The impressive and inspiring show of solidarity at France’s unity march on January 11—which brought together millions of people and more than 40 world leaders—was not necessarily a sign of good things to come. “We are all one” was indeed a powerful message, but what did it really mean, underneath the noble sentiment and the liberal faith that all people are essentially good and want the same things, regardless of religion or culture? Even if the scope is limited to Western liberals, the aftermath of the assaults in Paris on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket has revealed a striking lack of consensus on a whole host of issues, including the limits of free speech, the treatment of religions versus racial groups, and the centrality of secularism to the liberal idea. Turns out, we are not all one.
French schoolteachers were reportedly dumbfounded that (some) Muslim students refused to stand up for a moment of silence after the attacks. But this is where confusion seeps into the debate. Within France, there is not a cultural divide on the attack that left 12 dead at the offices of a satirical magazine. To even suspect that a significant number of French Muslims might support the slaughter of innocents is troubling. But beyond the killings themselves, there is, in fact, a cultural divide—one that shines light on some of the most problematic aspects of how we in the West talk about Islam, values, and violence.
For instance, French Muslims are more likely than non-Muslims to view blasphemy as unacceptable. They are more likely to think that attacks on the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran should be criminalized as hate speech and incitement, much like denial of the Holocaust is. It is problematic, then, to view condemning the Paris killings and affirming the right to blaspheme as two sides of the same coin. For many Muslims, they aren’t. To treat them as a package deal is not only odd—after all, opposing murder and opposing blasphemy are quite different things—but also dangerous.
Polling data offers additional insight into what European Muslims think about the role of religion in private and public life (I’ll be focusing here on French and British Muslims, two of the largest Muslim populations in Europe). For starters, the baseline of religious observance varies considerably. According to the 2009 Gallup Coexist Index, 58 percent of French Muslims either “very strongly” or “extremely strongly” identify with their religion, compared with only 23 percent of the French public. The numbers for Britain are even starker: 75 percent versus 23 percent. Talk of a “clash of civilizations” is as unwise as it is imprecise, but there does appear to be a clash of values. Somewhat remarkably, 0 percent—yes, 0 percent—of British Muslims apparently believe homosexuality is morally acceptable. Among French Muslims, the proportion is much higher, at 35 percent, but that is still more than 40 percentage points lower than the 78 percent of French who say homosexuality is morally acceptable.
What about blasphemy? According to a 2006 Pew poll, 79 percent of French Muslims blamed the 2005 cartoon controversy–in which a Danish newspaper published various images of the Prophet Muhammad—on Western nations’ “disrespect for the Islamic religion,” while 67 percent of the general population blamed “Muslims’ intolerance.” Needless to say, this is a massive gap in perception.
Unlike France, Britain has had a spirited debate about the role of communal sharia courts in adjudicating family law. In a controversial 2008 address, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams argued that civil and religious law need not be mutually exclusive. In this sense, the question of sharia is not a theoretical one in the U.K., which has led to some intriguing polling results. According to a 2007 Policy Exchange survey, 28 percent of British Muslims said they would “prefer to live under sharia law.” The number shoots up to 37 percent among 16- to-24-year-olds. The question’s phrasing isn’t wholly satisfying since many Muslims might prefer a third alternative—a dualistic mix of secular and religious law—but, in any case, 28 percent is still a rather large minority. On a number of other issues, including female veiling, polygamy, apostasy, and whether Muslim women can marry non-Muslim men, the 16-to-24 category consistently emerges as the most enamored by strict interpretations of Islamic law. Apparently, youth and tolerant, liberal attitudes do not go hand-in-hand. The implication is that people who spent their formative years in Britain are more religiously conservative than their elders, despite being immersed in the British educational system rather than, say, Pakistani or Egyptian ones.
This clash of values is on even greater display if you compare Western nations with Muslim-majority ones. The citizens of countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Pakistan are deeply conservative, with large majorities supporting the application of Islamic law to varying degrees. And, while it may help, one doesn’t need to be an Islamist to favor Islamist policies. In Egypt, a brutally anti-Islamist regime has employed “vice squads” in a national campaign against moral “perversions,” including atheism and homosexuality. In Malaysia, an ostensibly secular government has repeatedly upheld bans on non-Muslims using the word “Allah.” It is, in short, quite difficult to privatize religion in the broader Muslim world. Countries like Turkey and Tunisia that have tried could only muster fleeting success—at the high cost of subverting democracy for decades.
