On Charlie Hebdo: A house divided against itself cannot stand.
UPDATES: I’ve added a couple of links that support some of the speculations of this article:
ISIS documents on strategy in Europe to ‘eliminate the muslim greyzone’, how to radicalize European muslims. (What I refer to as ‘intermediate spectrum’ in this article is what this document refers to as ‘the greyzone’) https://archive.is/VE0jj#selection-459.1-463.388
Intercept reflecting on the documents above and other research https://theintercept.com/2015/11/17/islamic-states-goal-eliminating-the-grayzone-of-coexistence-between-muslims-and-the-west/
Poll results showing the spectrum of muslim reactions to Charlie Hebdo cartoon and killing. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/11433776/Quarter-of-British-Muslims-sympathise-with-Charlie-Hebdo-terrorists.html
ex-ISIS hostage Nicholas Henin http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/02/nicolas-henin-video-isis-syria-strikes
Deeply saddened by the killings in Paris at Charlie Hebdo, I've reached a point where I cannot not write about it. Not just because of the killings — which is tragic enough — but also the public and media reaction to it. The internet is now overflowing with cartoons of the prophet. The articles and debates I've seen (which is a fair amount) seem to be digging the hole even deeper — focused on freedom of speech, intolerance and censorship, as if the terrorists motivations for the killings are to censor and silence us.
Unfortunately I don’t think that’s the case. Now, while we argue over whether Islam is a violent religion or not, whether intolerance should be tolerated or not, I can’t help but think the terrorists — not the two brothers, they’re dead of course — but the greater population of radical Islamists — are celebrating their victory. Because they've won this battle. For them victory isn't whether we publish cartoons or not. For them victory is our unrest. Tension in our society, between muslims and non-muslims, and even between different factions of non-muslims. Because as we argue with each other, we are exposing the worst of ourselves. We are inadvertently alienating and breeding a new generation of recruits for the jihad. And the radical Islamists are welcoming them with open arms.
The day of the shooting I tweeted this: “Maybe we should rename the ‘Streisand effect’ to the ‘Mohammed cartoon effect’”. Prior to this shooting only a handful of people had seen the cartoon. Now, the whole world has seen it. Not only has the whole world seen this cartoon, but we’ve seen dozens of new ones.
Is this really a victory for us? An act of defiance against terrorism? Showing we stand strong and won’t be censored? I think it’s exactly what the radical Islamists wanted.
To give some context to this writing, a bit of background info on myself: I grew up in a muslim country, brought up as a muslim. I now live in the UK and identify as an anti-religious, anti-theist, secular humanist. In the eyes of Islam, I am the worst offender. Infidels and non-believers are one thing, but apostasy is in a category of its own…
The public and media reactions are generally around two poles (the titles are not my own, but what they call each other):
- ‘apologists’: “We mustn’t blame Islam. This is just a bunch of crazy radicals. Nothing to do with Islam. Islam is peaceful. We mustn’t incite Islamophobia. etc. etc.”
- ‘hardliners’: “This is totally to do with Islam, we can’t deny that. We’re not Islamophobic we’re just telling the facts, Islam causes violence. We aren't blaming all muslims, just the radicals. We cannot be silenced by the terror, our freedom of speech is too important, we must publish more cartoons, etc. etc.”
Of course there’s the spectrum in between, and even an extreme minority extrapolated outside this spectrum. Much to my surprise (and horror) a lot of responses seem to be very polarized around these two views. Which is not only incredibly naive — the situation is far more complex than that - but incredibly damaging. The ‘blame’ isn’t as simple as ‘Islam’ vs ‘The West’. And belief doesn’t come on a binary scale of ‘radical’ vs ‘moderate’. But not only that, a lot of responses immediately try to classify opposing responses as either fully ‘apologist’ or ‘hardliner’ making debate impossible, as the opposing arguments usually end up as straw man arguments, or confusing explanations with justifications.
Some readers may immediately try to classify this text as ‘apologist’ ‘Blame the west’. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In advance, to make it painfully clear in case it isn’t: I’m not trying to make excuses for, or sympathize with the killers. I’m trying to understand the situation that causes this mindset, so I don’t inadvertently contribute to creating more killers in the future.
