(Source: Ishtiaq Ahmed & Atul Singh, Fair Observer, October 27 2020)

In France, Samuel Paty was beheaded on October 16 near Paris. He was a history teacher who had shown caricatures of Prophet Muhammad to his students in a lesson on freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.

Paty’s killer, Abdullakh Anzorov, is an 18-year-old of Chechen origin. He arrived in France at the age of 6 as a refugee and was granted asylum. In an audio message in Russian, Anzorov claimed to have “avenged the prophet” whom Paty had portrayed “in an insulting way.” Before he was murdered, Paty was the victim of an online hate campaign orchestrated by the father of a student who reportedly might not even have been in the class.

As Agnès Poirier wrote in The Guardian, since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, the French seem to be “living [their] lives between terrorist assaults.”

Since then, she writes, “Islamists in France have targeted and murdered journalists, cartoonists, policemen and women, soldiers, Jews, young people at a concert, football fans, families at a Bastille Day fireworks show, an 86-year-old priest celebrating mass in his little Normandy church, tourists at a Christmas market… the list goes on.”

Yet Paty’s killing has touched a chord. Arguably, no country venerates its history teachers more than France. After defeat against Prince Otto von Bismarck’s Prussia in 1870, the Third Republic emerged. In the 1880s, it took away education from the Catholic Church, making it free, mandatory and secular. Poirier observes that the “peaceful infantry of teachers” has since “been the bedrock of the French republic.”

She poignantly points out that the first generations of teachers were nicknamed “the Black Hussars of the Republic” because they had to battle the local priest for influence. Thanks to these teachers, as per Poirier, “religion was eventually relegated to the spiritual realm.”

More than others, history teachers are the keepers of the revolutionary and republican flame, exposing young minds to Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot et al and emancipating their thinking.

French President Emmanuel Macron called the brutal beheading an “Islamist terrorist attack.” At a ceremony at Sorbonne University, he conferred the Légion d’honneur on Paty. Macron awarded France’s highest honor posthumously to the late history teacher because he died for trying to explain freedom of speech.

Macron has since defended the right of French citizens to publish anything, howsoever offensive others might find that to be. Earlier this month, he claimed, “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today, we are not just seeing this in our country.” His comments enraged many Muslims inside and outside France.

Paty’s killing has shaken France to the core. After more than a century, religion is back to the forefront in the country. This time, it is not Catholicism but Islam.

A history of blood and gore

At the heart of the matter is a simple question: Does Islam lead to violence and terrorism? Many Islamic scholars and political analysts argue in the negative. After all, the Catholic Church burned Giordano Bruno and launched the Inquisition. Jews fled Spain to find refuge in Ottoman lands. These authors take the contrarian view that Islam can only be a religion of peace after it conquers the world and establishes a supremacy of sharia.

Writing about Islam’s links to violence and terrorism is sensitive and controversial. There are nuances to be sure. However, most scholars know fully well that Islam has a just war theory. It rests on the assumption that justice would not be served unless the will of Allah is established all over the world. As per this theory, non-believers in Islam have three choices.

First, they can convert to Islam and become part of the umma, the global community of Muslims who recognize there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his final messenger. Second, they can refuse to submit to Allah, but they must then flee their homes or face the sword. Third, they can surrender to Muslims and pay jizya, a poll tax for non-Muslims in a state run according to Islamic principles.

Both Sunnis and Shias prize jihad, which denotes both personal struggle and just war. Both Sunnis and Shias believe that jihad is the duty of an Islamic state, should certain conditions arise. There is little daylight between Sunnis and Shias on their ideas of jihad against non-believers.

Many Muslim jurists considered the non-acceptance of Islam by non-Muslims an act of aggression that had to be countered through jihad. Like Christianity, Islam lays claim to universality and jihad is its version of a crusade.

