Charlie Hebdo: Islamophobia Doesn’t Justify Fundamentalism

A Response to Charlie Hebdo Attack: ‘Nous ne sommes pas apologistes’

Mr. Mostaghanem, as a Muslim, refuses to apologize for the attack on Charlie Hebdo-so far, so good. Asking Muslims, as a whole, to apologize for murder committed by fundamentalists is insulting to Muslims and reactionary. The crimes of the few do not necessitate obsequious loyalty oaths from the many. The realm of ideas offers much to be seized upon by anyone, and can be employed towards ends both noble and otherwise. In America, Christians murder homosexuals, Jews gun down Palestinians in Gaza and Hindus burn Muslims alive in India-all in the name of their respective religious creeds. And yet, the great mass of adherents needn’t apologize for the sins of those whom use religion as a tool for the perpetration of violence.

However, Mr. Mostaghanem doesn’t stop there. He goes on to celebrate the attacks, using the language one expects from third-rate thugs, be they RSS or Taliban. According to him, those cartoonists had it coming: blasphemy is punishable by death and Islam is above reproach. I won’t dignify him by quoting his submission, as you can read his garbage on this very site. Needless to say, Mr. Mostaghanem espouses fundamentalism. Needless to say, this ideology stands in opposition to the project of creating a more humane world.

Well, Mr. Mostaghanem, I support your right to be heard and to express your retrograde belief in the inviability of your faith; I also happen to think your opinion exemplifies the very worst religion offers up to the world. I would dismiss it out of hand if your idiocy wasn’t so very dangerous. In short, I call you out on your blameworthy bullshit. Allow me to offer a brief progressive response.

Fundamentalism, in this context, is the belief in an imagined past, made manifest in the present as a reaction to change and humiliating, even ‘emasculating’ Western oppression. Fundamentalism, whilst using the language of religion, actually is often the vehicle upon which adherents pin their tenable political grievances: the partition and exploitation of the Middle East, the exaltation of the West at the cost of non-Western self-determination and dignity. I confess I find the forthrightness of third-world liberation movements preferable to the posturing of fundamentalists.

Verily, there can be no doubt that the non-Western world has been exploited by the West, consistently and brutally. Additionally, intensifying with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, Orientalism has served as the ideological apparatus for this colonizing project. Islam has always been the mirror ‘other’ for the West and as such, Islamophobia, a subset of xenophobia, freely pollutes the political atmosphere. Misinformation, prejudice and derision have all been used as tools to further the Imperial projects of Western powers.

An appeal to the well documented and reprehensible ongoing legacy of colonialism is a valid justification for righteous anger and even, some might say, retribution. But retribution in the name of hurt feelings? I think not. Why, in a twisted sort of way, it’s quite funny: fundamentalists fear the present and so they retreat to an imagined past, fortified with retrograde visions designed to protect them from the oppressor, whilst xenophobic Westerners retreat behind their prejudice in an attempt to protect themselves from change they cannot control, from a world where they aren’t quite as ‘superior’ as they once were. It’s the same psychological mechanism: loss and the fear of loss. The first can lead to ‘terrorism’ in the popular understanding of the term, whilst the latter can lead to state terrorism and movements with, at the very least, fascistic tendencies. When we struggle to hold onto something that is slipping away, we are capable of the most extraordinary, and extraordinarily dangerous, acts.

Mr. Mostaghanem goes on to say that Islam isn’t like social science where new information changes the original contention. He seems to be proud of his anti-intellectualism and the rigidness of his particular interpretation of Islam. This retrograde attitude is precisely what is wrong with religious fundamentalism, whatsoever the particular flavour in question. I know many Muslims without his particular hang-ups. Despite being offended by depictions of the Prophet, these good people would never advocate the murder of those causing the offense.

Moreover, the West routinely manufactures consent through the process of designating the other- now that dangerous Islamic menace, then international communist conspiracy. Any informed person would agree that Muslims are vilified in almost all non-Muslim majority states today. In Europe, Islamophobia is often the vehicle through which xenophobia is expressed. Similarly in the United States, terrorist is so often the proxy designation used for Muslim, or a person hostile to American interests. The same can be said of Modi’s administration in India. Indeed, the attack in Paris is being used to fuel Islamophobia and bolster the unjust Imperial policies of the West.

And perhaps some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists have participated in this exercise of demonization and derisive exclusion, although all certainly have not, and some have bravely stood against xenophobia. Nevertheless, the murders are not justified. I cannot even entertain the idea of a world where the murder of cartoonists, however offensive their doodles may be, would be justified.

We simply do not murder people when our feelings get hurt. To ban something or to threaten violence when one’s sentiments are offended is absurd. The pronouncements of men of religion, be they Christian, Jew, Muslim or Hindu, are not sacred to me and I am not obligated to kowtow before their prohibitions. I wholeheartedly reject the oppression of women embedded in each and every religion. I am not bound to respect religious homophobia and caste, or any other ‘divine’ law, regardless of origin. Pluralism does not, and cannot be defined in such a manner.

My rejection of this does not imply my hostility towards the cultural edifices of the various faiths: I will continue to enjoy the beauty of St. John’s Church in Calcutta , the sublime Buddhist cave paintings at Ajanta, the unparalleled and varied beauty of Delhi’s masjids and the overwhelming majesty of the Big Temple in Tanjore. I will continue to enjoy the profundity of Dostoyevsky’s novels, of Saadat Hasan Manto’s stories, of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems and I will do so in defiance of their religious positioning or community of origin. I exalt a world created by the confluence of people of many different creeds. Jettisoning our cultural systems and frameworks is not necessary or desirable, but purging them of their oppressive elements, wherever they may be found, is crucial.

Simultaneously we must reject the oppression of ostensibly secular state systems that make war on the non-Western world. A West with no room for Muslims is no more welcome than a West with no room for Jews. Those who seek to impose this narrow and destructive worldview must be confronted, but to gun down cartoonists cannot be the form of confrontation.