And I’m not doing this out of fear, or out of any emotional response. This is not about being afraid or ‘bowing down to their terrorist demands’. This is not about ‘tolerating intolerance’. Fuck intolerance.
This is simply a rational exercise trying to understand the situation we’re in. Trying to understand what motivates these people, and how & why they become radical killers.
I hope that it’s very obvious that “I understand X” does not imply “I agree with X”. An explanation is not a justification.
I’m not sympathizing with or trying to find excuses for the killers. In fact I can’t help but agree with the crazy Donald Trump and I wish someone at the Charlie Hebdo offices did have a gun and could have shot down the killers before they could do any damage (obviously I wish it had never escalated to that level, but that’s even more wishful thinking).
There might be people out there who do ‘Blame the west’. I certainly don’t. The situation is far more complex. To simplify the blame to a single source such as the west is incredibly naive. But to simplify it to blame only Religion or Islam is equally naive.
The radical leaders who want control and power over the middle east (and potentially more) have a very dangerous weapon, it’s religion, namely Islam, and we’re giving them the bullets. They’re building an army, and we’re helping them recruit.
The radicals want to create polarization within the worldwide 1.6 billion muslim community. They want to exploit their religious brotherhood, and entice those on the intermediate spectrum, towards the radical end. And we can either let them do that, or we can do what we can to prevent that. That is the battle that we should be fighting.
UPDATE: See ISIS documents on strategy in France to ‘eliminate the muslim greyzone’, how to radicalize european muslims https://archive.is/VE0jj#selection-459.1-463.388
True Islam. Violent or Peaceful?
The big question. I find the argument over the true nature of Islam — violent vs peaceful — rather tiring. I've read and watched Islamic scholars argue over this endlessly and not come to any conclusions. So definitely don’t expect closure here.
In Islam there is only one written text — the Qur’an — which is shared by all muslims (unlike say Christianity which has many different books). But there are as many different translations and interpretations of the abstract poetry of the Qur’an as there are believers. And once you bring in the unwritten laws of sunnah, hadith etc, you become fully immersed in the world of ambiguity, corruption and re-appropiation for political power and control — which is no different to the abuse of any religion. And that’s really where the heart of the problem is.
E.g. it is true that the Qur’an preaches violence against Infidels. But most scholars argue that Islam explicitly states that this violence is only justified in self-defence, i.e. in context of an invasion. For many muslims — especially those living in the west — violence is not a part of their lives, for them it is a peaceful religion, as they are not threatened. Many even interpret ‘jihad’ as a purely internal struggle of finding spiritual enlightenment that should never materialize as physical war. They interpret the violence written about in the Qur’an as relevant to the time it was written. i.e. 1500 years ago that’s how life was — barbaric — irrespective of Islam, so that’s how one responded, by sword. But in this day and age they see it as irrelevant.
However many preachers disagree quoting hadith (quotes of the prophet) and they take it literally. Many also argue that ‘self-defence of an invasion’ must include an invasion of any muslim brothers and sisters. Hence they argue that the west — The Crusaders as they call it — are already invading muslim states (e.g. the West supporting Israel invading Palestine. The invasions of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan etc.). Thus they see the literal violence preached in the Qur’an as currently justified, to defend against the violence against their muslim brothers and sisters.
You can probably see how slippery this slope is between the two camps. It isn’t too challenging for a skilled orator to manipulate the mind of a young naive believer into enrolling for a war which is already raging and taking the lives of thousands, if not millions of muslims. The barbaric nature of their actions reflect the barbaric times in which the Qur’an was written.
I think it will be much harder to find Islamic radicals that will justify unnecessary violence — e.g. travelling up to the arctic circle to slay Inuits for no apparent reason (except for the usual psychopaths and sadists which can be found across the board). The conflict between ‘radicals’ vs ‘moderates’ primarily comes in agreeing whether we are already at war or not. The majority of muslims are happy to live in peace. But according to the radicals, Islam is under threat. According to them the war with Christians and Jews began with the crusades in the middle ages, and is carrying on today.
Which camp is correct? Only Allah knows. And I don’t think he’s real. So where does that put us?
If you believe in a violent Islam, then it appears to you that true Islam is violent. If you believe in a peaceful Islam, then it appears to you that true Islam is peaceful. If — like me — you don’t believe in Islam at all, then there is no true Islam, it’s a work of fiction. Arguing over whether it really is violent or not is like arguing whether Rick Deckard really is a replicant or not. There is no absolute correct answer, he isn’t real!
