“Allah Akbar!” was the cry from two gunmen, armed with Kalashnikovs, who burst into the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, opening fire and killing 12 people.
It’s widely suspected that brothers Said (34) and Cherif (32) Kouachi, both French nationals, were acting to ‘avenge the prophet Muhammad’ after his image was depicted in satirical cartoons published in the magazine.
The incident has been described as France’s worst terrorist attack in 50 years.
We are all too familiar with the narrative that follows atrocities of this nature: anger about the damaging effects of poor immigration policy, calls for ‘moderate’ Muslims to condemn the actions, followed by #NotinMyName social media campaigns (‘Je suis Charlie’ in this case), designed to clarify that the perpetrators were not in fact acting in the name of ‘true’ Islam.
If I sound a little weary, it’s because I am.Like all of us, I’m heartbroken by Wednesday’s events. But it was with an even greater sadness that I realised I wasn’t at all surprised to hear of yet another act of Islamist terrorism. I believe it will be some time yet before we hear of the last.
I am not religious myself, but I do come from a Muslim background. I know how widely beliefs and values can differ within the same family. And I have first-hand experience of how difficult it can be to express criticism, or opposing viewpoints, to those who are conservative in their outlook. Especially when they are close relatives.
It’s this feeling that, many agree, has led to the identity crisis currently occurring within Islam. There is much disagreement among Muslims themselves about which is the true interpretation to follow.
Of course the actions of radical sects are unacceptable by any moral code that values basic human rights – and it’s important to understand that the majority of Muslims find them as abhorrent as the rest of us. But, despite the rejection of such extremists as ‘true’ Muslims, I believe it’s important to accept that there are some hardcore, right-wing sects of Islam that do adhere to literal interpretations of the Q’uran.
Acts of terrorism, preceded by cries of ‘Allah Akbar’ (God is greatest), are now being carried out by a growing body of religious fundamentalists, who are successfully claiming their version of ‘Muslim’ as the only true definition of the term.
Having personally endured, within my own family, the abuse that is so often justified in the name of Islam, I am continually frustrated to see this replicated at an international level and denied as being an issue within moderate religious groups.
By acknowledging this, I am emphatically not dismissing the equally worrying issue of anti-Muslim bigotry. I’m just as committed to fighting that as I am to combating terrorism.
But a religion is defined by its followers. They are the ones who interpret scripture and incorporate it into everyday practice. So it’s vital, should that religion be ‘hijacked’ in any way, that the majority at least discusses the problem.
Shaaz Mahboob, Trustee of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, is calling for reform within Islam.
He told me: “Muslims must start actually thinking about their religion in order to counter the narrative of extremist ideology. As things stand, Muslims are not supposed to even consider the morality of Islamic scripture – it just isn’t questioned. How can you begin to change things when you’re not even allowed to question them?”
Mahboob goes further and states that Muslims and non-Muslims alike, who know of terrorist activity occurring in their communities and families, have a duty to report to the police. Failure to do so, he adds, is a “betrayal of trust”.
Because when it comes to tackling fundamentalism, the personal is political. A 47-year-old Muslim woman, Gina Khan, who works as a researcher and activist, has taken the step of reporting members of her own family suspected of terrorist activity. She told me: “I reported a relative involved in a group who think they are the religious police over Muslims in Birmingham, halting behavior that they think is un-Islamic.
“One group stopped dancing and music. Although there may be a backlash as a result of reporting family who are pro-Taliban or ISIS, we are just guilty if we maintain a silence and allow them to normalize aggressive jihadism.
Of course, no individual in a democratic society should be punished for simply practicing their faith. But the gunmen involved in the Paris shooting (or those involved in incidents in Sydney, Boston, Woolwich and so on) are not interested living according to the principles of democracy while doing so.
Their actions threaten the basic freedoms that form the bedrock of our society. Muslims in the West are protected by these principles and would otherwise have been branded as heretics, historically. Yet calls to curb extremist ideology that seeks to impose decidedly non-democratic rule here are met with accusations of racism.
I am, in no way, placing the burden of responsibility for such atrocities as that which occurred in Paris yesterday on the shoulders of peaceful, law-abiding Muslims. However, there are issues they must address within their communities.
But the job isn’t theirs alone.
I’m glad to see development of detailed efforts in this country at government and local authority level to address extremism. There are clear procedures in place for reporting terrorist activity and the level of detail outlined in the UK government’s Prevent strategy highlights the scale of effort required to tackle this growing problem.
I believe that more can be done at an international level in terms of imposing sanctions on countries that do not adhere to basic human rights – those who permit stoning a woman to death if she is found to have had sex outside of marriage, for example, or the cutting of hands in cases of theft. And that’s without even touching on the horror visited upon those in the LGBT community.
But I believe that without the same level of effort from the religious communities directly affected by extremism, we are treating the symptoms and not the cause of an ideology that is permeating our society. Unless meaningful, practical action is taken to wrest control of their faith from murderers, people will likely continue to die.
As arrests are made in the hunt for the gunmen responsible for yesterday’s horrific attack, one thing is very clear: free speech – and the freedom to speak out against extremist, non-democratic behaviour, whether in the press or your community – is our most precious resource and must be protected at all costs.
The Muslim community must step up to the plate, along with everyone else.
“I wouldn’t think twice about reporting family again.”