Soon after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, Islamist sympathizers on social media unleashed familiar rhetoric. AlQaida and ISIS supporters used Arabic language hashtags like “our revenge for the messenger (Muhammad)”, “Paris is the messenger (Muhammad)”, “Paris is Burning”, “Paris under Fire” and “Lions of Tawheed (monotheism)”. One self-styled jihadi tweeted, “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.” Someone styling himself as Abu Sari alIraqi put up a graphic of the Islamic State’s black flag on the Eiffel Tower, with the slogan in French: “We are everywhere.”
Such bombast reflects the emptiness of the Islamist dream. The killing of unarmed cartoonists and journalists is hardly an act of courage. Paris did not, in fact, burn and this latest act of terrorism mobilized 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’ for killing a Hindu publisher of a book insulting Prophet Muhammad in 1929.Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ prompted fatwas and violent protests 50 years later. These incidents cannot be attributed as reaction to US military intervention.
Of course, not all of the world’s over 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 the Crusades and the Ottoman wars.
But in earlier times, Muslims responded to religious affronts by pointing out flaws in other religions and outlining their own perfect faith. Their armies were violent but so were the armies of others. When Muslim emperors ruled over large non-Muslim populations, preachers and Sufi mystics worked to win converts to Islam. There is no record in those days of targeted attacks in retaliation for blasphemy against the prophet or Islam in distant lands.
The phenomenon of violent outrage over insults to Islam seems to have started during western colonial rule, with Muslim politicians seeking issues to mobilize 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 to muster popular support. The reaction makes more people aware of a book like Rushdie’s or a film like ‘The Innocence of Muhammad’. Charlie Hebdo regularly published only 45,000 copies but will likely be read by hundreds of thousands now.
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 with their current weakness. The bravado of beheading blasphemers and thinking a terrorist attack can change the global order are ways of reclaiming a glory that is vividly recalled but not seen by Muslims in recent centuries.
Like all national and community narratives, this one has elements of truth. But it is equally true that Muslims have made 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 that reads little, writes even less, hasn’t invented much in recent centuries, 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.