Arguably, the most interesting reform of Islamic law occurred when Arabs conquered Sindh in the eighth century. For the first time, Islam encountered Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. A puritanical Abrahamic faith encountered much older spiritual traditions of the Indus and Gangetic river basins. These pagan polytheists were not covered by the Quran. Its verses recognized Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and the imprecisely defined Sabians. These religions are based on divine revelations and came to be known as Ahl al-Kitab, the People of the Book.

The Indo-Gangetic spiritual traditions were clearly not the People of the Book. When Muhammad bin Qasim conquered Sindh, he approached the then-caliph in Damascus for how to deal with Indian polytheists.

The fuqaha (Islamic jurists) and the ulema (clergy) in Damascus ruled that these new religions ultimately believed in the very same god as Muslims and the People of the Book. Therefore, through the exercise of qiyas — analogical reasoning as applied to the deduction of Islamic juridical principles — these non-Muslim Sindhis were to be treated as protected minorities if they paid the jizya.

As waves of Muslim invaders came to the Indian subcontinent, conversion took place both through peaceful and violent means.

Lower-caste Hindus turned to Islam because it offered a greater sense of community, charity for the poor and egalitarianism. Yet violence was par for the course too. Idols were smashed, temples desecrated and local communities slaughtered.

Muslims who claim that theirs is a religion of peace could do well to remember that even the golden age of Islam is full of blood.

The first three caliphs were assassinated. Ali ibn Abi Talib and Khalid ibn al-Walid were brave generals who led aggressive armies and did not hesitate to spill blood.

The Battle of Karbala exemplifies the violence that has accompanied Islam from its early days. In 680, Umayyad Caliph Yazid I’s troops massacred the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph. For Shias, it remains an annual holy day of public mourning. This was a bloodthirsty struggle for succession and has led to a Shia-Sunni divide that runs deep to this day.

The Umayyad Empire’s extravagance and decadence led to a successful Abbasid rebellion in 750. The victors invited over 80 Umayyad family members to a grand feast on the pretext of reconciliation. In reality, this feat was the infamous Banquet of Blood in which the Umayyads were killed in cold blood. Abd al-Rahman I was the only Umayyad who escaped, and he fled all the way to Spain to set up the kingdom of al-Andalus.

Violence in modern times

Over time, Arab rule became benign.

There is a strong argument to be made that Muslim rule was more tolerant than Christian rule in many matters.

Minorities who paid jizya carried on with their business and way of life. The Ottomans, the Safavids and the Mughals governed multi-ethnic empires even as Europe imploded into religious wars.

Once Europe took to technological, industrial and military innovation, the rest of the world fell under its sway. Tottering Muslim empires were no exception. This defeat still rankles among many Muslims. Many have turned inward and hark back to a glory period of Islamic dominance. They dream of the days when Muslim armies swept all before them, including Jerusalem in 1187 or Constantinople in 1453.

After World War II, European colonial rule has been replaced by American economic domination. Oil was discovered in key parts of the Muslim world, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, it was Western companies that took much of the profits. Till today, the price of oil is denominated in dollars.

The formation and domination of Israel in the Middle East added to this Muslim angst. In 1979, a millenarian revolution succeeded in Iran. In the same year, militants seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca, and it took two weeks of pitched battles for Saudi forces to regain control. The militants might have lost, but Saudi Arabia emulated Iran in hardening sharia and giving more power to the ulema.

In Iran, the new regime killed thousands who did not agree with it. They included liberals and leftists. Led by hardline clerics, the Iranian regime liquidated the minority Bahai sect in Iran. It set out to export its Islamic revolution. In response, the Saudis began to export their own puritanical Wahhabi Islam. Saudi money poured all the way from Indonesia and India to Bosnia and Chechnya.

This took place at the height of the Cold War. This was a time when the West in general and Washington in particular were terrified of the Soviet Union. The fear of communism led Americans to intervene in Iran, Vietnam and elsewhere. They made a Faustian pact with militant Islam.

