The Charlie Hebdo Tipping Point

Introduction – established frameworks of Islam

The twin terror attacks in Paris last week sent shock-waves through western capitals. Heads of government, members of parliament and pundits took to the airwaves in order to frame the conversation about the nature of the problem and policy recommendations going forward.

As with other acts of violence committed by Muslim terrorists, the media and political narratives generally fell into two categories. The first, advanced by intellectuals and activists on the political left, is that Islam is either 1) not inherently violent and so cannot be a source of inspiration for the terrorist attackers (i.e., the “Islam has been hijacked” concept) or 2) no less extreme than other religions, which also have their extremists. According to this paradigm, political extremism rather than the religion of Islam is the problem and any response should tackle so-called “roots of extremism” which include, among other things, poor long-term socioeconomic prospects and cultural alienation. All movements across the political left spectrum more or less embrace this framework, with the primary difference being the extent to which Islam is discounted as a factor for the violence (i.e., the mainstream emphasizes either Islam’s allegedly peaceful nature or extremists in other groups whereas the far-left discounts Islam altogether). The second, adopted by many on the political right, is either that Islam is 1) an inherently violent religion used by determined radicals as a cover to commit atrocities (i.e., the “radical Islam” paradigm) or 2) an ideological movement akin to 19th or 20th century secular movements bent on revolutionary expansion (i.e., the “political Islam” paradigm). While acknowledging Islam’s central role in explaining extremist violence and devaluing the factors important to the political left, analysts on the right nevertheless consider Islam in almost strictly religious terms. Aspects of the faith which seamlessly crossover  into everyday life, particularly adherence to Islamic law, are still viewed as part and parcel of a religious tradition akin to the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage.

Flawed frameworks – Islam as a “way of life”

The conceptual frameworks of both the western right and left regarding Islam suffer from one significant, overlapping deficiency – both characterize Islam as strictly a collection of customs and traditions (i.e., only a religion, which the right feels obligated to respect and the left to discount) instead of a way of life which can be understood in both clerical and secular terms; this is also the case with the erroneous conception of Judaism as a religion, discounting how Halakhah (Jewish law) governs almost every aspect of an adherent’s life beyond divine worship. In other words, Islam is both a system of beliefs about the supernatural and, with assumptions regarding those beliefs as a foundation, a set of rules for practical living in the real world governing everything from marriage and divorce to inheritance and political organization.

To interact with Islam as simply a religion (i.e., without any practical components which can be understood in secular terms) is to simultaneously show contempt for Muslims and paint oneself into an unnecessary, and dangerous, analytic corner. The left is guilty of contempt by its general negation of religion as a source of inspiration for political action in a secular world. Muslims, in other words, who happen to commit violent acts against other Muslims or non-Muslims cannot be singularly or primarily motivated by a simple system of beliefs sourced from the supernatural, but must instead be reacting to things everyone can understand (e.g., the aforementioned socioeconomic factors). The right, out of religious deference, either attempts to portray Islam as not a religion at all or a violent religion which some particularly bad actors abuse for their purposes.  Just as it is incoherent (and unproven) to argue that Islam has absolutely nothing to do with the actions of Muslim terrorists (i.e., regardless of what the terrorists themselves repeat ad nauseam, they are actually mindless children or objects guided by something else), it is also wrong to claim that to literally interpret specific rules or prescriptions inherent to Islam as a way of life is to be a “radical Islamist” (or a “political Islamist” if employing the strictly ideological lens). If one accepts that Islam is a way of life rather than a religion, the term “radical Islam” becomes functionally equivalent to “radical radicalism” and “political Islam”  to “political politicism.”

New framework – Islamic literalism

What should be used in place of the established frameworks surrounding Islam which do not work? The answer lies in recognizing Islam’s hybrid spiritual-secular nature and concentrating on the red lines where the former begins to encroach on the latter (i.e., where adherents cross over in their observance and interpretation from the strictly clerical to areas in direct conflict with non-Islamic or secular laws and practices). This means one must distinguish between different levels of interpretation of Islam, ranging from the literal (i.e., acceptance of Islam as the singular guide to living supreme to all others in every sphere) to the wholly spiritual (i.e., Islam is part of a person’s cultural heritage and its clerical rights are worthy of observance, but daily life remains governed by secular or non-Islamic laws and/or norms).

