Reacting To Charlie Hebdo — Two Extremes

Kashif Chaudhry Former Chairman, Muslim Writers Guild of America
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I had not yet gotten over the grief over the hundred kids shot dead by the Taliban in Peshawar, that I found myself mourning again. It is heartbreaking beyond words. Three gunmen stormed and shot dead 12 staff members at the weekly Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris. Apparently, this was in retaliation to the offensive cartoons of Prophet Muhammad that the newspaper published in the past.

As a Muslim youth leader and a vocal activist of Muslim reform, I have closely followed the online reaction to this tragedy. I — and my Muslim community — have condemned this act of terrorism in the loudest terms possible. Many other Muslim communities have done the same. We have made it clear that these acts of violence — and not the cartoons — are the real blasphemy against Islam. They do not represent our faith, let alone humanity.

Much has been written since the tragedy. Here, I only wish to address and respond to two extreme reactions to it.

Extremist Muslims & their sympathizers: Most Muslims condemned this tragedy without any reservations. However, I came across a few Muslims who added “ifs” and “buts” to their contempt. Such Muslims must remember that when condemning this tragedy, there must be no strings attached. No matter how demeaning the cartoon, the Islamic response to such ignorance is only to turn away in peace.  

The Koran describes the believers as those who “walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant people address them, they say: ‘Peace'” (25:63). It also commands, “And when they (believers) hear vain talk, they turn away therefrom and say,  ‘To us our deeds, and to you your deeds; peace be to you, we seek not the ignorant” (28:55).

The Koran categorically rejects the idea of anti-blasphemy laws. There is no punishment in Islam, let alone death, for insulting or offending one’s religious sentiments. This is a matter between man and God. As humans, Muslims are commanded to look the other way in peaceful self-restraint.

Prophet Muhammad’s own example is also very clear in this regard. The Meccans denied him his freedom of speech when he spoke for the rights of the disadvantaged and called for a social reform based on equality and justice in Arabia. He was mocked at when he spoke for the rights of women and slaves. His early followers were persecuted and killed. And when he was eventually forced out of Mecca after a decade of persecution, the Meccans waged repeated wars on him. They stopped at nothing to have him and his followers wiped off the surface of the earth. Even then, when he returned victorious to Mecca, Prophet Muhammad forgave all these blood-thirsty enemies, declaring universal amnesty.

There are numerous examples from his life to show his tolerance, self-restraint and forgiveness. When he was pelted with stones and almost lost consciousness in Taif, he prayed forgiveness for his oppressors. When the man who attacked his daughter — causing her miscarriage and eventual demise from her injuries — faced him after many years, Prophet Muhammad forgave him. While in exile in Medina, he forgave and offered prayers for the man who led a slander campaign against his wives. There is not a single example from Prophet Muhammad’s life when he punished someone for abusing or hurting him or his family or his faith. His faith was not so weak or insecure as to require weapons for protection.

To the few Muslims who see the killings as justifiable in any way, educate yourselves on Islam. Indeed the cartoons were in bad taste. I did not like them either. But our faith mandates that we look away in peace — not obsess in violence. Those extremist clerics who preach any punishment for blasphemy, blaspheme against the teachings of the Koran and example of Prophet Muhammad.

Extreme anti-Islam critics:

 Most non-Muslims reacted to this tragedy very responsibly. Just as #JeSuisCharlie took to social media, so did #JeSuisAhmed in commemoration of Ahmed Merabet — the French Muslim police officer killed during the attack. #RespectForMuslims also trended on twitter after a few anti-Muslim hate crimes in Paris, and in anticipation of a possible backlash against Muslims living elsewhere in the West.

However, I also witnessed some extreme reactions from certain Islamophobes, mostly the “new atheists.” While the rest of us — irrespective of faith — were mourning, some of them were busy pinning the blame of this tragedy on the faith of 1.8 billion people. While his body lay bloodied and silent, they were busy insisting that Ahmed Merabet’s killers — and not he — represented his faith. A few even openly suggested that the solution lay in ridding the world of Muslims, as was evident by the outrageous #KillAllMuslims trend on twitter. Such Islamophobia is beyond unfortunate, it is shameless.

We must remember that terrorists are terrorists and do not represent any faith, let alone the victim’s. Take a look at the Muslim world — especially Syria, Iraq and Pakistan. We must not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of victims of Al Qaeda and ISIS terrorists are Muslims. In my home country of Pakistan alone, over 50,000 have died in the last decade at the hands of the Taliban. The toll is much higher in Iraq and Syria. So if you think you will be doing something new by tweeting #KillAllMuslims, think again. This idea is neither original, nor helpful in any way.

Just as the Lord of the Resistance Army, Jewish Defense League, League of Militant Atheists etc do not represent the world’s Christians, Jews and atheists respectively; terrorists who kill in Islam’s name do not represent the world’s Muslims. Islam is only represented by the Koran and the example of the Prophet Muhammad.

To the extreme anti-Islam critics, you also need to educate yourselves on Islam. Like Ahmed, the vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving and hardworking citizens of their respective countries. Our faith forbids any violence, explicitly equating the murder of one human to that of the whole of humanity (5:32).

The only acceptable reaction to a tragedy such as #CharlieHebdo is unconditional condemnation. It is neither in justifying the act, nor in fueling more Islamophobia.