After Charlie Hebdo, Moderate Islam Must Speak Out

Carnage In The Streets of Paris
The two men belonged to a homegrown terrorist cell that goes back a decade and may have inspired a made-for-TV movie. Anne Gelbard/AFP/Getty

First they came for the Iraqi soldiers, those young men in uniform, who were massacred and tossed in trenches. Then they dragged off the women and girls who didn’t pray to their god and sold them into sexual slavery—and laughed about it on Youtube.

Then they silenced the French satirists at Charlie Hebdo.

For those who were following the fighting in Raqqa, Syria,  and Mosul, Iraq, it was clear where this was headed.

First they came for them. And then. Maybe you.

In the hours and days to come, Europe’s nativists will be unleashed. All the LePens and the Farrages and the Lega Nord and Pegida and their followers will get their moment to shriek, I told you so.

Sadly, they will be right about one thing: Islamic extremists and Western democratic ideals cannot co-exist.

Soon, women in headscarves in Paris and Marseille and London will report that they are being shoved in grocery stores, or spat upon on the streets or given the fisheye on the Metro or Tube.

It will all be very ugly, and precisely what the goons in black want to see happen.

If they can get Muslims to think that their entire religion is under assault, and not just the extremists, all the better for recruitment.

To counter that appeal, there will be the official feints toward peace and reconciliation. French President François Hollande will appear in public with a few Muslim leaders who will renounce the violence.

If the past is any gauge of the future, we will also start hearing warnings against Islamophobia. On the fringes, and even sometimes beyond them, the phenomenon is real. But as the atheist writer Sam Harris has often pointed out, this word is often used as a silencing tactic by so-called “moderates” within Islam and other religions—people who would never pick up a Kalashnikov for Allah, or even send money to an Al-Qaeda front group charity but who will not demand that more religious leaders stand up and have the courage to say that misogyny, anti-Semitism and virulent anti-Westernism be eradicated from Friday preachings.

The word is deployed not only by the moderate, silent majority of religious Muslims, but also by western academics and progressives who will bend over backwards to fit outrageous misogyny and fascistic philosophy into the framework of “culture” or “tradition”—as if this movement was somehow akin to the Maori masks or Native American wampum belts.

Despite the 9/11 attacks and America’s War on Terror, radical Islam has always been more of a persistent problem in the streets of European cities than in America. Ian Buruma succinctly covered this in Murder in Amsterdam, about the death of the provocateur, Theo van Gogh. The small and deadly skirmishes between extremist Islam and the West, and the latter’s extreme tolerance of even the most offensive speech usually occur in Europe, not here.

France’s tolerance is deep and true. It doesn’t ask people’s religion or ethnicity on its census, but the number of Muslims in metropolitan France is estimated at 5 million or 6 million—with only a third calling themselves practicing believers. The French got on the very wrong side of jihad when they demanded Muslim girls and women take off the headscarf inside public schools. Howls of racism followed, but the French stuck to their principles and refused to back down in spite of that slanderous PC misnomer. There is nothing racial about religion, and there is nothing wrong with holding all religions at bay in secular society.

One hopes that something different will ensue after today’s Charlie Hebdo massacre: That Muslim leaders across Europe and the Middle East and Asia will stand up in the mosques this Friday and remind people that no god—and certainly not a prophet whose mention is followed by the words “peace be upon him”—condones violence.

Please, imams, join the growing chorus of moderate Muslims who are speaking out against ISIS, and preach that stalking the streets of western cities with rocket launchers, trying to silence journalists is not the way to avenge Palestinian refugees, or western support for Arab dictators or any of the other grievances that some Muslims seem to tacitly regard as fair excuses for extremist violence.

And beyond the Friday preachings, it’s long past time for Muslims to articulate a political Islam that respects and welcomes free speech. Muslims are flocking to Europe by the millions, and one reason those boats are filled is that people want the freedom and stability that ensues in societies where words—not violence—are the means of negotiation. These regular, peace-craving Muslims—among the vast majority—are voting with their feet, desperate to live in societies built on the premise that communication, not violence, resolves disagreements.

Of course, the power of words and images is exactly why the assassins went into the offices of Charlie Hebdo today. Sticks and stones break bones, but words and images change minds— images like the satirical pictures that the murdered French cartoonists excelled at scratching out on blank sheets of paper.

Those images are what the gunman wanted to eradicate. But they wanted to destroy something else, tool: wit and laughter, a sense of the ridiculous, the freedom to think, to read what one wants, to wear what one wants, to live and work and bear children how and where and when one wants, and the freedom to  speak truth to power.

Many men and certainly most women on this planet will never have power. That’s why speaking truth to power is so important. And why laughing at power should be a human right.