Charlotte Littlewood, Founding Director of, and coordinator of women’s projects in Palestine for, Become The Voice, PhD candidate specialising in Islamist extremism in the UK, and a former government counter-extremism coordinator
“Samuel Paty was slain for representing the secular, democratic values of the French Republic”, said French President Emmanuel Macron in response to the horrific beheading of a teacher in mid-October after the teacher shared with his class Charlie Hebdo’s images of the Prophet Muhammad as part of a course on free speech. In a sense, Macron is right. Islamist terrorist Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov did hate democracy and the murder he carried out was an attack on democracy. But that was the symptom, not the cause, of the attack. The cause was the ideology Anzorov followed, and in particular the extreme and violent anti-blasphemy belief within that. Macron is facing a global backlash for taking a direct and outspoken stance against Islamist extremism but where he is in fact falling short is in his ability to be specific and accurate and thus tackle the issue, whilst keeping the majority of non-violent French Muslims onside.
It might seem like splitting hairs to say that Anzorov did not murder Paty because he hated democracy, but instead because he subscribed to Islamism, an extreme ideology that is fundamentally incompatible with our democracy. The difference is crucial, however. Islamism understands Islam as a doctrine that prescribes a world governed by laws extrapolated from the commands given by the Prophet Mohammed, considered to be the direct commands of God. The command in question is that from Prophet demanding not to be idolised. “I am just a man”, he says. For Anzorov, the punishment for violating this command is death.
The view that depictions of Muhammad are both idolatrous and blasphemous is a widely held Muslim belief. Therefore, when Anzorov’s beliefs and reasoning are described as hating democracy, it forces many Muslims in the West, who are similarly sensitive to blasphemy, into a box wherein they are positioned as being at odds with the democratic, secular states in which they reside. This is why we must separate beliefs from actions: the belief was that depicting the Prophet Muhammad is blasphemous; the action was an attack on the democratic ideal of freedom of speech. It is obvious and yet depressing to have to make clear that Muslims can be both pro-democracy and favour free expression, whilst also taking offence to images made of their Prophet. What sets Anzorov apart and puts him at odds with democracy is his extremist belief that violent action should be taken against blasphemers.
Strategically, Macron must align himself with Muslims who do not view violent action as a legitimate response to being offended; he must not further alienate himself from this constituency. This is so even if, as is in fact the case, the non-violent majority is and will remain offended by both the satire and the French government’s response to the October atrocity and several others that have followed, notably in Nice.
There are outspoken French Muslim allies of freedom of speech. France is home to the first female-led liberal mosque. Imam Kahina Bahloul has written on the caricatures of Muhammed. She exhorts her congregation to understand that drawing the Prophet Muhammed cannot harm him, but can of course cause his followers hurt. She calls for Muslims to meet mockery with thanksgiving and gratitude and abhor extreme reactions:
To file a complaint against the cartoons or even against insults, what some call “blasphemy”, to get angry, to bang your fist on the table or even worse … to kill the designer or the one who uses such drawings … does this correspond with the message of the Qur’an and the teaching of the Prophet? Obviously: NO!
Violent responses to blasphemy cannot be easily framed as a minority issue globally and this is where reducing Anzorov’s reasoning to a hate of democracy distracts from identifying the real issue, thus limiting the ability to tackle it. Globally we see a difficult trend: sixty-nine countries have blasphemy laws, and penalties have hardened in parts of the world in recent years, with six countries having the death penalty. Death threats and killings for acts of blasphemy are not a new phenomenon. In response to the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie in the late 1980s, bookstores were bombed, translators and publishers killed, and Rushdie still lives under a death threat after the clerical government in Iran issued a fatwa calling for his murder. More recently, a Pakistani woman, Asia Bibi, facing the death penalty for blasphemy, sought asylum in the United Kingdom. Bibi was reportedly rejected for fear that her asylum would cause civil unrest on the streets of the UK. Heretics, religious minorities, and those that critique Islam are all at risk, both globally and in the West from a violent anti-blasphemy ideology.
The UK should have made a strong stance for secularism and against dangerous anti-blasphemy thinking by giving Asia Bibi asylum. This opportunity was shamefully lost. Whilst the UK cowered in asserting their values, Islamist leaders worldwide make no hesitation in asserting their extremist ideals. Turkey’s ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan understood the statements made by Macron opposing Islamism as Western countries attacking Islam and wanting to “re-launch the Crusades”. In Pakistan, “death to France” has been chanted in response to the recent re-publishing of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, with Prime Minister Imran Khan saying that Macron had made an attack on Islam. Portraying Macron’s stance against Islamism as a stand against Islam in this way is dangerously wrong and is being twisted into accusations of racism against the French state, further fuelling hate and division. Macron is right to take a strong position against Islamism and to assert democratic values, but he must follow this up with a nuanced, accurate assessment of the ideology and a careful plan for how to tackle it.
In tackling Islamism directly, Austria may provide some inspiration. In 2015, Austria passed a law that regulates the relationship between the Austrian state and the Muslim community: the text inter alia forbade foreign funding of Islamic institutions. Austria also introduced a law that banned the symbols of the largest Islamist organisation on the European Continent, the Muslim Brotherhood, and began procedures to shut down several extremist mosques, expelled various imams, and created a permanent Observatory on Political Islam. This is where other European countries fail. As an example, in the UK there are organisations heavily involved in promoting anti-blasphemy action—such as Khatme Nubawaat and Dawat-e-Islami—which exist as registered charities. Islamist hate preachers come on UK on tours and call for the death of blasphemers and praise those who commit murder, and the Home Office always seems to be a step slow, something it has come under heavy criticism for.
Unless Macron marries his bold stance against Islamist extremism with an accurate observation of the ideology, he will lose broad French Muslim support, the sine qua non of a successful strategy to tackle the problem. By reducing the Islamist killer’s reason to a hatred of our democracy, he alienates those Muslims who are legitimately offended but in no way violent, and builds a narrative that presents things as a stark binary in a way that helps Islamists. The real work is to tackle the extreme anti-blasphemy ideology, which sees murder as a legitimate response to speech and writing, an ideology that is unfortunately dangerously prevalent and gaining ground in Europe.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.