Gregory Aftandilian argues that responses to the Paris attacks must carefully consider the long term strategy of the fight against extremism.
The brutal killings in and near Paris in the offices of the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo and at the kosher supermarket have understandably and rightly elicited widespread condemnation in France and around the world. No one should be killed for satirical writings or cartoons—no matter how offensive they seem—and no one should be killed on account of their religion or ethnicity.
That being said, the decision by Charlie Hebdo and some American media outlets to publish another political cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed is counter-productive to the fight against Islamist extremists, as such depictions alienate many mainstream Muslims—the very allies we need to discredit the extremist ideologies of ISIL and Al-Qaeda.
The decision by Charlie Hebdo to publish a political cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed can be understood on one level as an act of defiance against the terrorists. In other words, the remaining staff members of the journal wanted to underscore the point that they can satirize whomever and whatever they want, and that they will not be intimidated from doing so even in the aftermath of the horrendous killings of their colleagues. The decision by several American media outlets to publish such cartoons is then in turn both an act of solidarity with fellow members of the journalistic community and a bold expression in support of freedom of the press.
However noble and admirable this “in your face” policy by some Western journalists is, it has ramifications far beyond the principle of opposition to censorship. Most Muslims around the world—in the Islamic world and in the West—condemned the Paris killings in unequivocal terms. They rightly saw the terrorists as part of an extremist fringe that is distorting their religion, causing havoc in the Middle East, and putting Muslims living in the West in jeopardy by giving fodder to growing right-wing movements in Europe which want to end Muslim immigration and even deport Muslims from their countries.
But many of these same Muslims who are strongly opposed to the extremists are upset about depictions of the Prophet Mohammed and the insensitivity of some Western journalists to publish such political cartoons. Although the Quran does not explicitly forbid depictions of Mohammed, it is generally accepted among Muslim scholars that other Islamic texts do indeed forbid them, and Muslims around the world largely adhere to this interpretation. Some Western commentators have said that the new cover of Charlie Hebdo that depicts Mohammed was respectful in that it depicted the Prophet showing compassion with a tear in his eye, but this is beside the point. The mere fact that Western journalists seem to be running roughshod over a tenet of the Islamic faith feeds the perception in the Muslim world that the West is not only against the extremists but also against Islam itself.
If the fight against Al Qaeda and ISIL has taught us anything, it is that military means alone cannot do the job of defeating these organizations and their affiliates. Military campaigns, counter-terrorism operations, and drone attacks may have succeeded in killing a number of terrorists, but they have not stopped recruitment; thousands of disaffected Muslims in Western Europe have been influenced by the extremist ideologies of these organizations and decided to either travel to the Middle East to take part in the fight or (in far smaller numbers) to undertake terrorist acts at home.
The only way to defeat an extremist religious ideology is for adherents of the mainstream religion to denounce the message and to show followers the error of their thoughts and actions. Who actually carries the moderate message—the clerics or young lay people—is something that the Muslim world will have to figure out; former, disillusioned extremists may be more effective than the clerics, especially in dealing with young people. In any event, Western governments, for obvious reasons, cannot carry out this task. It falls to moderate Muslim nations and institutions to do so. But the West should not feed into “the clash of civilizations” that ISIL and Al-Qaeda hope to provoke by being insensitive to the Islamic religion.
Some commentators will undoubtedly reject this approach, seeing it as “caving in to the extremists” in the aftermath of the Paris killings. But respecting religion is also part of Western culture, even though Western governments now generally lean toward secularism. They forget that secularism means not only freedom from an established state religion but allowing people to practice their faith without hindrance—which in turn implies respect for religious beliefs.
Several years ago, singer Sinead O’Connor, appearing on Saturday Night Live, tore up a picture of the Pope. This act caused widespread anger in the United States and was widely condemned, even among loyal followers of the irreverent and satirical television program. The actor Joe Pesci, who was also a guest on the program, did the decent thing by trying to put the torn picture back together again, which was applauded by the audience. The message here is that while most things are fair game to satirize and ridicule, care should be given toward religion. And in the fight against ISIL and Al-Qaeda, this is a strategic imperative.
Gregory Aftandilian is a senior fellow for the Middle East at the Center for National Policy. Views expressed are his own.