slaughter of Iraqi troops and tribesmen, by the so-called Islamic State in Syria and north central Iraq.

How should we view this violence which is especially vicious in its indiscriminate nature?  Is this violence rooted in Islam, or do we need recourse to a larger narrative to understand what is taking place?
The Kouachis  kill a policeman protecting Charlie Hebdo

Let's begin by asking: what are the categories that the media and analysts use in explaining what took place in Paris and elsewhere?  The most prominent category used to describe the violence above is that of Jihad (al-jihad).  The confusion created by the focus on this term, rather than other more fundamental concepts, needs to be addressed.

First, the concept of jihad has been appropriated by radical extremists whose interpretation is used to justify attacks on a wide variety of targets.  Second, these extremists argue that (their definition of) jihad is central to Islam, ergo signifying to many non-Muslims that Islam is a religion based on violence.

If we consider that there are analysts in the West and elsewhere who are hostile to Islam for a wide variety of reasons, then we end up with a perverse correspondence of interests between extremists who act in the name of an invented and distorted Islam, on the one hand, and those non-Muslims who are hostile to Islam, on the other.

The fallacy of subsuming the murders that occurred in Paris, as well other murders and violence conducted by radical extremists, under the concept of jihad is that jihad has nothing to do with violence in its most fundamental meaning.  As many know, words in Semitic languages (e.g., Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic) are built on a tri-consonent root, in this case ja ha da, which simply means to exert effort.

Islam makes the distinction between the "Greater Jihad," and the "Lesser Jihad."  The former entails the effort of the Believer to engage in activities that will bring her/him closer to God (Allah).  It is a spiritual process and has no relationship to the use of force.  The "Lesser Jihad" calls upon Muslim to defend the Islamic community (al-umma al-Islamiya) when it is threatened or attacked.

To show how far the notion of jihad is from that of violence, we should note that the concept of al-ijtihad,  the use of human reason to interpret and apply the teachings of Islam, is based on the root ja ha da.  Further, a cleric in Shiism is known as al-mujtahid, one who has the proper religious training to apply the notion of al-ijtihad.

However, the fallacy of referring to the violence conducted under the aegis of "jihad" goes far beyond its textual definition in Islam.  First, of the world's 1.6  billion Muslims, the overwhelming majority reject the application of the term al-jihad to the type of atrocities conducted by the Kouachi brothers in Paris or the other acts referenced above.

9/11 mastermind Muhammad Atta
Second, only a minute fraction of those who consider themselves Muslims engage in the type of brutal and indiscriminate violence that the world has witnessed over the past year.  Using the term "jihad" as defined by radical extremists, is equivalent to defining Christianity by the Spanish and Italian inquisitions, the lynchings of African-Americans by the Ku Klux Klan - whose symbol is the burning cross - the actions of white Christian supremacist groups in the United States such as the Aryan Nation, Posse Comitatus, United Klans of America, or by the picketing of military funerals by the the anti-Semitic and homophobic Westboro Baptist Church.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church

Third, the overwhelming majority of radical extremists who engage in the atrocities such as those carried out in Paris this week know little of nothing of formal Islam.  Indeed, in much of the West, those who have perpetrated violent acts against innocent civilians are often youth who are more acquainted with Western that Islamic culture.  Muhammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 attackers, spent the evening of September 8, 2001 in a bar, Shuckum's Oyster Bar and Grill, in Hollywood, Florida, playing video-games and pool, where he, Ramzi bin al-Shihb, and an unidentified companion, became highly intoxicated - not the behavior one would expect of a devout Muslim.
Father says 2 youth radicalized by "Call of Duty" video game

Often, members of terrorist cells and organizations not only know little of formal Islam but show little interest in religion.  Numerous reports on the Islamic State in its defacto capital, al-Raqqa, in Syria, and elsewhere, describe its fighters wiling the day away playing video-games when they are not on the  battlefield.  As the late Troy Kastigar, a 28 year old Minneapolis resident, Muslim convert and al-Shibab recruit, put it in a famous YouTube video, the Somali terrorist organization  represents "the true Disneyland."
Troy Kastigar in al-Shabab video

Cherif Kouachi as rapper
The two Kouachi brothers, Said and Cherif, were orphans and petty criminals, known to smoke marihuana and love rap before coming under the influence of a radical cleric, Farid Benyettou, at the Adda’wa mosque in the Stalingrad district of Paris. Benyettou, who had ties to al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) encouraged them to go to Yemen for military training (The Daily Mail, Jan. 11, 2015).


Again, the social and political dynamics behind the Kouachi brothers attacks had little to with religion and much to do with Benyettou's promise to make them "big men."  Here we begin to touch upon a more cogent explanation for the terrorism that we see carried out in the name of Islam. Young men, who have little education, few employment opportunities, and no hope in the future, are brought under the influence of radical extremists.  They are then fed a group of distorted ideas and told that carrying out violent acts will "protect Muslims" and lead to "martyrdom."
Radical "cleric" Farid Benyettou
It is important to note that, in the United States, where Muslims are more integrated into American society than in European states, we do not see the type of violence that we find in Europe.  For one, the US does not have the colonial past of Great Britain and France which has resulted in significant migration of citizens of their former colonies to their respective countries.  In France, Muslims constituted 5-6 million of a population of 52 million Frenchmen and many have been born in France.