As I discussed in a previous essay, Islam, for a variety of cultural, historical, and theological reasons, is distinctive in how it relates to politics. The subtext of a great deal of post-Paris commentary is not really about Islam and violence as much as it is about a deeper philosophical divergence. For many, particularly in the more secular corners of Europe, there is a desire, and sometimes a demand, to see Muslims embrace liberalism and an anger that many simply won’t. Can a French Muslim be “illiberal” and also be a good, productive French citizen? In the haze of the past weeks, one thing has been clear: the answer tends toward “no.”
* * *
The package deal of liberalism must be accepted. Islam needs to be reformed (just as Christianity was). Muslims must be “moderate.” Once they become “moderate,” they must “stand up”—preferably nonviolently—to those who resist progress and hold on to old ways of outmoded religion. The goalposts have been shifted. It is no longer enough to merely condemn. Condemnations must be more sincere, more insistent, and more expansive. Or so the arguments go. Sometimes the goalposts are shifted even further, as when Bill Maher said that, in addition to condemning, Muslims need to “strongly endorse the right of anyone to make fun of any religion/prophet.” If they don’t, then they cannot be considered “moderate Muslims.” The implication is clear enough: this would put large majorities of French and British Muslims outside the liberal fold.
These conversations about Muslims—much of the time without actual Muslims present—are variations on a distinctly post-9/11 narrative. However, with the Middle East’s intensifying violence, the discussions have managed to become more problematic and paternalistic. The “Islamism is the problem” and “Islamism needs a reformation” themes have become something of an epidemic, more often than not featuring an inability, or unwillingness, to understand Islamism, Islam, or, for that matter, the Reformation.
After the attacks of September 11, author Christopher Hitchens, essayist and critic Paul Berman, and others framed the war against terrorism as an existential struggle. They were enlisting readers in a fight about something bigger—a fight over ideals and ideas. This wasn’t just about terrorism. It was about reasserting faith in Western liberalism in order to defend it against Islamist totalitarianism, which, itself, drew inspiration from European totalitarianism. The prose was romantic too, befitting a new ideological struggle that would be waged on an epic scale. In reading the great political theorist Michael Walzer’s recent meditation on Islamism and the Left in the age of ISIS, I was reminded of Berman’s 2003 book Terror and Liberalism. I remember its stark, white cover. Even the title suggested a certain clarity. Walzer’s essay is a continuation of this sort of polemic, ending appropriately with a call to arms. “My friends and neighbors are not ready to enlist; many of them won’t acknowledge the dangers posed by Islamist zealotry,” he writes. “But there are dangers and the secular left needs defenders. So here I am, a writer, not a fighter, and the most helpful thing I can do is to join the ideological wars.”
* * *
To the extent that there is such a “war” to be fought, it is one that we in the West can’t hope to win. (Perhaps polemics are needed, except that real people “don’t live polemically.”) The French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, has, in fact, declared war on “radical Islamism,” a difficult war to fight without a working definition of either “radical” or “Islamism” (how would the prime minister classify nonviolent or even “quietist” Salafis?).
Like Valls, Walzer never really defines Islamism, instead using the term rather expansively to include not just violent extremism but any kind of religious “zealotry.” He includes Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna in his list of zealots, which suggests he considers the Brotherhood part of the same Islamist camp—including the likes of ISIS and Boko Haram—that must be fought and “named.” Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that advocates of the “Islamism is the problem” line aren’t just opposing Islamists, but the very idea of intertwining religion and politics, which, as the polling above suggests, enjoys widespread appeal that goes well beyond Islamists. Even if Walzer’s struggle is right and just, it is almost ludicrously detached from Middle East realities. Historically, forcing people to be liberal or secular, when they don’t want to be, doesn’t work particularly well.
