The clinical precision with which the brothers Cherif and Said Kaouchi murdered 12 people on Wednesday — ten of them unarmed — has appalled the world, and rightly so. Little has changed since the murderers first stepped through the doors of the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, as international media have gravely watched on, poring over every titbit of information leaked by the French security services.
In all likelihood the terrorists — about whom there is a clear lack of concrete information — may well have been apprehended when this comes to print. And, as soon as this happens, the world will inevitably breathe a collective sigh of relief, thinking that this latest horror of jihadist-motivated terrorism has passed; that we can all move on.
That cannot be allowed to happen. Indeed, it is imperative that the opportunity that this most abhorrent affront to our universal rights presents is seized, used as a platform from which to launch serious societal and political change. It is an unfortunate truth that no community needs to engage in such reform more than European Muslims. That is not to say that non-Muslims have no role to play.
In the coming days, weeks and months, it is up to Muslims, whether in France or elsewhere, to take a good long look at what happened in Paris on Wednesday. After all, it was not simply an indiscriminate “Mumbai-style” attack, nor was it just an attack on the offices of a satirical magazine that has long been the bête noire of Islamist extremists. No, the assassination of much of the Charlie Hebdo editorial team was a carefully calculated and well-calibrated assault on one of our most fundamental human rights, the freedom of expression.
Justified by jihadists around the world as retribution for past depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him), it is a sad fact that many will see these deaths as something inevitable, if not quite desirable. After all, the cartoonists committed blasphemy and so, according to the medieval Islamic blasphemy laws still sustained by many on the Islamist spectrum, they became legitimate targets. If we are to avoid repeats of events like those of this week, this outdated conception must be driven out of modern Muslim society and thinking.
Only Muslims that can bring about such change, through deep introspection and an acceptance that reform is necessary. Prime ministers calling an act “un-Islamic” will not cut the mustard.
In the light of these terrible events, European Muslims will enter into a period of soul-searching and condemnation. Yet condemnation is not enough. Mosque imams, community leaders and Muslim politicians must come together to talk openly about the ideas that drive men such as the Kaouchi brothers to commit such offences. The discussion must be candid, it must be intrusive and it is likely to be uncomfortable. However, if we are to shift the discourse on Islam away from foreign fighters and beheadings, we need to ask why it is that so many of our Muslim youth — not just in France — find the ideals of groups such as so-called Islamic State so persuasive.
This is not just a job for Muslims, though. Non-Muslim counterparts must also involve themselves and recognise that our society has become impaired. There are a lot of disaffected teenagers out there, and they are not just Muslims. If the rise of the far right across Europe reflects anything, it is that non-Muslims can be radicalised too. This is rarely reflected in discourse on extremism.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the whole of society must move on together. As it does, the political class must work to repair the widening cracks that separate it from the people.
In doing so, no section of society should seal itself off from the rest, least of all Muslims. It is only by reclaiming our voices and beliefs from the extremist threads that poison our communities that we can hope to move beyond the expectation from non-Muslims that Muslims apologise for their religion after horrific acts of extremism.
Normal Muslims should not have to explain the actions of a tiny, rabid few. However, there is an expectation that they should and, predictably, this week it came. As soon as the world received word that jihadists were rampaging through Paris, Muslim councils issued statements expressing their anger and desire to dissociate the religion of Islam from these fanatics. Such announcements were swiftly followed by communiqués by some of the world’s most prominent Islamic institutions.
Swift and resolute condemnation of the acts is right, but it should be assumed that Muslim people abhor terrorism just as much as non-Muslims. However, while sticky issues — such as the archaic belief in the need for retributive justice in the face of blasphemy — continue to be brushed under the carpet, this problem will continue. Lasting change will only come when the issues at the heart of the extremists’ appeal are dealt with, instead of ignored.
Our freedom of expression, the guarantee that we are legitimately able to offend and be offended, is something that all humans are owed. Muslims and non-Muslims alike must stand together in solidarity. Indeed, we are not just Charlie, we are Ahmed, the Muslim policeman shot outsideCharlie Hebdo, too.