Thursday,22 March, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Thursday,22 March, 2018
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

The Charlie effect and what’s next

Radicalism has come into clear focus since January’s Paris events, but we still need a comprehensive strategy, grounded on a wider understanding, to address it, writes Fadi Al-Husseini

Al-Ahram Weekly

Are we witnessing the beginning of a religious war? Is it the harbinger of a new violent era that may not spare any nation? What is it that radicalism wants to achieve by committing acts of brutality? Why is this happening? And is there a solution?

These are a few questions that appear in daily debates and articles in the aftermath of January’s Paris events. It is crucial to investigate the backdrop of this state of affairs, particularly from a Middle Eastern and Muslim perspective, in order to provide sound analysis and a practical prognosis.

On the whole, the direct or at least, the known reason for the Paris attacks (which claimed the lives of Christians, Jews and Muslims) was the mocking of the Prophet Mohamed in caricatures published by the French weekly Charlie Hebdo. These caricatures, among other similar events, provoked millions of Muslims who instantly demonstrated, denouncing these acts.

Is it a “war” between Islamism and the West? A simple answer: No. The Muslim community in Europe and worldwide condemned the Paris attacks. This position was clearly reflected in the statement issued by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davuoglu.

He opposed all forms of violence but condemned any contempt or insult directed to the Prophet Mohamed that would be  “dagger-like” in Muslims’ hearts. Others voiced similar positions, especially with the Charlie Hebdo decision to reprint cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed. Qatar, for instance, saw this act as “fuelling hatred and anger.”

It is true that the violent backlash and the crime that was committed as a response to published cartoons was unacceptable. But the whole incident brings the issue of freedom of speech to a second level of discussion.

For Pope Francis, there are limits to free speech. Commenting on the caricatures, Pope Francis said: “Religious freedom and freedom of expression are fundamental human rights. But they are also not total liberties. There is a limit,” he said. “Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person.”

Thus, it is crucial to have clear boundaries of freedom of expression and speech and to give equal treatment, so as not to grant freedom of speech on some issues while punishing individuals in other cases.

While there were tragic human losses, the only party that benefited from this incident was the magazine itself. In a few hours, the magazine gained unprecedented popularity across the whole world and a lot of support and probably funds from sympathisers poured in. The publication was able to expand its limited print from 60,000 to five million copies after the first run sold out in only hours.

Nonetheless, the whole matter goes beyond freedom of speech and the Paris incident itself, as the issue of radicalism can’t be reduced to that level. A few months ago a terrorist attack struck Canada’s capital, just two days after another attack by a man who ran down a Canadian soldier.

Other similar terrorist attacks took place across the globe, including in Muslim and Middle Eastern countries. It would be difficult to assess the motives of the jihadists themselves in carrying out their attacks, as each jihadist has his own beliefs, psychology and conditions.

However, one may underscore a confluence of various factors that facilitated the emergence of the jihadist phenomenon and made it possible for radical organisations to recruit more jihadists.

The first factor is the absence of one religious reference. Until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, Muslims had one reference the Sultan. The Sultan who was known for his wisdom, piety and knowledge was the sole reference point for ordering the life for Muslims.

With the collapse of the empire in 1923, this reference was lost and Islamic forces tried to rejuvenate the Islamic state. The first effort was known as the Muslim Brotherhood, established in 1928, which was followed by hundreds of groups, movements and parties. Each movement had its own understanding and explanation of Islam and the term “jihad” that led, in many cases, to austere interpretations of the religion.

The second factor that played a crucial role in the emergence of these groups and facilitated recruitment of jihadists is the misguided practices of the West particularly the United States.

Former French Prime minister Dominique de Villepin has said that he holds Western foreign policy responsible for the spread of terrorism hotspots around the world, saying that the Islamic State (IS) group is the “deformed child” of this policy. De Villepin finds Western foreign policy arrogant and erratic, and urges Europe and the United States to learn from past experiences.

Similarly, in an interview with Newsmax TV, former US congressman Ron Paul argues that jihadists or radicals exist in every religion and they don’t attack the West because of its freedom and prosperity. He contends that those who commit terrorist attacks come from countries that the US occupied, where tens of thousands were killed.

Paul also remarks that on the day when the Paris attacks claimed the lives of 17 people, US bombs killed 50 “civilians” in Syria, but that this news was not included in the day’s reports.

Another example is the killing of 17 journalists among 2,143 Palestinians during Israel’s last aggression on the Gaza Strip, which received minimal attention compared to the killing of cartoonists in Paris. As a result, the feeling of inequality mounts day after day, and incident after incident, leading to still more frustration and discontent.

A third factor can be said to be the widespread economic problems and profound political and social grievances in Arab and Muslim societies. This is leading to frustration and a lack of belief in existing regimes, which are regarded as Westernised. During the Arab Spring fever, these sentiments bolstered Islamist forces that were previously deprived of their rights, expelled and even executed by their own regimes.

Military or security policies alone will not solve the issue of radicalism. A comprehensive plan that addresses the social, media, political and cultural aspects that feed radicalism could eventually lead to a better future.

The writer is a counsellor at the Embassy of Palestine in Turkey.

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