So as far as I’m concerned, the most important thing is: it’s in all of our best interests to have as few ‘Violent Islam’ believers as possible.
The Spectrum of Belief
UPDATE: what I refer to as ‘intermediate spectrum’ is what the ISIS documents linked above refer to as ‘the greyzone’.
Let me tell you what I've learnt about beliefs in Islam, from my own experiences, and the probably hundreds, if not thousands, of muslims I've known over the years growing up in Turkey (which is quite moderate in comparison) and in London. And why I think this current debate around the Charlie Hebdo killings is a massive failure for us.
Beliefs in Islam (or perhaps in general) aren't on a binary scale of ‘moderate’ vs ‘radical’ as the current dialogue assumes. I myself have used that language above, but I hope to clarify here.
There is a continuous spectrum, ranging from very moderate on one end (it’s not uncommon to find muslims who enjoy wine or bacon — though others might call them Kafir), to extreme radical on the other. Most critically, there is a whole ‘intermediate’ range with different ‘tipping’ points.
- There are those who would never dare get involved in violent behaviour, and they wouldn’t condone it, but they might secretly share at least some of the frustrations of the radicals.
- There are those who also wouldn’t condone violent behaviour, but they might share the frustrations of the radicals more openly, and perhaps outwardly, verbally incite hate towards the west.
- Others who don’t condone violence might donate to a mosque responsible for radical preachings.
- Others might explicitly condone violence, but they might not be dedicated enough to pull the trigger. Instead they might help a little bit financially or logistically specifically for radical missions (as opposed to just donating to a radical mosque).
- Or maybe help a lot financially or logistically.
- Or even though they can’t pull the trigger, they might pass on their hatred onto their brothers who could end up even more radical.
- They could act as instigators, motivators, recruiters.
- Maybe on a small operation that doesn't involving killing people,
- Or maybe just killing a few, truly ‘anti-islamic’ people.
- Or maybe killing thousands of innocent people — in their eyes, no one is innocent.
These are all different tiers along a slippery path. Once on that path, people can be pushed or pulled to different tiers. Just like any slippery slope to crime. Though in this case, there is massive recruitment pool, with a very dangerous dogma attached to it.
Think of the youths that were flying the ISIS flag in East London a few months ago, just a few streets down from where I live in fact. Though they saw it not as the flag of heartless murderers, but “just the flag of Allah”. Are these kids radical terrorists? Probably not. Their bark is likely (hopefully) worse than their bite. These kids probably have done no actual harm to anyone, but by sympathising with ISIS they are potentially on a dangerous road.
You could argue that even sympathising with ISIS should be considered radicalism or terrorism. But do we really want to enforce a binary classification? Force people to commit to a side? What if there are dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions of people — like these youths of east london — who aren't actually violent, but they are somewhere on an intermediate tier on the spectrum, and if forced to pick a side they might slip into the wrong camp? Especially if we treat them the way we currently are. If they feel like they don’t belong to the society they’re living in.
It is important to see their view, not to sympathise with them, to excuse them, but so we can try and understand if and how we can solve the problem — or at least, not make it worse. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t be too bothered if someone feels so alienated by the society in which they live in, that they feel the need to go and live elsewhere. It’s sad but not tragic. You could shrug it off as not your problem but theirs. But if they go and join a holy army, only to come back on a suicide mission, and if this is not a one-off but very bloody global trend dating back decades — if not centuries — then I think maybe we should start thinking about this properly instead of using ‘freedom of speech’ as an excuse to act like a dick.
To be completely honest, when I see what ISIS is doing in Syria my gut tells me to bomb the sh*t out of the f**kers. But I believe that won’t solve the problem, it’ll just fuel the fire.
Furthermore, forcing that binary classification is exactly what Islamic Terrorists want. By creating unrest in our society, they want the intermediates to fall into their camp.
The power of hate
I’m not usually the type to bend over backwards to not offend someone. In fact I think it’s good practice to generally be a little bit offensive. It strengthens character I think. But it’s important to understand the consequences, so as not to be surprised when your ‘strategy’ doesn’t work or even backfires.