Consequently, if one is to be honest about what Islam actually is and not show contempt for its adherents, Muslim terrorism should be reclassified as a form of Islamic literalism as far as the motivations of individual terrorists and terror groups are concerned. These groups refuse to keep Islam in the mosque, but wish to take it onto the street as a religio-political alternative to the secular or non-Islamic reality under which they must otherwise live or alongside which they are forced to coexist. If Islamic literalism is to be confronted as a religious problem, western commanders, political leaders and scholars will be waging a struggle with one hand tied behind their backs – attacking a religion as a religion is, for practical purposes, impossible as a general matter (nor is it necessary and proper). Rather, the West must target the specifically non-religious components of Islam – those Islamic laws and norms which undermine the non-Islamic consensus or status quo. Just as Hasidic Jews have not and should not be allowed to declare neighborhoods they inhabit in Brooklyn, New York areas exclusively subject to Jewish law, neither should Islamic literalists be permitted to supplant the democratic and consensus laws of France, Sweden, Britain and other western states with Islamic law. A heterogeneous nation-state (i.e., a state which embodies the culture, aspirations and norms of a single nation – broadly defined) which permits inconsistent laws and allows a patchwork of de facto statelets to emerge within its own borders ceases to functionally remain a nation-state.

Confronting Islamic literalism – between two extremes

How should Islamic literalism be confronted? For that, we can find a morally acceptable and effective middle ground between two extremes rooted in recent European practice about dealing with incompatible ideas or fifth column populations – in this case, Islamic laws and norms which unacceptably clash with western, secular laws and norms and the Islamic literalists (clerics and adherents) who aggressively seek to destroy the red line which separates the religious and non-religious components of Islam.

One extreme would entail indiscriminate, mass expulsions of Muslim communities from, among other places, swathes of central and western Europe. The precedent is the transfer of ethnic Germans from what was once German East Prussia, Silesia and the Sudetenland from late 1944 through 1950 (still a taboo subject in World War II historiography) by the Poles and Czechs, a policy formally blessed and regulated by the Allies as part of the Final Act of the Potsdam Conference in July, 1945. Beginning with so-called “wild expulsions” following liberation by Soviet forces, between 12 and 14 million people were expelled, often given as little as a half hour to pack what they could carry. The Poles and Czechs, viewing their ethnic German neighbors as a fifth column who collaborated with the Nazis and gave Hitler a pretext to invade, were determined not to allow the tragedies of 1939 to befall them again.

A second extreme would involve state-sanctioned secularism to a level where Muslims would be compelled to abandon all connection with Islam. This was the approach taken by successive Soviet governments (through the mid-1980s) and yielded surprising results in the majority Muslim states of Central Asia and the Caucasus. In the case of Azerbaijan, Islam was so undermined by the state that only 10% of Azerbaijanis practiced it in any form by the mid-1960s. After independence, Islamic revival did not result in an explosion of Islamic literalism, but cultural awareness in the context of a secular republic where less than 8% of the population (as late as 2013) support the implementation of Islamic law. As a professor in Baku once noted, “among Muslim nations, Azerbaijanis are the ones who take religious ceremonies and fasting the least seriously. Men with long beards, and covered women are still unusual in Azerbaijan.” The Azerbaijanis, having absorbed decades of Soviet secularism, were almost immune to Islamic literalism when it finally had an opportunity to gain traction and instead viewed Islam as little more than a part of the nation’s cultural heritage and source of spiritual significance.

Neither of the aforementioned extremes could, or should, be implemented by any democratic, western society grounded in principles of individual liberty and dignity. Mass expulsions of whole Muslim communities (a dream of some on the far-right fringe) would be morally abhorrent, anti-constitutional and in violation of binding international human rights law – nor is it necessary to deal specifically with Islamic literalism. Similarly, no western country, even one as publicly and culturally secular as France, would ever adopt a policy regarding religion which would 1) compel one or all religious groups to abandon their adherence wholesale or 2) micromanage all aspects of religious manifestation. Instead, policymakers should find a sensible and moral middle-ground, which requires a singular focus on those components of Islam which directly clash with the non-Islamic consensus. Western states should not tolerate so-called “no-go” zones and microstates on their territory de facto governed by Islamic law in place of secular law. They should also shutter those mosques which can properly be classified as political headquarters rather than strictly religious institutions (i.e., centers of Islamic literalism) and expel only those clerics and adherents who insist upon not keeping Islam confined to its benign and strictly religious elements. Policymakers should review and overhaul immigration policies regarding majority Muslim countries or officially Islamic states in order to restore balance and responsibly determine who should be allowed to settle in western countries. In short, the West is struggling against Islamic literalism rather than Islam per se (a way of life with benign and hostile components). Although difficult, a suite of policies centered on the supremacy of national law and norms, cultural cohesion and targeted expulsion of those who insist on transformation rather than integration can simultaneously address the exigent problem and allow civilized societies to live with themselves.