Are we witnessing a harbinger of a religious war? Is it the beginning of a new violent era that may not spare any nation? What is that radicalism wants to achieve by committing such acts? Why is this happening? And is there a solution? These are few questions that appear in the daily debates and articles in the aftermath of the Paris events. It is crucial to investigate the backgrounds of this state of affairs, particularly from a Middle Eastern and Muslim perspective, in order to provide sound analysis and practical prognosis.
On the whole, the direct or at least the known reason for the Paris attacks (which claimed the lives of Christians, Jews and Muslims) was the mocking of the Prophet Muhammad in caricatures published by French Weekly Charlie Hebdo. These caricatures, among other similar acts, provoked millions of Muslims who instantaneously demonstrated and denounced these acts.
Is it a ‘war’ between Islamism and the West? A simple answer: NO. The Muslim community in Europe and worldwide condemned the Paris attacks. This position was clearly reflected in the statement given by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davuoglu who opposed all forms of violence, yet condemning any contempt or insult directed to the Prophet Muhammad that would be “dagger-like inculcated” in Muslims’ hearts.” Other similar positions followed suit, especially with the weekly Charlie Hebdo decision to reprint cartoons of Prophet Mohammed. Qatar, for instance, saw in this act “fueling hatred and anger.”
It is true that the violent backlash and the crime that was committed as a response on published cartoons was unacceptable and strongly condemned, yet the whole incident brings the issue of freedom of speech into a second level of discussion. For Pope Francis, there are limits to free speech. Commenting on the said caricatures, Pope Francis said “Religious freedom and freedom of expression are fundamental human rights. But they are also not total liberties. “There is a limit,” he said, “Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person.” Thus, it is crucial to have clear boundaries of freedom of expression and speech and to set equal treatment so that not to grant freedom of speech on specific issues and to punish the perpetrator in other cases.
Despite unfortunate human losses, the only party who benefited from this incident was the magazine itself. In few hours, the magazine gained unprecedented popularity across the whole world and a lot of support and probably funds from sympathizers poured on the weekly magazine which was able to extend its limited print from 60,000 to 5 million copies after the first run sold out in hours.
Nonetheless, the whole matter goes beyond freedom of speech and the Paris incident itself as the issue of radicalism can’t be taken down shorthand to that level. Few months ago a terrorist attack struck Canada’s capital, just two days after another attack by a man who ran down a Canadian soldier. Many other similar terrorist attacks took place across the globe, including Muslim and Middle Eastern countries. It could be difficult to assess the motives of the Jihadists themselves in carrying out their attacks; as each Jihadist has his own beliefs, psychology and conditions. However, one may underscore a confluence of various factors that facilitated the emergence of the Jihadist phenomenon that eased in return the ability of radical organizations in recruiting more Jihadists.
The first factor is the absence of one religious reference. Until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, Muslims had one reference- the Sultan. The Sultan- who was known for his wisdom, piety and knowledge- was the sole reference point for ordering the life for Muslims. With the collapse of the Empire in 1923, this reference was lost and Islamic forces tried to seek rejuvenating the Islamic state. The first effort was known as the Muslim Brotherhood, established in 1928, followed by hundreds of groups, movements and parties. Each movement had its own understanding and explanation of Islam and the term “Jihad” that led, in many cases, to austere interpretations of the religion.
The second factor that played a crucial role in the emergence of these groups and facilitated recruiting an increasing number of jihadists is the wrong practices of the West, particularly the United States. In this regard, former French Prime Minister Dominique De Villepin has said that he holds Western foreign policy responsible for the multiplication of terrorism hotspots around the world, considering that ISIS is the “deformed child” of this policy. De Villepin finds Western foreign policy arrogant and erratic, urging Europe and the United States to learn from previous experiences.
Similarly, in an interview with Newsmax TV, former US congressman Ron Paul argues that Jihadists or radicals exist in every religion and they don’t attack the West because of its freedom and prosperity. He contends that those who commit terrorist attacks come from countries that the U.S. occupied where tens of thousands were killed. Paul also remarks that on the day when the Paris attacks claimed the lives of 17 people, US bombs killed 50 people “civilians” in Syria, but excluded from the daily reports.
Another example is the killing of 17 journalists- among other 2143 Palestinians- during Israel’s last aggression of the Gaza Strip, without receiving the minimum attention when the four journalists were killed in Paris few weeks ago. As a result, the feeling of inequality mounts day after day and incident after incident leading to more frustration and discontent.
A third factor can be the widespread of economic problems and profound political and social grievances in Arab and Muslim societies, associated with frustration and disbelief in regimes, regarded as westernized. With the Arab Spring fever, this has poured, with no doubt, in favor of other forces: Islamists; who were previously deprived of their rights, expelled and even executed by their own regimes.
In nutshell, one should concede that a sole military or security action would not solve the issue of radicalism. A comprehensive plan that treats social, media, political and cultural aspects and backgrounds would eventually lead to a better future.