The CIA worked with god-fearing Islamists to fight godless communists. These Islamists went on to become a trusty sword arm for the US against the communist menace of the Soviet Union. Nowhere was this best exemplified than the jihad Americans funded in Afghanistan against the Soviets. As is hilariously captured in Charlie Wilson’s War, the Saudis matched the Americans dollar for dollar.

Eventually, the Soviet Union fell and the West won. As nationalism, socialism and pan-Arabism stood discredited, the battle-hardened jihadis stood ready to take their place. Conservative, fundamentalist, extreme and radical Islamists soon found their spot in the sun. The Molotov cocktail of violence and terrorism spread throughout Muslim societies. Disgruntled young Muslim men in the West found this cocktail particularly irresistible. In the post-9/11 world, there is a mountain of literature that chronicles all this and more.

American action after the attacks on September 11, 2001, have strengthened rather than weakened this culture of violence and terrorism.

George W. Bush’s war on terror has proved an unmitigated disaster. In 2003, the Americans unleashed chaos in Iraq by dismantling the Baathist regime and leaving nothing in its place. A Shia-Sunni civil war followed.

Iran became a touch too powerful in Iraq. Sunnis who had been dominant during the Baathist era under Saddam Hussein were left leaderless and felt marginalized. In the aftermath, the Islamic State emerged in the vacuum.

Syria imploded as well and the Sykes-Picot construct collapsed. The Islamic State’s messianic message of violence and terrorism not only garnered local support, but it also drew in recruits from Europe, South Asia and elsewhere.

Eventually, Syria, Iran and Russia allied together even as the UK and the US collaborated quietly to crush the Islamic State. They were able to destroy it militarily, but radical Islamist ideology lives on.

It is the same ideology that powered the Iranian Revolution, the Afghan jihad and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. Now, it is inspiring Anzorovs to behead Patys.

A clash of cultures

In the aftermath of Paty’s beheading, France and Turkey have fallen out.

Macron has championed freedom of expression, which includes the liberty of publishing cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. Like many of his countrymen, Macron sees freedom of expression as an essential part of France’s secular values. Laïcité, the French version of secularism, is enshrined in the very first article of the constitution. It declares, “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic.” Macron has pledged to “to defend secular values and fight radical Islam.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan takes objection to Macron’s position. He believes that there must be limits to freedom of expression.

With millions of Muslims in France and over a billion around the world, the French should desist from insulting Prophet Muhammad. Erdogan sees Macron as having a problem with Islam and Muslims. In a speech, the Turkish leader declared, “Macron needs treatment on a mental level.” In response, France has said Erdogan’s comments are unacceptable and recalled its ambassador to Turkey.

A new kind of Islamism has now entered the scene. Unlike clerics in Iran or royals in Saudi Arabia, Erdogan is a democratically elected leader. Ironically, he rose to power in Turkey thanks to the country’s growing democratization, which in turn was fueled by its quest to join the European Union. In Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular Turkey, the Islamist Erdogan seized power and brought in a very different vision for the future.

Erdogan jettisoned Ataturk’s Europeanization of Turkey. Instead, he decided to become the popular, democratic voice for Islam.

He has championed causes like Palestine, Kashmir and Xinjiang that resonate with Muslims worldwide. Even as the Turkish economy stumbles, Erdogan is taking on Macron as a defender of Islam. Erdogan gains inspiration from the Ottoman Empire. Until a century ago, the Ottoman sultan was also the caliph, the spiritual leader of the Sunni world. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi’s first mass movement in 1919 demanded the restoration of the Ottoman caliphate.

President Erdogan wants to bring back Ottoman cultural glory to Turkey. One by one, he is smashing up the symbols of secular Turkey. A few years ago, Erdogan built a 1,000-room white palace on 50 acres of Ataturk Forest Farm, breaking environmental codes and contravening court orders. On July 10, 2020, he reversed the 1934 decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a museum. Now, this architectural marvel is a mosque again.