Imposed liberalism, in fact, is something of a contradiction in terms. Liberalism privileges individual autonomy and personal freedom; to negate that autonomy because it is directed toward religious ends is, to put it mildly, problematic. A liberal society can survive with a minority that opposes blasphemy. More than that, a liberal society cannot truly be liberal without allowing citizens to express their own personal illiberalism, as long as they do so through legal, democratic channels.
In one sense, the comrades in arms that Walzer counts himself among are right: there is a great deal at stake. Terrorism is an existential threat not so much for what terrorists do, but for how liberal societies respond. Since the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda and its ilk have aimed to provoke Western powers into doing things that they otherwise wouldn’t do—to drag them, as Middle East scholar Michael Doran writes, into “somebody else’s civil war.” The Iraq War was a godsend to al-Qaeda, just as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were. By dangerously overreacting to terrorism, the United States fell into a trap.
Terrorist groups are very difficult to fight for the simple reason that they draw strength from basic “flaws” in Western democracies that are very difficult to address. Among citizens, terrorism provokes a natural reaction: fear coupled with an overwhelming desire for security. But it’s that very reaction that fuels the cycle of Muslim alienation in the West. Just as Islamist extremism benefits far-right politicians in France, an emboldened French far-right benefits Islamist extremists, allowing them to drive a greater wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims and feed their “clash of civilizations” narrative. (No one, after all, likes a clash of civilizations more than those doing the clashing.)
Democratically elected leaders, however well-intentioned, cannot afford to dismiss public sentiment. They may double down on failed policies, thinking that this honors the dead, or that to do otherwise would be to “let the terrorists win.”
* * *
In his speech declaring war on “radical Islamism,” the French premier said something else that may prove more important: To fight this new war, France’s uniquely assertive secularism, or laïcité, would have to be reaffirmed. “We have to defend laïcité, without compromises—there have been too many,” he asserted. Considering the context, this was a remarkable thing to say. At the very time when French Muslims needed to be reassured, the prime minister suggested that more laïcité was the answer. In the weeks that followed, the French government arrested dozens for offensive speech, offering a useful reminder that France, despite the rhetoric of French officials, has long had a tenuous commitment to free speech. Apparently, in the new France, citizens can get accused, tried, sentenced, and imprisoned in “as little as three days.”
If the goal is religious pluralism—and in a country with about 5 million Muslims, it should be—then laïcité, by definition, is doomed to fail. It effectively forces observant French Muslims to choose between their religious practice and their French identity. To be sure, French Muslims, like any community, are a diverse group, with, according to at least some polls, relatively lower levels of daily religious practice than Muslims elsewhere in Europe. In this respect, France’s model of “integration” can claim success, but at the high cost of alienating the large segment of the Muslim community that sees laïcité as an onerous restriction on deeply held religious commitments.
There are those who will, inevitably, view such arguments as culturally relativist—as examples of Western liberals reneging yet again on their liberalism. Walzer writes that “individual liberty, democracy, gender equality, and religious pluralism aren’t really Western values; they are universal values that first appeared in strong, modern versions in Western Europe and the Americas.” This is fine as far as it goes, but it raises a question: Why aren’t some “universal values”—such as the right to offend—universally held? And, if they aren’t universally held, is it enough to insist that they should be?
Consider gender norms. In Dahlab v. Switzerland, a 2001 case upholding a state school’s right to bar a Muslim teacher from wearing the headscarf in her classroom, the European Court of Human Rights wrote in its ruling that the headscarf was a “powerful external symbol” that was “hard to reconcile with the principle of gender equality.” Apparently, many French citizens agree, with 62 percent saying that removing the headscarf is “necessary” for minorities to integrate into society (only 22 percent of French Muslims agree). Befitting a democracy, policymakers responded to, and reflected, popular sentiment, enacting a 2004 law that banned headscarves and other “conspicuous” religious symbols in French public schools. Here, then, liberals, at least in Europe, cannot agree on what exactly liberalism requires. A state actively blocking women from wearing a piece of clothing—and denying them employment if they refuse—is a rather blatant violation of individual autonomy and free expression. It is also a violation of freedom of religion and conscience. These women are wearing the headscarf not on a whim, but because they believe it to be an obligation commanded by God. (The French headscarf ban also happens to be a good example of the inherent tensions between liberalism and democracy, even in the West. A law can be democratic but illiberal, in that it reduces the freedoms of individual citizens.)
