After The Paris Massacre, We Cannot Have Business As Usual

Commentary | January 14, 2015

In Mail Today, EWI Fellow and former Indian Foreign Secretary Ambassador Kanwal Sibal discusses why the Charlie Hebdo attacks should serve as a wake-up call to all of us. 

The brutal killing in Paris of Charlie Hebdo journalists dramatises once again the deeply uncivilised nature of international terrorism motivated by religious beliefs. There is no excuse for killing cartoonists in cold blood, for drawings considered offensive by members of a particular religious community.

Those offended would have every right to condemn what is - in their eyes - grossly blasphemous. They could remonstrate with the publication and the concerned authorities, take legal action, caution against provocations that alienate religious communities. But for individuals to believe that it is their religious duty to kill the “blasphemers” and administer “justice” in any jurisdiction and outside any lawful process is deeply reprehensible. To rely on a religious text or injunction to legitimise such murderous conduct is indefensible. 



In Charlie Hebdo’s particular case, two incompatible social and legal norms and, more generally, radically different ways of thinking are at play. From one perspective, freedom of thought is unconstrained by religious injunctions, the principle of freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed, and politics is freed from limits imposed by religious texts.In many ways the modern and the medieval are in contrast. The abnormal element is that the terrorists are French citizens, born and raised in the democratic culture and freedoms of this European country and exposed to its social norms. That they should have lived nonetheless within their medieval religious ghettos of thought, so alienated from their liberal environment and so much under the influence of bigoted Islamists in the distant Arabian peninsula, is remarkable. 

To link this slaughter – even while condemning it – to the backlash of the West’s war on terror is to half justify it. The moment we try to rationalise unspeakable acts, they become no longer totally condemnable.Yes, the West has militarily intervened in Islamic countries, forced regime changes there and destroyed whole societies in the name of democracy and human rights, angering many in the Islamic world.But then, several Arab states backed the elimination of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, and – Turkey included – support the ouster of Syria’s Hafez Assad. Today, key Gulf countries and Jordan have joined the West in air operations against the Islamic State (IS), besides taking counter-terrorism measures against the Al Qaeda in alignment the West’s war on terror. Egypt, in turn, seems determined to decimate the Muslim Brotherhood. Many Arab states have below the radar understandings with Israel and play tactical politics with the Palestinian issue. 

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia radiates the most fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology, one providing the religious compass for the kind of vengeance exacted against Charlie Hebdo. 



With Qatar and the UAE also complicit in expanding the hold of this extremist ideology over Muslim masses across the world, it becomes that much more difficult to bring about reforms in the practice of Islam, “modernise” it by re-interpreting its texts in the light of today’s requirements and, crucially, removing religion as a source of political and social conflict between the Islamic world and others. To add to all the complexity underpinning Islamic radicalism, it is well to remember the close political compact between the US and Saudi Arabia. So, the notion that Islamic anger against the West for its war on terror caused the butchery in Paris should be treated in a nuanced manner. 

Most importantly, the Kouachi brothers did not justify their monstrous act of killing the cartoonists by invoking the excesses of the West’s war on terror, the thousands of casualties inflicted by military operations, and the ensuing internal lawlessness and violence, or the use of torture against prisoners and the like. In any case, it would not have made any sense if they had, because then Charlie Hebdo and its cartoonists would not have been the logical targets. For them the casus belli was almost primitively religious. They were specifically avenging the insults to their prophet by Charlie Hebdo - overlooking the “insults” the cartoonists had hurled in all directions, including at the Pope and the Jews – and announced triumphantly that, with its principal cartoonists dead, the magazine was finished.



The massive public mobilisation in France against the attack on Charlie Hebdo reveals the shock felt in the country. Europe has been stirred by the enormity of the act. It is not clear, however, what this wave of anguish is directed at. Is it to convey Europe will uphold the principle of freedom of expression undeterred by threats from would-be terrorists? Does this mean preserving the space for more “offensive” cartoons against the founder of Islam? The terrorists, in any case, are not raging against “freedom of expression” in general; their aim is to intimidate those who dare to “insult” their prophet. The impact of their action across Europe would have gratified them, as their agenda has got the attention they wanted. Catharsis apart, this public mobilisation will make sense only if the intolerant features of Islam and the sources which nourish Wahhabism/ Salafism are recognised and exposed. 

Unfortunately, political correctness and concerns about a backlash against the vast majority of peace-loving and law-abiding Muslims will dissuade this. The usual cliches will be mouthed that Islam is peace loving, no religion advocates the killing of innocents and that terror has no religion, providing the usual escape route from assuming the onerous responsibility for effective international action against the terrorist menace by both the victims of terror and those at the level of states, mosques and religious institutions that protect and propagate the kind of Islam that breeds such ideological violence. One fears that it will be business as usual once the shock subsides. 


To read the original article at the Mail Today, click here