Jan 20th 2015

On the Murders at Charlie Hebdo

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

The perpetrators of the horror at Charlie Hedbo were not devout Muslims outraged by insults directed at their faith. They were not motivated by religious piety, nor did they seek to strike a blow at "freedom of expression". Rather they were crude political actors who planned an act of terror—seeking to create the greatest possible impact. They were murderers, plain and simple. 

I believe in freedom of expression, but with freedom also comes responsibility. Pope Francis got it right when he noted "You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others". At the same time, I am horrified by the outrageous murders of innocent journalists. As Francis added "one cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one's religion—that is in the name of God. To kill in the name of God is an aberration".

It is wrong to insult. But the greater wrong is to kill those who insult you, especially if you claim to do it in God's name.

As profoundly wrong as were the killings at Charlie Hebdo, the murders at Parisian kosher market, were even more despicable. They were motivated by the crudest form of anti-Semitism—killing Jews just because they happened to be Jews who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What should be clear is that France has a problem. Most Muslims in France come from former French colonies—where France's behavior was often brutal and hurtful. During the colonial period, the Algerians were denied their identity, their language, and their rights. The French looked at and treated these Arabs as less than human. Two generations later, these once-colonized Algerians have come to France seeking jobs and opportunity. Instead they find themselves trapped in poverty, as part of a permanent underclass. 

It is important to understand this context in order to grasp the humiliation felt by many French Muslims on seeing their religion denigrated by the country's elite intellectuals. This, of course, in no way excuses the horrible murders at Charlie Hebdo. The terrorists hijacked not only the religion of Islam, but the hurt other Muslims have felt at the insults directed at the faith by the dominant secular French culture.

The hurt is legitimate, the terrorist killings are not. 

France has another problem. It welcomes immigrants, but it does not respect them or absorb them. As President Obama eloquently pointed out at a press conference this week, immigrants come to the US and within a generation become American and make their way up the ladder of social and economic mobility. This is so for two reasons. Firstly, despite the ranting of some bigots, the idea of "being American" is not an ethnic-based identity. It is a concept that continues to change over time. Immigrants become American and in the process they expand the very definition of what it means to be an American. After all what is American music, cuisine, fashion, humor, etc? It is an amalgam of all of the cultures that have come to be absorbed in the evolving American identity: Jewish, Italian, Irish, African American, Hispanic, German, Native American and so many more.

The second reason is tragic and that is that when immigrants come to America they do not start at the bottom precisely because America has a pre-existing underclass of Blacks and Hispanics, many of whom have been locked in poverty for generations (if not centuries). This is not the case in Europe, where immigrants have become the underclass and are not absorbed into a culture that changes with them. Arabs have been in France for generations, as have Turks and Kurds in Germany and South Asians in the UK. They remain Arabs or Muslims, Turks or Pakis. They are told "become like us, if you want to be a part of us". And yet because being French, or German, or British remain ethnic-based identities—the immigrants find that they can never "be like them".

In the days that followed the Paris murders, there were a number of articles that, after pointing to conflicts raging from Iraq to Libya, called on Muslims to "reexamine their religion" and its "penchant for violence and intolerance". Even though a few of these commentaries may have been well-meaning, they were wrong and evidence of a deeper prejudice against the religion of Islam. 

In the last century, Europe was the scene of two bloody world wars that killed tens of millions. The continent gave birth to fascism in Spain, Italy, and Germany, and to Communism and violent anarchism. It also saw the expansion of Europe's colonial enterprise in Africa, Asia, and the Arab World—with horrific and shameful violence  in their ultimately failed efforts to subdue the indigenous peoples who resisted subordination.

During all that time and even now, in hindsight, did we ask Christianity to reexamine itself? Did we ever suggest that this mass murderous rampage that engulfed a continent had its roots in a religion that glorified conquest and blessed oppression and racism?

And when George W. Bush told us that God called him to go to Iraq and when clergy blessed the war effort and when there has been no accountability for horrors of Abu Ghraib and torture or the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans in what can only be described as a failed war based on a lie, have Christians been called upon to reexamine the principles of our faith? 

The simple truth is that murderers and presidents, and governments and groups may use the evocative power of religious language to justify their behavior. The problem is not in the language or the religion. The problem is with those who abuse it for their evil ends.

The source of the current violence is to be found not in Islam but in the conditions that exist in the countries from which those who abuse Islam come, whether it is discrimination and humiliation, extreme deprivation and oppression, occupation, or other forms of severe dislocation that result in aberrant anti-social behavior. This doesn't absolve those who respond to such conditions with violence. But our condemnation should be precise. They are not Muslim or Christian or Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist murderers or terrorists. Rather they are murderers or terrorists who defile the language of religion in a vain effort to justify their violence.

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