Soon after the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Islamist sympathisers on social media unleashed familiar rhetoric using Arabic language hashtags such as “our revenge for the messenger (Muhammad)”; “Paris is Burning”; and “Paris under Fire.”
One self-styled Jihadi declared on Twitter: “This is the first reaction. You’ll not live in safety again.” Another said: “This proves that the Islamic State can strike deep in Europe whenever it wishes.” Reuters quoted an Isil fighter named Abu Mussab as saying: “The lions of Islam have avenged our prophet. Let these crusaders be scared because they should be.”
Such bombast reflects the emptiness of the Islamist dream. The killing of 12 unarmed cartoonists and journalists is hardly an act of courage. Paris did not, in fact, burn and this latest act of terrorism mobilised the French against the Jihadis just as terrorist attacks in New York, London and Mumbai had united people against them in the past.
More important, terrorism is unlikely to dissuade anyone so inclined to refrain from insulting Islam, its Prophet or Muslims. Like followers of any other religion, Muslims do not like insults to their faith or to their prophet. But threats and actual attacks of the type witnessed in Paris last week have been limited to Islamists.
Contrary to the assertion of some, such violence has nothing to do with recent wars or the policies of great powers in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. A man named Alam Din from Lahore was proclaimed a “ghazi” – or warrior – for killing a Hindu publisher of a book insulting Prophet Muhammad in 1929. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses prompted fatwas and provoked violent protests 50 years later, in 1989. These incidents cannot be attributed, for example, as reaction to US military intervention.
Of course, not all of the world’s more than one billion Muslims react to real or perceived insults to their religion in the same manner. Believers in different deities and prophets have often slandered each other’s faiths. Islam has endured its share of criticism and abuse over the centuries, especially from Christians, against whom they fought for control of the Levant and the southern corners of Europe during the Crusades and the Ottoman wars.
But in earlier times, Muslims responded to religious affronts by pointing out the flaws in other religions and outlining their own perfect faith. Muslim armies were violent but then so were the armies of others. The association of extremism and terrorism with Muslims is a phenomenon mostly of the modern era.
When Muslim emperors ruled over large non-Muslim populations, Muslim preachers and Sufi mystics worked to proselytise and win converts to Islam. There is no record in those days of mob violence or targeted attacks against foreign envoys or traders in retaliation for blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad or Islam allegedly committed by Islam’s enemies in distant lands.
The phenomenon of violent outrage and killing over insults to Islam and its final prophet seems to have started during Western colonial rule, with Muslim politicians seeking issues to mobilise their constituents. Contemporary Jihadism seems to have grown out of the slogan “Islam in Danger,” which has been periodically invoked as a rallying cry for Islamist politics.
Ironically, it is the Islamists who draw attention to otherwise obscure attacks on Islam and then use those attacks to muster popular support. The reaction makes more people aware of a book like Rushdie’s, a YouTube film such as The Innocence of Muhammad or cartoons in small circulation satirical magazines. Charlie Hebdo usually published only 45,000 copies; now it will be read by hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
The violence over “Islam’s honour” is a function of the collective Muslim narrative of grievance. Decline, weakness, impotence, and helplessness are phrases most frequently repeated in the speeches and writings of today’s Muslim leaders. The view is shared by Islamists – who consider Islam a political ideology – and other Muslims who don’t. The terrorists are just the most extreme element among the Islamists.
As a community, Muslims are obsessed with their past pre-eminence, which stands in stark contrast to their current weakness. The bravado of beheading “blasphemers” and thinking that a terrorist attack can change the global order are ways of reclaiming a glory that is vividly recalled but has not been seen by Muslims in recent centuries.
Like all national and community narratives, the current Muslim narrative has some elements of truth. But it is equally true that Muslims have made practically no serious effort to understand the causes and remedies of their decline over the past 300 years. Outrage, resentment and violence — and the conspiracy theories that inform them — serve as palliatives for an Ummah (or global Muslim community) that reads little, writes even less, has not invented much in recent centuries, is economically less productive than comparable peoples and wields little political or military power in the contemporary world. Dealing with the causes of Muslim decline, not random or orchestrated acts of terrorism, would be the real way forward in saving Muslims from dishonour.