Last week’s lethal attacks in Paris have the potential to damage relations between European states and their Muslim citizenries.
The prime strategic intent behind such crimes is precisely to foster this kind of disunity, as well as to recruit yet more willing jihadists. Even though Islamist extremism is, at its core, an internecine conflict, such incidents will draw in non-Muslims, exacerbating what is already a tense and troubled situation.
The murderous onslaught directed against staff at the offices of Charlie Hebdo killed 12 people, another policewoman and four hostages died in or before the subsequent supermarket siege.
Among the dead are the editor and cartoonist Stephane Charbonnier, who was apparently on an al Qaeda death list for insulting the Prophet Mohammed. Eyewitness said they heard the attackers yelling; we have avenged the Prophet and chanting, God is Great in Arabic. This is the third such attack in a Western country in less than three months. The criminals certainly showed signs of having been trained in the use of automatic weapons.
It is largely immaterial if these atrocities are the acts of home-grown jihadists or of local cadres affiliated to terrorist organisations. Such incidents ratchet up tensions between the Western and Muslim worlds.
This is all the more alarming in Europe, where we see the rise of right-wing groups. A key jihadist objective is to force states to crack down harder on Muslim communities, which gives credence to their claim that it is the West which is in fact waging war on Islam.
Western states go to voluble lengths to deny any such clash of faiths yet far-right groups spew out repugnant rhetoric that reinforces these very fears. There is also a major clash of perceived values. Freedom of expression, rightly venerated in the West, is viewed by many Muslims as a charter for blasphemy. Of course, the overwhelming majority of Muslims repudiate violence but such perceived sacrilege plays to the jihadists’ tune.
In Pakistan, blasphemy laws have been the subject of considerable discord. Citizens have been murdered in retaliation for allegedly offensive words or deeds. At the root of this problem is that many Muslims have a genuine dichotomy over free expression. Depictions of the Prophet Mohammed are made all the more sensitive because of a traditional view that he cannot be depicted pictorially, never mind in a pejorative or satirical manner.
In part, this is an internal struggle or debate over what it means to be a Muslim in today’s world and where the boundaries of ‘justifiable’ action lie. Defining those factors is a potent tool in terms of gaining political power.
The notion of carrying the fight into Europe to force Western governments to retreat from occupation of Muslim lands or to refrain from attacks on Muslims is another.
This murderously confrontational jihadist platform weakens efforts by moderate and progressive Muslims to advance the notion of freedoms based on an Islamic ethos.
The extremists have ample ideological and, by extension, geopolitical space to exploit and manoeuvre in. Jihadists deliberately target non-Muslims as a means to win ground within the Muslim world. This strategy also draws the West into what is essentially an Islamic civil war in order to meet the potent and all too real security threats posed by militants.
In this way, the internal struggle within Islam does not lead to the defeat of the extremists or the easing of relations between Muslims and Christians. Yet that is exactly where the jihadists are vulnerable, and where the real battle to defeat the jihadist needs to be fought. As long as the ideology survives, it will produce new fighters.
We can all do our bit by denying far right groups the opportunity to stir up Islam-phobia in the wake of last week’s events in Paris. Freedom of conscience is another pillar of our democracy and it cannot be undermined by the actions of the few of any faith.
- John Sadler is a Northumberland-based local historian.