Today, there was an attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, resulting in twelve deaths at time of writing, including two police officers. There were a further eleven wounded, four of whom are currently in serious condition.
Events are still developing, but at the moment this has the hallmarks of an Islamist extremist atrocity, perpetrated due to the magazine’s repeated cartoon portrayals of Muhammad, the Islamic prophet - an act which is proscribed by the hadith (prophetic tradition) of aniconism, which forbids depictions of sentient living beings. Creating images of Muhammad is particularly deplored, since in the Muslim view it could lead to worship of the prophet himself, rather than God. The Quran condemns idolatry, and it’s a relatively straightforward path of thinking to then normalise aniconism as a whole.
I’m not a Muslim, nor am I religious at all, so I find the concept arbitrary, ridiculous, and vaguely sad - as with so much of religious practice. But my beliefs in that regard have never led to anyone’s death.
Whenever an act of terror like this takes place, similar reactions occur. Since the perpetrators are invariably non-white, and of a religion other than the most common ones practiced by the white, developed world, righteous condemnation falls on the entire body of followers of that religion - and even their most common races as a whole.
It’s been repeatedly observed that an Islamic extremist is held to represent all Muslims in the Western media, and indeed a black criminal is held to represent all people of that ethnicity, but a white murderer is strictly an individual, with no generalisations to be made. Such is the ingrained racism in much of white-dominated culture.
That’s what we do: we other the perpetrators of these acts. It’s a natural reaction, and up to a point it’s even psychologically healthy - we must distance our own identities from what we’ve witnessed, because we can’t accept that there’s any circumstance in which we could become such a person. As usual, we then take it too far, by making our sweeping judgements, and allowing fear and suspicion to make us victimise others with only coincidental attributes in common.
Islam isn’t the problem. Religion isn’t even the problem. The problem is that, as ever, there’s a section of humanity who are extremists.
It’s a funny word, “extremist”. It means someone with extreme views, but then the word extreme itself means something like being at the furthest point, or the maximum level. It’s that part of the scale where the marker has nowhere else to go, or where the number can’t get any bigger - but it’s still on the scale.
The funny thing is that, for most of us, extremism actually isn’t on any scale that we can identify with. There’s no connecting road between here and there. It’s not just unacceptable and unconscionable; it’s unimaginable.
The unimaginable is what took place in Paris today, and in London in July 2005, and in New York City in September 2001.
Because if it’s just extremism, then what’s it’s the extreme counterpart of? Writing a letter of complaint to Charlie Hebdo’s editor? No, of course not. The two types of human behaviour aren’t on the same spectrum.
Extremists act beyond reason, but there’s another category of people who are markedly different, but usually filed under the same category: the inciters. Those who radicalise, to use the fashionable term. You usually won’t find them holding the rifles, or strapping on the vests, or driving the car - but they’ve shaped the beliefs of those who do.
There will always be disenfranchised people. There will always be people who are prone to violence. There will always be people who are damaged in a way we can’t yet fix, within whom there’s the perfect storm of anger, amorality, irrationality, and a profound disconnection from those they would target.
Some of those people are guided towards committing atrocities, by others whose agendas are murkier. A little more charismatic, a little less inclined towards potential martyrdom. The guides, hidden carefully away, are the ones that frighten me. They’re from the same group who make the edicts, and scurry away while clutching satellite phones. They’re the holders of the chains of junkyard dogs, and they’re the real threat.
But they can’t win unless we let them. Acts of terror can’t withstand the spotlight of human indignation, and attempts to suppress the principles on which we believe a free society is founded - freedom of speech particularly - only reawaken our appreciation of how important those principles are.
How far this is from me, we think, in disbelief. And how far it must stay.
The legacy of any affront to a society’s values is how that society responds. The most robust and fitting response is not to build walls or to persecute due to fear, but to be unchanged.
If freedom of expression is the extremist’s anathema, then our duty couldn’t be more clear.
We must remain free.