Living Ordinary Lives? European Muslims After Charlie Hebdo

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Image by chrisjohnbeckett

The tragedy of Charlie Hebdo has provoked an immense response from Muslims and non-Muslims all over the world. Almost all who have written about this issue have condemned the killings in Paris, equating them to other similar terrorist threats and attacks such as the Rushdie Affair and the 7/7 bombings in Britain, the 9/11 attacks, and the Boston bombings in the United States, as well as the murder of Danish cartoonist Theo Van Gogh in 2004. The condemnations did not just come from leftist and pro-democracy individuals; Iran, Morocco, Arab governments, and leading institutions across the world such as Al-Azhar University in Egypt repudiated the deadly attack in Paris, calling it ‘un-Islamic’. Nevertheless, all of the above institutions and authorities condemned the second portrayals of the Prophet in the following issue of Charlie Hebdo.

It perhaps came as no surprise that some jihadi supporters thought ‘highly’ of the attacks and killings and expressed views on social media websites, describing the killings as ‘revenge’ for insulting the Prophet Mohammad. Charlie Hebdo had repeatedly depicted images of the Prophet in cartoons that were found to be offensive by some Muslims, particularly those following the Salafi tradition. ‘Salaf’ literally means ‘forbearer’, referring to the generation of the Prophet, his children and his grandchildren in the 7th century. Salafi Islam refers to an interpretation of Islam which offers a literal reading and translation of the available Islamic texts: the Quran and Sunna (the lifestyle in which the Prophet lived his life, as valid as the Quran itself).

Salafist Muslims account for around one-fifth of the 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, but have become the most controversial of all the movements within Islam. A simple Google search of the term ‘Salafi’ provides information about different military and political groups that associate themselves with the ideology. Ekhvan Al-Muslemin (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt, for example, affiliated itself to the ideology on their website in defining who they are. The term ‘Salafist jihadism’ was coined by Giles Kepel, a French political scientist, to refer to the violent acts conducted and claimed by Salafist affiliates.

Such is the interest in Salafism that a group of researchers at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University (ASU) recently received a $285,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to research the movement. Mark Woodward at ASU argues that “Salafism is the driving force behind movements ranging from al-Qaeda to quietest groups living pious lives in self-imposed social isolation. Because these diverse groups share religious teachings and symbols, scholars, policymakers and intelligence analysts often have difficulty distinguishing between violent and nonviolent Salafis.”

However, Salafi Islam and its ideology should not be seen to represent Muslims as a whole. According to Bowen, many French Muslims do not follow the Salafi ideology.[ref]Bowen, J. R. (2010) Can Islam Be French?, Princeton: Princeton University Press[/ref] Indeed some Muslim religious leaders denounce Salafi thinking and find it inappropriate for young Muslims living in Europe. These leaders have instead tried to interpret Islam in a way that is compatible with the current socio-political context of France and other European countries. Some Salafi affiliated institutions have also tried to disassociate themselves from overtly extremist images. For example, in the UK, the Salafi Centre in Manchester has denounced ISIS (the Islamic State), referring to it as ‘a terrorist group’ and calling Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ‘a murderer’.

Despite these repudiations of ISIS and condemnations of the Charlie Hebdo attack, it is important to recognize that for the majority of practicing Muslims, even benign depictions of the Prophet are viewed as extremely inappropriate, while those that ridicule him are seen as far, far worse.

Discussing the contrast between Salafi and non-Salafi Muslims is important here since much of the writing on Charlie Hebdo focuses on the Muslim vs. non-Muslim dichotomy, paying little attention to what is happening within and between different Muslim groups in Europe. Views on Charlie Hebdo’s position and its claim of freedom of speech remain limited to two major poles. The first camp belongs to the group who believes that the magazine was right to push the boundaries and cross the red line of taboo subjects in order to create a space for other media outlets to express their ideas. Others, though, found Charlie Hebdo’s claim to freedom of speech paradoxical, particularly in light of the French government’s enforced policies on religion. Important to note here is that the policies on religion have not addressed all religions in the same way. As Tariq Ali put it recently, a specific form of anti-Muslim racism (I am avoiding the term ‘Islamophobia’ here) has been exhibited under the masque of secularism in France.

Within these binary views, one important point is ignored: Islamic leaders and community members in France (and elsewhere) have attempted to develop an Islam that matches European life and are constantly aware of homogenised views towards Muslims. Increasingly, non-Salafi believers are also seen as dangerous despite their attempts to present an ‘ordinary’ version of their religion. For example, the development of terms such as ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ Muslim is a new phenomenon and they are being used more frequently in policy and public debates with serious consequences that affect all Muslims living in Western societies. The term ‘extremist’ seems to be more exotic and is equated with the term Muslim itself in phrases such as ‘Islamic terrorism’, used in right-wing political debates. The problem is that in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo, Muslim individuals are likely to feel the brunt of increased racism (as they already have been). This will, in turn, foster more opportunities for religious fundamentalists to attract more followers, creating a vicious cycle encouraging and exacerbating these binary positions which have pitted Islam against the West.

At the same time, this increasing polarity between Islam and the West creates ‘camps’ among Muslims who do not think of themselves as Salafists. This is a more subtle difference compared to the divergence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Middle East. With security alerts in most Western countries, non-Salafi, but visible Muslims find themselves living in a constant state of anxiety where they feel compelled to continuously explain themselves as ‘non-terrorists’.

On the other hand, within the group of non-visible Muslims, there is an increasing feeling of stigma attached to belonging to communities, nations and countries promoting extremist views, while maintaining feelings of belonging to French, German or British societies becomes a challenge. While the findings of Census 2011 showed that Muslims in Britain feel more British than their Jewish and Christian counterparts, this attracted almost no attention from policymakers: one wonders what benefits discussions on extremism have brought in separating ‘ordinary Muslims’ from extremists in Western societies?

Policies on multiculturalism in the UK have provided little space for multiple identities to belong as fully fledged members of society despite the willingness of the majority of Muslims to express a British sense of identity (See Jivraj, 2013)[ref]Jivraj, S. (2013) Who feels British? The relationship between ethnicity, religion and national identity in England [/ref]. Events similar to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy may occur again in any Western society if marginalised individuals feel that there is no space for their Muslim identity to exist alongside the hegemonic French, German and British national identities. Lived experiences of deprivation, poverty, lacking the right to belong, and constant feelings of alienation bring with them a sense of insecurity about where ‘home’ is. This, I think, is a matter that is ‘worthy’ of contemplation and research.

Image courtesy of chrisjohnbeckett

Mastoureh Fathi

About Mastoureh Fathi

Dr Mastoureh Fathi is a post doctoral research fellow at the school of Health and Social Sciences in Bournemouth University. She researches about family practices of Muslim communities in the UK and Europe. She has conducted research and published on migration of skilled workers, research methodology, Iranian women and Muslim parenting.

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