Due to the terrorist attacks that took place in Paris on 11 January, Islam and Muslims are once again at the centre of public attention. The tragic event was followed by an almost unanimous public repulsion in the ‘West’ of the fatal violence that Islamist extremists brought to the workers of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The discourse that went around in the wake of the terrorist attacks had to do mostly with freedom of speech, one of the bastions of western democracies, and with the sacredness of this most basic of civil liberties, embodied in the solidarity of the motto ‘Je suis Charlie’. Meanwhile, my social media became inundated with messages of dismay and solidarity with the victims, some of them Islamophobic in tone, with only a few discordant voices trying to draw attention to the complex historical backdrop that has given rise to Islamist extremisms, which are born out of a fraught picture of European colonialism, anti-colonial Islamic resurgence, and continued ongoing tensions between political factions in the wake of western military intervention in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Notwithstanding the fact that any response which doesn’t match the official version of unqualified repulse tends to be labelled as apologist or as justifying terrorism (in itself proof that freedom of speech doesn’t necessarily guarantee respect towards plurality of thought), the strike of Islamist extremism and its conflicting but mostly homogenous responses has driven me to think about a serious issue for those of us who deal with Islam seriously in a professional capacity, and who do not only stop and think about Muslims and their motivations when a terrorist attack has taken place. My question is: how can we talk about Islam after a terrorist attack? More questions spring from this one: how can we deal with Islam in a sophisticated manner that condemns Islamist violence whilst warding off anti-Islamic prejudice, and without being accused of justifying terrorism? Can we be critical of radical Islam while defending the rights of peaceful Muslims to have their religious and cultural habits respected? These are complex questions, yet the limited range of response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks doesn’t evidence the existence of complex answers in the western mainstream, black-or-white perspectives being the default positions, which contribute, as the terrorists probably intended, to the continued polarisation of our already highly polarised societies.
The key to a debate about Islam that avoids radical positions from either side of the discussion is admitting that Islamism is a real threat to our contemporary world, but that being critical of Islamist extremism should entail a rejection of other extremisms, including those which would construct all Islam in the image of terrorists. Indeed, to say that the killers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and journalists are representative of Islam is comparable to stating that the Spanish Inquisition is metonymic of the whole of Catholicism, or, to use a more recent example, that Anders Breivik is representative of all Christianity. If we wouldn’t apply such indiscriminate brushstrokes to paint Christianity, we should equally be mindful of not being chauvinistic when dealing with Islam. Islamism is a problem, but a problem that is queried by Muslims themselves, which means that it is not representative of all Islam. Moreover, an insidious sort of historical amnesia also tends to occur in the light of terrorism that numbs the western public’s critical abilities at the most crucial of times. Colonial history isn’t that far off to warrant a view of terrorism as an isolated form of radical violence that exists in a vacuum. Although we should avoid exonerating Muslim-majority countries of their own local struggles with radical ideologies, it’s difficult to deny that western nations, through their colonial and neocolonial activities in the rest of the world, don’t have the right to construct themselves simply as the victims of violence. The history of European modernity is steeped in blood and aggression, both at ‘home’ and in a vast colonial landscape that still feels the weight of western economic and military power. So we should be able to approach violence as dialogic, not as one-sided, and as being motivated by complex historical processes, yet also bearing in mind that historical inequality doesn’t exculpate Muslim-majority nations and Muslim communities in Muslim-minority states whose histories show a struggle with Islamism.
The fact that historical nuance must be called for and that Islam and Muslims should be protected from intolerant criticism doesn’t mean that Islam’s more conservative dimensions cannot be queried, even by western commentators. Sadia Abbas, a provocative academic based at Rutgers University whose work I’m in the process of reviewing for The Journal of Postcolonial Writing, offers the kinds of subtle and fearless commentary that can help us understand the ongoing tensions within Islam and between Islam and the ‘West’, and she dwells on the complication of positioning oneself in debates about the remit of Islam. In her timely study At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament (2014, Fordham University Press) she critically reviews the work of other prominent scholars of Islam, such as the feminist Muslim thinker Saba Mahmood. Abbas observes that social critics like Mahmood try to deflect all critical analysis of Islam’s conservatism by constructing it as ‘political in the wrong way’: ‘So that any criticism, whether from within (by secular, progressive, or reformist Muslims and feminist and non-Muslims in Islamicate societies) or from without (by internationalists expressing feminist solidarity), that does not bend do the more conservative claims of the Islamic resurgence becomes political because cast as interventionist’ (Abbas: p. 68). What Abbas is arguing here is that some Muslim commentators become defensive when dealing with criticism of Islam because such criticism, whether extraneous or coming from within Muslims societies, is regarded a priori as interventionist. In other words, any demand for Islamic reform is automatically deemed as a justification of imperialist interventionism. Criticism of Islam, like criticism of the ‘West’, whatever these two ‘places’ might be, shouldn’t draw a circle around commentators. If you are critical of western societies, you are not a defender of Islamist extremisms; if you are critical of Islamic conservatism, you are not a defender of imperialism. How do we talk about Islam in the wake of terrorist attacks? By acknowledging that we need plurality of opinion and nuance of debate if we’re to outgrow the ongoing thrust of mutual intercultural suspicion.