Imagine the most disgusting, offensive thing that could be done to you. Who is the most valuable, treasured person in your life? Perhaps your mother? Perhaps your little child? Imagine some people start spreading images of your mother covered in shit and being raped by a donkey. Then these same people point at you, laughing and ridiculing you when you get upset for being so ‘intolerant’ over a silly little picture. What would you do?
In my opinion, and probably yours, a satiric cartoon is not at the same level of offensiveness as an image like this. But that doesn't matter. What matters is, a satirical cartoon of Mohammed is as offensive in Islam — and to muslims, as your mother covered in shit being raped by a donkey is to you. Perhaps even more so. I present this analogy merely as a way of trying to empathise with the situation.
“I'm ok with it, why aren't you?” isn't empathizing or trying to understand. It’s being selfish. And stupid.
Still, obviously you or I wouldn't resort to violence. Because we’re sensible people. We've been taught good values. We've read books, we've learnt to think logically. We would probably be very offended and call the image-makers “inhumane barbaric animals” for spreading such a disgusting image. (Actually I know plenty of non-muslims who might throw a punch or two, or others who might try to sue for libel or slander, but that’s a different story, still more civilised than a massacre). But what would you do if you had spent your whole life being told that it’s your duty to kill anyone who offends your most sacred entity like that?
This is probably quite difficult to imagine, because you’re probably already quite sensible, democratic, peaceful and thoughtful. But imagine that your whole life you’re taught not to question certain things. Instead you’re taught to hate a particular group of people, to loathe them. And to protect your beliefs at whatever cost. You’re constantly fed all the atrocities that these people have committed against you and your family. Not all of those atrocities will be true, but of course you don’t know that. Why would your own father lie to you about something like that?
It is true that many parts of the Islamic world just hate the west. This hatred has become intertwined with their culture and teaching. They absolutely loathe everything that (they think) the west stands for. For continuously bombing their countries, killing their people, assassinating their leaders, supporting Israel, controlling the global economy, manipulating global politics, mocking their beliefs, and for the general decadent, materialistic, consumerist, pornographic lifestyle that we live that is so incompatible with theirs. The real truth doesn’t matter to them of course. All they know is the truth that they believe in, that they use to feed each other generation after generation to fuel further hatred.
Unfortunately there is some truth behind this hate. The west has been bombing the middle east at least for as long as I can remember — if not longer. I was 16 when the first gulf war happened. Long before we had pretty infographics on the internet, we had newspapers. Every day these newspapers had little snippets about a cruise missile accidentally falling on a mosque, or a school, or a hospital. I even remember an entire wedding being blown up. We in the west dismiss these as tragic casualties of war, and we forget about them by the time our bowl of cornflakes is finished. They’re sad statistics to us, a dot on a graph. Whereas out there, every death is remembered forever — and amplified — by the hundreds, thousands, millions of witnesses. And this is before we even talk about Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria etc. Of course they’re killing each other too, the middle east has a history of violence, as does the whole world. The memories of the atrocities of WWI and WWII are still fresh. But I’m not here to talk about the wars, there’s plenty of literature on that.
Every little event is used to fuel this hatred, and there is a constant, daily barrage of events. The danish cartoons, Theo van Gogh (RIP) & Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s film, the banning of the veil in schools & public spaces etc. It’s not just the event itself which is the problem, it’s the media roar that accompanies it. Obviously veils in courts is going to cause problems and we need to debate it. Obviously people being murdered over a cartoon is unacceptable and cannot be forgiven. But it’s when the media and the public go crazy afterwards, and start showing their true face that the damage is amplified.
To you or I it may not seem like a constant, daily barrage of events, but that’s because we’re not looking for it. We only notice when something massive happens, like a terrorist attack. But on an ordinary day, if a little muslim girl with a veil gets harassed in school in a little town in the midlands, it might only make the local paper and none of us will hear about it. But all the radical Islamist preachers will have newspaper clippings of it the next day, spewing their hate speech citing every single little incident that they can scrape up.
In many places this indoctrination starts as soon as the kids are born. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzCAPJDAnQA.
And not only in the middle east. Anyone remember the scary Abu Hamza al-Masri, the preacher of the Finsbury Park mosque with the hook hands? I lived in North London at the time, and cycled past that mosque every day. These aren’t isolated incidents. Search twitter and youtube for pro-radical islamist accounts and listen to what they have to say.
