Can the Charlie Hebdo tragedy which killed 17 men serve as a catalyst, in forging new and positive frontiers between Islam and the Western world?
France's prime minister, Manuel Valls spoke eloquently after the incident at Charlie Hebdo, when he said: "France is at war" -- "not against a religion" but "against terrorism, jihadism and radical Islamism." Mr. Valls' words are a solace to me as a Muslim.
Tom Friedman asks the vital question -- how are both the Muslim and the outside world going to deal with this jihadi subculture of violence? He highlights the complexity inside and outside Islam:
The message of Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses," Theo van Gogh's murder in Amsterdam and the Charlie Hebdo incident, according to Friedman is that radical Islam can only be fought with the support of moderate Islam... He is right on and it could be a long battle. But we are well- equipped for it, as long as we hold firm to our values." Unbowed. Without taboos. Just like Charlie Hebdo.
It would help if the conversations taking place within the Muslim world were better shared with those taking place outside it. A few days after the murders in Paris, my friend Nora Blay asked me why Muslim leaders had not spoken out, "Where is Turkey, where is Jordan, where are the theologians?" Even I had to get on my smartphone to confirm that the Prime Minister of Turkey, the Kings of Jordan and Morocco, the head of Al Azhaar, Islam's greatest theological seminary, and dozens of others had already spoken out and announced their plans to go to Paris in solidarity -- but the news was, essentially, buried by the U.S. media.
Most of the world, if it watched, witnessed this solidarity on January 11, where Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu was joined by top leaders from Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria, Qatar, the UAE, Mali, the Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia.
(Amusingly, one of the audiences denied the full impact of the march were orthodox Israelis who read HaMevasar, a newspaper which photo-shopped out of its picture of the march all the women leaders, beginning with Angela Merkel of Germany.)
Two countries the media might watch? France, of course, but also for the Muslim side of the story, perhaps Egypt.
Ironically, on January 3, just prior to the Paris killings, General Abdu al-Sisi, President of Egypt stridently supported a long overdue "religious revolution" in a New Year's Day speech at Egypt's Al Azhar seminary:
I am referring here to the religious clerics.We have to think hard about what we are facing... It's inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!
That thinking -- I am not saying "religion" but "thinking" -- that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world.
We are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move... because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost -- and it is being lost by our own hands.
Egypt is by far the largest Arab country, and the most influential. And the fact that Sisi's speech was not in response to Charlie Hebdo, but to the internal damage being done to Egypt by jihadism, suggests he is serious. If Egypt leads a religious revolution, it's likely to take -- but it will also take time.
In the West, the role of France will be critical in incorporating its Muslim residents. Islamification, increasing anti-semitism, and a stagnant economy further challenge the country and maybe western Europe more broadly. France is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, which is both more assimilated (the majority) and radicalized (a minority). Ross Douthat cites a poll showing 16 percent of French citizens expressing support for the Islamic State in a poll last summer. Muslims constitute the largest minority in France and this is pertinent to the future of Europe and the West. The key question is: can Europe incorporate Muslim immigrants, and what if they cannot?
Muslims are regarded more favorably in France than elsewhere in Western Europe, while French politics features an increasingly potent far-right party, Marine Le Pen's National Front, whose electoral clout is now likely to increase.
Sylvia Kauffman, editorial director at Le Monde poses the tough question about how best to integrate "moderate" and "radical Islam" and be inclusive with French Muslims? The attack on Charlie Hebdo "is not only a crime, it is a trap," warned the French Justice Minister Mr. Badinter. "It confuses the two." Just like Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, who immediately stoked fears of "Islamic fundamentalism" as if it applied to the whole French Muslim community, and as if it were the principal issue. Ross Douthat believes that France could play a lead role in assimilating Muslims, but it could also be a hot bed of Islamic radicalism -- even as the right wing makes political headway.
Islam and Modernity: The big elephant in the room is how will Islam react to modernity? Is there hope for Islam and for Muslims who would like to interact with the world at large? Can Islam embrace modernity? Personally, I believe it is a muscular enough faith to confront reality, and to find its place as a progressive, positive and pro-active force in society today. However, deft clergy and community leaders will need to pave the pathway for Muslim integration in the western world.
Reza Aslan, author of No god but God lays out a pathway for Muslims to modernize in his book when he writes:
Dramatic increases in literacy and education, widespread access to new and novel theories and sources of knowledge, and a swelling sense of nationalism and individualism have exposed many Muslims to fresh and innovative interpretations of Islam. ...Muslim men and women, first worlders and third worlders, gay, straight, extremists and moderates, militants and pacifists, clerics and lay people are actively reinterpreting Islam according to their own changing needs ... taking its interpretations out of the iron grip of clerical institutions...
"Je suis Ahmad" has become a familiar icon of the Paris tragedy. It highlights the brave and selfless Ahmad Merabet, the policeman who gave his life defending and respecting the rights of others, despite his Muslim heritage -- which touched my heart. May this hashtag live on to remind us of the nobility of people who serve the public with dignity, grace and selflessness in the line of duty.
"I am not Charlie; I am Ahmad, the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so." Ahmad is a hero in this tragedy.
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