...though the editors of Charlie Hebdo were trying to show us how.
In the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, I’ve heard a renewed interest in the question, “How do we stop Islamic violence?” One answer is to call for the overthrow of governments in predominantly Islamic countries. Another is to promote democratic institutions in those countries with the hope that those non-democratic governments will collapse under the weight of history. The most common answer I’ve come across is that Western governments should support moderate Islamic clerics who call for peace, or to try to promote liberal, Western Muslims who have fully assimilated into Western society.
These are all wrong. None of them will work. Because the problem isn’t Islam. It’s violence.
Take note of the implied premise in the last suggestion. On the surface, we (we being “The West”) say we want moderate clerics to speak out against this horrific violence. That’s a wonderful thing to desire. It’s happening, too. There are clerics who call for peace. There are also millions and millions of Muslims who live out that life of peace every day. That will not end this kind of violence because it only takes a tiny minority of any group to perpetrate these horrific acts. But notice the call from “The West.” We are telling these clerics that they should advise against violence because it’s wrong.
We have no moral authority to tell anyone that violence is not a proper means to deal with grievances.
Imagine the way this kind of “support” would be read on the Arab street. Some pundit or politician from “The West” is asking you to tell people that violence is not the answer to problems. Meanwhile, on a daily basis, you flip on the TV and see that The West is responding to their own frustrations with violence.
When we in The West decide we’ve had enough of a truly evil dictator (if he’s not useful to us or out of our reach) we respond with violence. When a group outside of our borders advocates violence, rather than attempting to contain them or arrest them, we shoot hellfire missiles at them from drones and sometimes blow up innocent civilians who are nearby. We idolize our own soldiers and spies to such an extent that we can’t bring ourselves to toss them in jail when they break our laws and torture prisoners or kill foreign civilians. In our own countries, we’re so polarized that we can’t applaud our police when they keep our streets safe and simultaneously hold them accountable for their most excessive abuses of power; either we respond to our own police with violence or forgive their acts of violence towards our own fellow countrymen.
In that context, when we say we want Muslims to stop the violent extremists in their midst, we’re really saying that violence is bad ...except when it is perpetrated by non-Muslims from The West. Then it’s war, or it’s political, or it’s criminal, or it’s complicated, but it is certainly not a reflection on the values of all Westerners.
I am not saying there is an easy answer to the question of Islamic terrorism, nor am I making any excuses for it. Killing people to get attention for your cause or to express solidarity with some extreme strain of your religion is abominable. But until we are willing to acknowledge that killing people to solve any problem is inherently morally inferior to solutions which don’t require murder, we will always be playing the fool’s game of whose-bad-behavior-is-worse.
I’m also not advocating absolute pacifism. I used to be a pacifist, back when I was a Christian. Just as there are people who believe in a God who will reward them for killing people, I believed in a God who would reward me if I had the courage to offer my life up to anyone who wanted me dead. But I have a wife and a son. I have parents and brothers and sisters. I have the students I teach. Ultimately, anyone I could possibly save is worth more to me than the potential reward of a deity who may or may not exist. If I had to choose between using violence and letting someone be killed, I think I would be violent (though I hope whatever deities exist never put me in that position). In that light, I don’t think the editors of Charlie Hebdo were at all hypocritical for having an armed guard in the lobby of their building, though that tragically wasn’t enough. There is a place for violence in the prevention of violence. I’m very glad we have a military so that a foreign invader couldn’t traipse across our border like Russia sneaking into Ukraine. If the United States, in the wake of 9/11, had invaded Afghanistan with the sole purpose of apprehending Osama Bin Laden and any of his associates and attempting to bring them before a court of law, and if that effort had required the killing of Al Qaida fighters (as it invariably would have) when they resisted arrest, I would find that justifiable. Instead, we gave our soldiers a series of impossible missions. We told them to topple two governments and establish peaceful democracies. Since then, we’ve toppled a third government and had a hand in destabilizing a few more, and we can’t claim a single victory based on the standard some chicken-hawks defined. It turns out, even with the best trained, most disciplined, most expensive military the world has ever seen, you still can’t bring about peace by force (unless, perhaps, you convince the people you want to pacify that their only alternative is their utter obliteration). Much like Vietnam, we won every battle and lost the wars. And that’s not because our military failed. It’s because we failed them. We failed to give them a realistic charge. In our entirely justified anger, we chose excessive violence.
Now, we in The West, faced with Muslims in our own countries and in others who are angry, want to decide that their anger is not justified and demand that they not make the same choice we made. This will never work. Even if the vast majority of Muslims spontaneously decide that their grievances aren’t really that big a deal, even if the vast majority decide to be the bigger man in the face of our hypocrisy, some extremists will see our violence as a justification for their own.
There is a solution. The editors of Charlie Hebdo demonstrated that brave people can stand up and point out the folly of violent terrorists while also pointing out the folly of our own leaders. I am not as brave as they were, sitting in my safe home which has never been firebombed, but I understand some small degree of the fear those cartoonists, writers, and editors must have overcome to walk into work each day. I wrote a satirical novel that included Jesus Christ, the Prophet Muhammad, and Yahweh as main characters, along with various gods from Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Incan, Mayan, Japanese, Sumerian, Babylonian, and Aztec mythology. Considering my book’s sales, I think I’m about as likely to be killed for it by an angry believer in Apollo or Thor as by a Christian or Jew or Muslim. But I’ve thought about it. There are a lot of people out there who take their religious beliefs very seriously. Most of those religions dictate that people who don’t share those beliefs are wrong. Most go so far as to hold that people who don’t share their beliefs are immoral for not accepting their truth. And a few of those religious people hold that such immoral people should be killed, especially if they go around publically announcing their non-belief. I don’t know how to calculate what percentage of the world’s population would rather see me dead than alive, but the number is much higher than I would like. And they are certainly not all Muslim, nor do they all live outside of the borders of the United States.
And yet, in the wake of an attack like the one in Paris, too many of us in The West choose to put on our xenophobic blinders and ask for peace only of Muslims. Imagine if someone asked us to unilaterally disarm? Would we do so? If some crazed lunatic asked us to beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks, what would we say? If a different crazy person told us that living by the sword would cause us to die by the sword, would we take him seriously?
Acts of terrorism are designed to provoke fear. It’s difficult to rise above that fear and treat multiple murderers as multiple murderers without concern for their motives. But when we treat terrorism as something special, we empower the next wave of terrorists. The only solution to Islamic violence is a combination of universal condemnation and the treatment of horrible criminal acts as horrible criminal acts. And the only way we will ever achieve universal condemnation of Islamic violence is when we condemn all violence and recognize that horrible criminality isn’t unique to Islam. We can’t combat homicidal reverence for Islam with homicidal reverence for our flags, or homicidal reverence for pluralism, or homicidal reverence for democracy. The problem isn’t Islam. It’s the degree of reverence.