The latest attack in the name of religion has roiled French society and once again sent shock waves throughout the Western world. The fear of a deepening clash between Western and Islamic values grows more acute with each such incident. The January 7th shootings at the offices of the French satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo, targeted the right to free speech, a cornerstone value of Western civilization. For some, the assertions of inevitable confrontation between East and West made by Samuel Huntington in his classic work, Clash of Civilizations, reflect the unfortunately reality of the post-modern world.
How can we, as Christians in a predominately Christian society in the United States, react to this latest provocation in a positive way? In a broad sense and most importantly, we must make an effort to identify and combat purposeful misinformation that portrays all Muslims in a negative light based on the actions of a small minority. This incident, like others before it, will be used by extremists on both sides of the political spectrum to advocate for an extreme response. The far right element in France, personified by Marine Le Pen, has already seized on the opportunity to paint all Muslims as somehow complicit in the actions of terrorists. Such xenophobia will only thrive if not confronted by reasonable and well-informed opinions. Extremism begets extremism and plays into the hands of the terrorists.
The first specific reaction we Christians should have to this terrorist action is to acknowledge and amplify the condemnation from Muslims the world over toward the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Muslim organizations in France and here in the United States have spoken out quite forcefully against the shootings, disavowing any relationship between the killers’ actions and Islamic values and principles. Regardless, the notion that moderate Muslims must “take back” their religion is a tired and invalid argument. Moderate Muslims should not have to feel as if they need to disavow themselves of the actions of obviously misguided criminals anymore than I felt the need to differentiate myself from the genocidal actions of, say, the Serbian Christians against Bosnian Muslims during the Bosnian War of the early 1990s.
Secondly, we must try to understand more fully the sensitivities toward depictions of Mohammed in Islam. Christianity and Judaism both have elements of rejection of representations of the divine as well so it should not be a foreign concept to us. Muslims do not believe that Mohammed was divine; however, the early followers of Mohammed did recognize the excessive reliance on icons among their contemporary Christian and Jews of the 6th and 7th centuries and warned against the propensity to worship icons in place of true divinity. Clearly and without a doubt, the actions of the terrorists in reacting to the defamation of Mohammed by Charlie Hebdo was wrong and is an assault against the Western value of free speech which should be defended vigorously. At the same time, we Christians also have the right to speak out against such disparagement and defend the sanctity of the faith of our Muslim brothers and sisters just as we would want members of other faith groups to respect the symbols of our faith.
Thirdly, we must remember that the actions of “Islamic” terrorists are indiscriminate in terms of who they target. One of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shootings was a Muslim police officer who was assigned the task of protecting those who lampooned his religion. His sacrifice has been memorialized very eloquently on Twitter under the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed. The killing of Muslims by “Islamic” terrorists should be a clear indication that their actions have nothing to do with fulfilling their twisted understanding of Islamic values. Rather it should be understood that these terrorists attach themselves to Islam in order to “legitimize” political agendas or, more simply, to feel empowered to lash out against the dissatisfaction with their own lives and direction. This is not endemic to Islam – all religions are consistently used to legitimize positions that have nothing to do with religious principles.
We, as American Christians, must acknowledge that there is a certain amount of prejudice inherent in the Western view of Islam. Prejudice is best countered with knowledge and understanding. I would encourage my Christian brothers and sisters to seek out true knowledge of the values of Islam rather than automatically assuming that these terrorists reflect true Muslim faith. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be sold a bill of goods, especially by criminals.