Moving beyond jihad and radical Islam One key concept that is missing in almost all of the analysis in the media is that of social class.  The violence carried by the Kouachi brothers was that of two marginalized Muslim youth who were either unemployed or semi-employed.  They lived in a section of Paris largely divorced from traditional French society.
Photograph of bullets from Said Kouachi's Facebook page
Another set of variables missing from the discussion of terrorist violence is the collapse of secular ideologies.  Increasingly Western liberalism is associated with rising levels of inequality, declining social services and lack of sensitivity to cultural difference.  Socialism is likewise seen as a historically spent ideology.  It is viewed as producing authoritarian rule, extensive state corruption,  and lack of economic growth.

With higher levels of trans-national migration, caused by lack of economic and educational opportunity, nationalism has also been undermined.  Comparing the Islamic State and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) in Syria to earlier movements such as the Mau Mau movement, the PKK, the FARC, or the PFLP - each of which either sought to take control of an existing nation-state or create a new one, we see that current terrorist organizations reject the Westphalian state model of sovereign nation-states in all its dimensions.

For the IS, its "caliphate" is the only acceptable form of political organization and, like the Third Reich, is meant to eventually encompass the entire world.  The Kouachi brothers are quintessential recruits for terrorist organizations like the IS.  Both were orphans whose parents had immigrated from Algeria but died when the brothers were very young.

Neither Algerian, nor accepted by mainstream French society, the Kouachis did not have strong affective ties to any specific nation-state.  Intermittently employed, and culturally marginalized in France, they represent a new déclassé transnational demographic of "state-less" youth - prospects par excellence for being recruited to terrorist movements.


Some observers have argued for the need for education as a means of overcoming  the marginalization experienced by large numbers of youth of immigrant families, mostly from France's former colony, Algeria.  However, education without employment is a necessary but not sufficient condition for confronting terrorism.  Unless France's Muslim population has the chance of upward mobility and escape the lower classes, there will continue to be fertile soil that radical extremists can exploit to promote terrorist violence.

Policy prescriptions The European Union needs to recognize that the problem of immigrant communities, whether in France, Denmark, the UK or Sweden - just to name a few EU countries where this problem of sociocultural integration exists - is a European problem, and not just one experienced by certain member states.  EU funding of civil society organizations that provide opportunities for youth from multiple religions and ethnic backgrounds to interact - Muslims, Christian and Jews, for example - can begin a process that makes all communities feel more a part of the EU.

In Spain, Christian and secular Spanish youth have formed organizations that attempt to reach out to North African immigrants who come to Spain to engage in agricultural work, but live in urban ghettos with little opportunity to engage with the larger Spanish society.  These Spanish youth have used the historical memory of Muslim Andalusia, which witnessed an extraordinary synthesis of Muslim-Christian-Jewish learning, before being subjected to the Reconquista under the reign of Queen Isabella who ousted the Muslim and Jewish populations after 1492.

And what of the question that I posed at the beginning of this post - is there a problem with Islam?  First, when we refer to radical extremists, the term "radical Islam" is as erroneous as using the terms "radical Judaism" or "radical Christianity."

What we are really talking about is the politicization of religion.  Here the proper term is Islamism, not Islam.  Just as in Judaism and Christianity, so too in Islam there are no political requirements for becoming a member of the faith.  As is the case with most politicized religion, politics comes first - meaning seeking power and economic influence - with religion being mobilized after the fact, and in a distorted fashion, to help facilitate achieving political and economic goals, e.g., as done by the KKK.

At the same time, moderate Muslim clerics need more help in fighting the violent and anarchist messages of radical clerics who offer an "invented religion."  The mosque is a house of worship, not a venue for recruiting young males and females to murder those who radical ersatz clerics feel should be killed.

France, the EU, and all countries of the world should either strengthen or pass laws that severely punish those who would use religion as a haven for promoting hatred and violence, just as the federal government in the United States finally suppressed the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s and ended its reign of terror against African-Americans.

Stopping those who would murder others on the basis of ethnicity or religion is key in the immediate term.  However, addressing the underlying factors that lead Muslim youth to engage in the kind of horrific acts that we witnessed this week in France is critical to preventing the spread of and ultimately ending terrorist violence conducted in the name of a perverted understanding of Islam.

1 comment:

Saladdin said...

Thanks for this educational and critical article. I enjoyed reading it. I wonder if you agree that the disease of Islamism is, at least partly, a direct result of the death of the Left? Also, don't you think there are fascist elements in Islamism as an ideology? I think the emergence of a strong, popular, and secular Left is the only social force that can win the war against Islamism. As we have seen in Egypt, the choices seem to be either political Islam or dictatorship, which shows the desperate need for the kind of movement that can address people's miseries on the basis of actual life conditions.