The French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo skewers people of all faiths and backgrounds. One cartoon showed rolls of toilet paper marked “Bible,” “Torah” and “Quran,” and the explanation: “In the toilet, all religions.”
Yet when masked gunmen stormed Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris on Wednesday with AK-47s, murdering 12 people in the worst terror attack on French soil in decades, many assumed immediately that the perpetrators weren’t Christian or Jewish fanatics but more likely Islamic extremists.
Outraged Christians, Jews or atheists might vent frustrations on Facebook or Twitter. Yet, while we don’t know exactly who is responsible, the presumption is that Islamic extremists once again have expressed their displeasure with bullets.
Many ask: Is there something about Islam that leads inexorably to violence, terrorism and subjugation of women?
The question arises because fanatical Muslims so often seem to murder in the name of God, from the 2004 Madrid train bombing that killed 191 people to the murder of hostages at a cafe in Sydney, Australia, last month. I wrote last year of a growing strain of intolerance in the Islamic world after a brave Pakistani lawyer friend of mine, Rashid Rehman, was murdered for defending a university professor falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
Some of the most systematic terrorism in the Islamic world has been the daily persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, from the Bahai to the Yazidi to the Ahmadis.
Then there’s the oppression of women. Of the bottom 10 countries in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap report, I count nine as majority Muslim.
So, sure, there’s a strain of Islamic intolerance and extremism that is the backdrop to the attack on Charlie Hebdo. The magazine was firebombed in 2011 after a cover depicted Muhammad saying, “100 lashes if you’re not dying of laughter.”
Earlier, Charlie Hebdo had published a cartoon showing Muhammad crying and saying, “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.”
Terror incidents lead many Westerners to perceive Islam as inherently extremist, but I think that is too glib and simple-minded. Small numbers of terrorists make headlines, but they aren’t representative of a complex and diverse religion of 1.6 billion adherents. My Twitter feed Wednesday brimmed with Muslims denouncing the attack – and noting that fanatical Muslims damage the image of Muhammad far more than the most vituperative cartoonist.
The vast majority of Muslims of course have nothing to do with the insanity of such attacks - except that they are disproportionately the victims of terrorism. Indeed, the Charlie Hebdo murders weren’t even the most lethal terror attack on Wednesday: A car bomb outside a police college in Yemen, possibly planted by al-Qaida, killed at least 37 people.
One of things I’ve learned in journalism is to beware of perceiving the world through simple narratives, because then new information is mindlessly plugged into those storylines. In my travels from Mauritania to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan to Indonesia, extremist Muslims have shared with me their own deeply held false narratives of America as an oppressive state controlled by Zionists and determined to crush Islam. That’s an absurd caricature, and we should be wary ourselves of caricaturing a religion as diverse as Islam.
So let’s avoid religious profiling. The average Christian had nothing to apologize for when Christian fanatics in the former Yugoslavia engaged in genocide against Muslims. Critics of Islam are not to blame because an anti-Muslim fanatic murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011.
Let’s also acknowledge that the most courageous, peace-loving people in the Middle East who are standing up to Muslim fanatics are themselves often devout Muslims. Some read the Quran and blow up girls’ schools, but more read the Quran and build girls’ schools. The Taliban represents one brand of Islam; the Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai the polar opposite.
There’s a humbling story, perhaps apocryphal, that Gandhi was once asked: What do you think of Western civilization? He supposedly responded: I think it would be a good idea.
The great divide is not between faiths. Rather it is between terrorists and moderates, between those who are tolerant and those who “otherize.”
In Australia after the hostage crisis, some Muslims feared revenge attacks. Then a wave of non-Muslim Australians rose to the occasion, offering to escort Muslims and ensure their safety, using the hashtag #IllRideWithYou on Twitter. More than 250,000 such comments were posted on Twitter – a model of big-hearted compassion after terror attacks.
Bravo! That’s the spirit.
Let’s stand with Charlie Hebdo, for the global outpouring of support has been inspiring. Let’s denounce terrorism, oppression and misogyny in the Islamic world – and everywhere else. But let’s be careful not to respond to terrorists’ intolerance with our own.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.