Any sympathy with the Charlie Hebdo attack is worrying, but Muslims are moving in the right direction

We need to emphasise that for most Muslims it is a huge leap from being offended to justifying violence


The recent BBC survey of British Muslims addresses multiple issues related to the Muslim community in the UK. The spotlight in the British media, however, has been on opinions about Islamist extremism. And understandably so.

The answers to the survey triggered a classic ‘glass half-full/half-empty’ situation, with everyone seemingly highlighting what they want to highlight, with regards to British Muslims.

‘Most British Muslims ‘oppose Muhammad cartoons reprisals’’ was the BBC’s headline.

‘Quarter of British Muslims sympathise with Charlie Hebdo terrorists’, was The Telegraph’s.

Both headlines are absolutely accurate, and yet reflect completely contradictory perceptions. And when the matter pertains to ideologically motivated terrorism and backlash against an entire community, the rush to obfuscate the respective flipsides should make way for a well-rounded analysis.

11 per cent of British Muslims believing that organisations publishing Prophet Muhammad’s cartoons should be attacked and 27 per cent sympathising with the motives behind the Charlie Hebdo attack are terribly high numbers.

While the Muslim Council of Britain would be first to jump to highlight the fact that nearly half (46 per cent) of the respondents claim that prejudice against Islam makes things difficult for Muslims in the UK, what they need to be equally, if not more, vocal about is the fact that an extremist mindset prevails among a significant percentage of the community.

To state the obvious, no one should be killed for expressing any opinion through words, images or any other means, no matter how offensive it is deemed by any community. And all condemnations in the aftermath of such an attack should be unequivocal and without any apologia – subtle or conspicuous – or blaming of the victim.

Even so, while scrutinising  Muslims for their opinion on the Charlie Hebdo attack, it is important to acknowledge that any illustration of Prophet Muhammad, within the Muslim community, is an unparalleled taboo that people outside of Muslim communities cannot relate to.

Not retaliating to any mockery of Prophet Muhammad is virtually deemed apostasy in certain sections, resulting in an unparalleled pressure within the Muslim community to be loud about their anger against ‘insults to the sanctity of the Prophet’.

This is not, in any way whatsoever, to justify the popular Muslim sense of entitlement over other communities, asking them to treat their religious figures with more respect than others. Neither does it suggest that satirists, sceptics or critics should pay any heed to the aforementioned taboo while treating Islam.

This is to suggest that the focus of those rightly apprehensive about the number of Muslims sympathising with attacks on ‘blasphemers’ should be on pushing the Muslim leaders and prominent members of that community to challenge that taboo, instead of ringing alarm bells.

78 per cent of the respondents in the survey said that they found the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad ‘deeply offensive to them personally’, with two-thirds of that number not showing sympathy for attacks. It is this translation of ‘being offended’ to ‘justifying violence’ that needs to be challenged from within the Muslim community, with the onus being on Muslim leaders to unequivocally condemn any violent acts in the name of Islam.

While any surveys asking Muslims about their opinion on cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad still suggest relatively extremist tendencies in Britain – and virtually unanimous fanaticism in the Muslim world – the popular Muslim opinion with regards to Islamist terrorist organisations has been on a constant decline. Despite a significantly high percentage of Muslims endorsing Sharia law, an even higher number denounces Islamist extremism.

When 95 per cent of the respondents in the BBC survey feel a loyalty towards Britain and 93 per cent say that they should obey British laws, stereotyping Muslims isn’t the way to go about with regards to reducing extremist tendencies within the Muslim community, especially when one considers the recent Chapel Hill Shootings.

Bigoted stances viewing Islam as ‘evil’, and anyone that holds those ‘dangerous ideas’ – i.e. every Muslim – as dangerous, fuels anti-Muslim bigotry, and in turn exacerbates the extremism in the Muslim world.

If an Iranian newspaper can print ‘Je suis Charlie’ on its front-page and Pakistani publications can publish articles supporting Charle Hebdo and freedom of speech, in the aftermath of the Paris attack, in countries where blasphemy is punishable by death, it indicates that things are changing.

Yes, the very fact that many Muslim countries have harsh blasphemy laws (13 have capital punishment for blasphemy or apostasy) depicts the inertia that needs to be overcome. But the fact of the matter is that with the advent of the internet and increase in inter-community interactions, Muslims are gradually challenging that inertia.

For too long we have lagged far behind other communities with regards to manifesting moderation – and we still continue to do so – but self-reflection is gradually replacing ideological apologia and finger pointing towards the west. Very slowly, yes, but we are moving in the right direction.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Friday Times journalist. Follow him on Twitter


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