France is a land of joie de vivre, which favors bikinis over burkinis. Laïcité emerged after a bitter struggle with the Catholic Church, is central to the republic and is an article of faith.

In contrast, Turkey is rolling back Ataturk’s version of laïcité. Erdogan is striving to emerge as the popular Islamic leader who takes on the West, India and even China. He has thus thrown the gauntlet to Macron.

Erdogan has geopolitical reasons to rile Macron. Turkey and France are on opposing sides in Libya’s civil war as well as the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. France has deployed jets and frigates to counter Turkish oil and gas exploration in disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean. Now, the two countries are squaring off on religion.

The Turkish president is not alone in criticizing Macron. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has also accused Macron of “attacking Islam.” Erdogan is urging a boycott of French goods. Many others in the Muslim world are also calling for such a boycott. Some shops in Kuwait, Jordan and Qatar have already removed French products. Protests have broken out in Libya, Syria and Gaza.

Secularism vs. faith

Erdogan’s actions and the support they have garnered raise uncomfortable questions.

In the Westphalian system of nation-states, what right does he have to tell Macron how to run his country? More importantly, his rhetoric raises a key question about the world. Who decides what is offensive?

Can a popularly elected leader of a former imperial power speak up for co-religionists to another former imperial power or anyone else? If so, are we seeing a drift toward Samuel Huntington’s famous proposition about a clash of civilizations?

This question assumes importance in the light of the past. When Spanish conquistadores took over Latin America, they did not just rape, torture and kill. They killed the local gods and ensured the triumph of the Christian one.

In “Things Fall Apart,” the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe chronicles how Christianity went hand in hand with colonization in Africa. In India, Muslim invaders sacked temples. In Iran, Safavids destroyed Sunni mosques and converted them into Shia ones. In recent years, many have seen secularism as a way out of this maze of centuries-old religious conflict.

Intellectually, secularism is the legacy of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It involves the shrinking of religion from the public to the private sphere. After all, religious wars tore apart Europe for more than a century and a half. Today, France is thankfully not ruled according to l’ancien regime’s dictum of “un roi, une foi, une loi” (one king, one faith, one law). Unlike Huguenots, Muslims have not been subjected to St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

Laïcité may not be perfect, but it is much better than the alternative.

Unfortunately, Muslim societies have failed to embrace secularism. From Indonesia and Pakistan to Iran and Turkey, there is a disturbing intolerance afoot.

Of course, the West fanned the flames, but now this conflagration inspired by religion is singeing societies, states and even the international order.

Earlier this year, the Islamic State group massacred Sikhs in Kabul. By September, most of the Hindus and Sikhs had left Afghanistan. It is important to note that these communities had lived in Afghanistan for centuries and even stayed on during the heydays of the Taliban.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of American-style capitalism to provide prosperity or opportunity, people are turning again to religion.

On October 22, a Polish court banned almost all abortions. In Eastern Europe and Russia, the influence of the church has been increasing. Even benign Buddhists have turned malign and are targeting minorities in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

Yet the scale of what is going on in the Muslim world is different. There are tectonic shifts underway from Islamabad to Istanbul that are disturbing. Minorities are fleeing Muslim countries and radical Islamists like Anzorov are taking to the sword.

Does Macron have a point? Is Islam truly in crisis?

This article was originally published on Fair Observer.

More articles on Novena on religious extremism:

Cardinal Sarah fans flames of Islamophobia after attack in Nice basilica leaves three dead

Religious leaders proclaim: “The time has come to boldly dream anew that peace is possible, that a world without war is not utopian” (full text)

Grand Imam of Al-Azhar condemns “sinful criminal act” of beheading of teacher in Paris

Francis clamours: “We need peace! More peace! Enough of swords, weapons, violence and war!”

Pope pleads for peace: “Love alone extinguishes hatred, love alone triumphs over injustice, love alone makes room for others”

Think radical Islamists are the only ones to perpetrate sacred violence? Christians and secularists do it too