Last Wednesday, I awoke to the horrible news that twelve people in Paris had lost their lives in a militant Islamist attack on the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper known for their irreverent comics about religion, which included unsavory depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Around the world, millions of people took to the streets in protest, grief, and indignation.
And why wouldn’t they? Freedom of expression, that sacred cornerstone of free, democratic societies, had been violently assaulted by an act so egregious, so unimaginably heinous, that many turned to the word “barbaric,” a word we’ll examine more closely in a moment.
Protesters hold a vigil in Paris in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, January 7, 2015
News and social media outlets responded to this tragedy at a pace that some deemed insensitive, given the cold reality of the murders. Artists around the world responded by publishing defiant, at times poignant cartoons in solidarity with the magazine, championing them as martyrs of free speech. Others asserted that the crudely blasphemous humor of the cartoons represented a right that was perhaps better off not being exercised. Still others, notably Rupert Murdoch and Richard Dawkins, contended that until peaceful Muslims “destroy the growing jihadist cancer” in their ranks, all of Islam must be held accountable for the killings.
Indeed, the idea that “all of Islam” must be held responsible for acts of terrorism; or even that Islam is a target which should be unequivocally open to ridicule is not a marginal one, but a rather mainstream view that has been espoused by Christians and atheists alike. Atheists like Dawkins, Sam Harris and Bill Maher extend this sentiment into a blanket condemnation of “all religion,” or at least religion as they identify it.
Here’s where things get sticky.
Yeni Cami (New Mosque), taken on my recent trip to Istanbul
When a contemporary atheist starts talking about religion, he is almost invariably referring to a formal institution of faith such as Christianity or Islam. He is forgetting, as the great culture theorist Walter Benjamin has asserted, that “capitalism is a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was.”
Indeed, when we consider that human beings have been “religious” longer than we’ve been fully human—there is evidence that Neanderthals engaged in burial rituals before we had even evolved the linguistic apparatus necessary for forming speech—the boundary between what constitutes “religion,” (Latin re+ligare, literally “to bind”) and what constitutes culture at large starts to get a lot fuzzier.
In a 2014 interview with Slate, religious historian Karen Armstrong reminds us that
“Every state ideology before the modern period was essentially religious. Trying to extract religion from political life would have been like trying to take the gin out of a cocktail. Things like road-building were regarded as a sort of sacred activity.”
She goes on to assert that the separation of church and state borne of the modern era has given rise to a more subtle form of religious activity, the nation-state as quasi-religious cult:
“If you regard the sacred as something for which we are willing to give our lives, in some senses the nation has replaced God, because it’s now not acceptable to die for religion, but it is admirable to die for your country.”
Jon McNaughton, “Stand Your Ground”
According to a definition used by many religious studies textbooks, “a religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems and worldviews that relate humanity to an order of existence.” Contrary to popular belief, neither gods nor magical thinking need enter the equation for a religion to qualify as such.
In a sense, we are all religious beings, in that we all operate within some worldview or narrative framework that creates a context for our experiences and gives us social cohesion with our peers. Dismissing “religion” as purely primitive superstition is dangerously reductive, because it allows us to contextualize religion as something someone else does, rather than something we’re all doing, all of the time.
Thus, it is my humble opinion that this conversation will never progress until we develop the tools to effectively critique our religions—which includes all of the built-in assumptions we hold sacred—rather than reflexively dismissing the entire category of religion out of ignorance of what it may contain.
The first step to offering a critique of Islam is to understand its context, and here’s where the cries of “racism” that have been posthumously lobbed at Charlie Hebdo’s editors come in: When it comes to Islam, issues of race and political power are always a subtext.
This is not to say that Islam is a “race” or should be taken as such, any more than it is one monolithic institution. But as Palash Ghosh noted in a lucid 2012 op-ed for the International Business Times,
“While most anthropologists and ethnologists would regard many Middle Eastern peoples as “Caucasian” (or, in the popular vernacular, “white’), Western media and the general public do not accept that notion. Instead, they seek to “exoticize” and “stigmatize” Middle Easterners (particularly Muslims) as something “foreign” and representing the “other.”
Thus, we live in a bizarre Twilight Zone world where Greeks, Armenians and Israelis are generally considered “white” (because they are Christian or Jewish), while Turks, Persians and most Arabs are considered “non-white” (because they are mostly Muslim or non-Christian). This, despite the fact that there are virtually no substantial physical differences between any of these aforementioned peoples.”
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, “Odalisque with a Slave,” 1842.
From its adoption as the state religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century CE, Christianity has been engaged in the unfortunate practice of impressing its identity on whomever it happened to come into contact with in the guise of saving the “heathens” and “barbarians”—both concepts with racist, imperialist undertones—from themselves. While the post-Christian secular mythologies may have done away with this God in theory, the idea of the West’s privileged position atop a global hierarchy of objective correctness remains thoroughly unchallenged among today’s most vocal popular atheists. (One need only read the mad, egocentric ramblings of the once-brilliant Richard Dawkins in his old age to discern that while God might be dead, fundamentalist Western exceptionalism is alive and kicking.)
Islam, on the other hand, aims to hold submission to Allah as its highest virtue. Whether this “submission” plays out as Sharia Law or Sufi ecstasy is dependent upon a whole host of other factors, however the West’s problems with racism and oppression have given Islam a unique opportunity to stand as a magnet for those oppressed at the fringes of global hegemony.
In his 1992 essay and book Jihad vs. McWorld, Benjamin R. Barber contends that the struggles that define our era are not about religion versus non-religion, but rather a political struggle between tribalism and globalization. Tribalism manifests itself as the Jihadists’s struggle to preserve an increasingly marginalized “old way of life” that is under threat of assimilation into the Great Satan, i.e. the Borg of Globalization, a battle that is perhaps as old as the mythical battle between the sons of Adam and Eve: Cain the industrialized planter and his brother, Abel the nomadic shepherd.
In America, the power of Islam to attract the economically and politically disenfranchised as an alternative to the white man’s God has manifested itself in the Nation of Islam, the black power religion that gave us Malcom X and Louis Farrakhan. To that end, I just rewatched Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic based on the Autobiography of Malcom X. I highly recommend a revisiting of Malcom X’s story for its crucial insights into the context of racial, social, and political oppression that underlies so many current events, from Ferguson to Al Qaeda.
While it’s true that some of the world’s wealthiest countries are Muslim, it is worth noting that these powerful regimes are the beneficiaries of alliances with the US and Europe. Meanwhile, more Muslims have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since the beginning of the so-called “War on Terror” than the US lost in World Wars I and II combined. The atrocities of war do not justify the moral scourge of terrorism, of course, but it is a mistake to read terrorism as purely a response to religious offense when Muslim writers like Asghar Bukhari would like for us to understand that for the Muslim world, terrorism occurs within the context of a state of war and instability cultivated and perpetuated by the West, and from which the West benefits.
In conclusion, I would like to reassert my viewpoint that while obviously no one working for Charlie Hebdo deserved to be killed for any reason, religious, political or otherwise, we must also understand the killing and oppression that is being undertaken in the Muslim world every day in our name, and condemn this killing as vociferously as we condemn the acts of terrorists. Only when we begin to unravel the global context of the lure of Islamic extremism do we stand a chance of combating its influence and ending the perpetual reign of fear.