But it’s not always that extreme. I've never personally met such extreme radicals, but I have known dozens — if not hundreds — of people who share this innate hatred for the west, for the reasons I mention above, and reside somewhere on the intermediate spectrum.
By the way, with this ‘indoctrination’ I'm not referring to the “banality of evil, normalisation, just obeying orders, Milgrim’s shock experiments” arguments here. Neither is this a Jim Jones and the People’s Temple style brain-washing mind-manipulation. This is simply a brute-force life-time of teaching fundamental ‘values’ of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
Now imagine that these people you were taught to hate, the people who bombed your cousin’s house killing the entire family, are the ones who spread this image. Hopefully you still wouldn't resort to violence, but it’s not difficult to see why someone who is already at a tipping point might jump up a tier in the intermediate scale of the belief spectrum. Maybe they’ll start donating to a local mosque with radical teachings, or help with logistics, or bite the bullet and strap on a vest.
And with a constant, daily, lifetime barrage of events like this, the strategy of islamic terrorists is to use the backlash to polarize the global muslim community, radicalizing as many as possible.
I’m not suggesting that the cartoons shouldn’t have been published. That was a very brave act that ended tragically. I want to live in a world where we can publish cartoons like this. I’m not criticizing the initial publication of the cartoon. I’m criticizing the reaction to the murders, of everyone everywhere on social media, news etc re-publishing the cartoon — and more - as if that was an act of defiance.
Obviously we cannot forgo our freedom of speech, but sometimes “f**k you it shouldn’t offend you so imma gonna do it anyway” is not the way we can exercise that freedom. Along with having this freedom, we also need to have the insight and understanding of the implications of our actions.
I can’t tell you what to do. If you want to plaster more cartoons of Mohammed all over the internet then be my guest. But I want you to know this: That’s exactly what the terrorists want you to do. It isn’t an act of defiance, it is you being puppeteered by the radicals. You are creating tension within muslim communities, furthering radicalization, helping them expand their army. And I probably am too just by writing this.
Also to be clear, I do not think that the Charlie Hebdo shooters were part of a special master plan. There probably is no mastermind who had plotted this, now laughing in glee thinking “Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen”. It’s very likely that the brothers acted in isolation, this was their idea. But all of this is part of an overall long-term strategy of inciting terror and disruption, to fuel hate and create polarization and radicalization, strengthening their internal bonds and forming a larger Islamic Brotherhood or State. Make no mistake, those that incite violence, that is their end goal.
Along with the growing polarization in the public and media reaction, it was this story that finally triggered me to write. “We do not kill women”. That was the killers’ morals. Instead of killing a woman, they spared her life and told her to convert to Islam. These aren't “mindless killing machines”, they’re humans, with incredibly misguided morals.
Why is this relevant? Because they’re not born this way.
They aren’t born mindless killing machines. Somehow, somewhere that’s the morality that they acquire.
Again to repeat: This isn’t an apology. I don’t say this because I have sympathy for the killers. And I'm not trying to excuse them. I'm just trying to see the world from their view, so I can understand what’s going on and thus understand the consequences of our actions and how it affects the situation in the future. So hopefully in the future, we can prevent this from happening, and we don’t contribute to getting ourselves blown up.
Most importantly: What must we do to minimize this?
Ultimately the politics of the situation is just too complicated to be resolved once and for all. I don’t expect to tame the existing radicals, especially the radical leaders. They are driven by an economic and political agenda.
But we can prevent the intermediates from becoming radical.
The ISIS sympathizing youths of east london must not become terrorists! We must at least win that tug-of-war.
We need to do what we can to not let the radicals win by dividing us. Not dividing us the non-muslims and the muslims, but also not dividing us the ‘apologists’ and the ‘hardliners’. For when the apologists and the hardliners fight, the words spoken are fuel for the radicals.
Before we start shouting out how we can exploit this tragedy to further our own personal views (and careers), we need to understand the consequences of what we’re saying.
Like I said, I find the ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ vs ‘Islam is a religion of terror’ debate quite tiring. But this seems undeniable: picking and promoting one side only makes matters worse.
I don’t know how we can put out the fire, but we at least need to not fuel it.