Blasphemy is more complicated. While many, particularly in the United States, can recognize the absurdity of a headscarf ban, it is more difficult to understand how Muslims in Europe could really take such offense to a cartoon of the Prophet and, moreover, seek a legal ban on such depictions. In the pre-modern Islamic caliphate, blasphemy was considered an attack not just on religion but on the state, since the two were intertwined. In this sense, attacking the prophet, questioning the Quran’s divine authorship, or even apostasy were treated as political rather than strictly theological acts, more or less equivalent to treason. (A better example might be debates over flag burning. The flag today, like the prophet centuries ago, is a symbolic representation of the state.) The confusion today rests in a new reality, where citizenship is based on nationality rather than religion. Implicitly, at least some Muslims are struggling to come to terms with this shift in legal and political legitimacy.
Some of the opposition to blasphemy, though, is more prosaic, involving identity rather than theology or the problem of new nation-states. The anthropologist Saba Mahmood argues, for instance, that speech targeting a religious group is comparable to hate speech against racial groups. In one influential article, she writes of the need to “problematize … the presumption that religion is ultimately a matter of choice; such a judgment is predicated on a prior notion that religion is ultimately about belief in a set of propositions to which one gives one’s assent.” In a post-Enlightenment world, “the epistemological status of religious belief has come to be cast as speculative and therefore less ‘real’ than the materiality of race and biology.” Whether or not such reasoning is valid, it is fair to assume that many believers see their membership in a religious community less as a matter of private belief and more as a “fixed” identity.
In a recent Washington Post article on Muslim disaffection after the Paris attacks, a French Muslim says: “Those who are stronger than us are mocking us. We have high unemployment, high poverty. Religion is all we have left.” This is, very clearly, not a theological claim, but one steeped in economic and political grievance. Along similar lines, the liberal Turkish author Mustafa Akyol writes that the “unique sensitivity” around the prophet seems to be “a case of religious nationalism … rather than of true faith.” This highlights the importance of religion as well as the importance of looking beyond it. A band of prominent Islamic scholars could travel the world and issue fatwas on the permissibility of blasphemy, but it would likely have limited effect (if anything, it might provoke the opposite effect, leading more Muslims to question the credibility of those authorities and harden their position). The obsession with finding “moderate” Muslims—by which people often mean “secular” Muslims—tends not to be a particularly fruitful use of time and energy.
* * *
It is a mistake to think that religious practice and religious identity can be successfully constrained through state-imposed “liberalization” of Muslim communities, or by funding “moderates” to start laying the theological foundations for the Muslim equivalent of the Protestant Reformation. It is somewhat ironic that the memory of the Reformation and then the Enlightenment has been used to suppress legal pluralism, religious diversity, and even individual religious practice in the name of universalism.
A liberalism that accommodates, respects, and even—occasionally—appreciates religion is not a cause that is likely to inspire polemics, declarations of ideological wars, and the formation of roving intellectual brigades. There is less romance in defending someone’s right to believe that blasphemy should be illegal, or that Britain should introduce voluntary sharia courts for family law.
In a response to Walzer’s essay, the Yale political theorist Andrew March writes that Walzer’s call to arms is a “little faux-heroic.” March continues: “I know that it is satisfying to keep writing pieces that take a stance against killing apostates, mutilating genitals, and kidnapping schoolgirls. But who doubts that we are against these things? What kind of moral courage does it really take to say this in the West?” What presumably would take more moral courage, at least in France, is for a major political party to call for a rethinking of laïcité, and for broadening, rather than narrowing, French national identity.
It is worth believing that, in times of tragedy, people come together; they rethink their biases and assumptions; they reach out to the weak and disenchanted; they embody grace; they try to take steps to avoid other tragedies, at least the ones they might have some control over. But, when it comes to fallout from the Middle East, tragedies are rarely teachable moments. They are just as likely to bring out the worst in us as the best.
With every act of terror, Western powers and their populations are tested. The temptation to react, and overreact, grows. I am not optimistic that we will calibrate the right responses, or even that we can. But, at the very least, we will have to try.
This piece was originally published by The Atlantic.