“But What Was France Wearing?” Victim-Blaming and Religious Terrorism

As Europe is still reeling from the Islamic extremist attacks that recently took place in France, authoritarian leaders like Erdogan of Turkey and Imran Khan of Pakistan have both blamed France itself for these attacks. The argument they put forward, and which many in the West have actually accepted, is that this violence is the result of a supposed French (if not European) “islamophobia”, as well as  of the “radical secularism” of France. Under that narrative, it’s not religion that is to blame for these attacks, nor is it the conflict between liberal values and theocracy, but the social grievances of the Muslim community. While this narrative might make some in the woke crowd feel better about themselves, as it fits within the self-hatred of their ideology, it deliberately ignores the threat of religious extremism, and promotes a racist stereotype against Muslim communities.

Though the Quran does not have any explicit prohibition against images of Mohammed, there are several hadiths (additional religious texts that are said to contain Mohammed’s teachings) that do have such prohibitions. Although religious Muslims themselves will debate over the exact meaning of the hadiths (or even which ones are considered to be real and holy) the fact remains that there are millions of Muslims around the world who do indeed believe that any image of Mohammed is forbidden. In addition to that, disrespecting Mohammed is considered a serious form of blasphemy for Muslims, and there are many who see it as punishable by death. Because of this, the Mohammed cartoons published by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo (and which were recently re-published in their September edition) have been suggested as the “blasphemy” that the terrorists were seeking to punish.

September 2020 edition of Charlie Hebdo, celebrating the trial of some of the people involved in the 2015 mass murder of the magazine’s staff

Of course, Islam is not the only religion that has a horrendous track record when it comes to blasphemy and heresy. Christianity, Judaism, and even modern-day cults like Scientology, all have some sort of punishment meant to deal with those who go against the faith. Even if we were to put aside the many Bible verses that, in both the new and the old testament, promote murder, rape, slavery, and genocide, we only need to look at the history of the Inquisition to see the disgusting manner in which the Judeochristian faith has acted.

Engraving depicting the burning of Anne Askew (and others) for heresy

Despite the fact that, as argued by Christopher Hitchens, all religions are versions of the same untruth, the way in which modern Western society analyzes their crimes is not so homogeneous. While the media (as it should) is often happy to lament the crimes committed in the name of Christianity and Judaism, not to mention the ones committed in the name of obscure sects and cults, there is some reluctance to do that when the crimes are committed in the name of Islam. In that case, even while the bodies are still warm, we hear about how these individuals are not “real” Muslims, or how focusing on the religious nature of their crimes will increase xenophobia and empower the far right.

Undeniably, many of the people trying to defend Islam in this way have good intentions. They see how immigrant communities are “otherized” when these crimes are committed, and how portraying Islam negatively can indeed lead to isolating Muslims even more. Some are also concerned about the possibility that a crackdown on Islamic extremism might lead to violating the civil liberties of all Muslims, in the same way that they were violated in the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. These are all valid concerns, and should not be dismissed as mere apologias of terrorism. Muslims should indeed be able to practice their faith in peace, and free from harassment from the authorities. The fight against terrorism cannot be used as an excuse to isolate and mistreat these communities.

The above notwithstanding, a very nefarious argument has been put forward, however, positing that France itself is responsible for these attacks, while Islam is completely innnocent. In an Op-Ed in Politico, for example, Professor Farhad Khosrokhavar argued that these attack are the result of “France’s extreme form of secularism and its embrace of blasphemy”; similarly, in Al-Jazeera, French sociologist Ali Saad argued that Islamophobia is to blame for this terrorism, adding that “there is no empirical evidence to suggest that religion is a primary motivator for violent extremism” since “radicalisation is a social phenomenon”. Apparently, the fact that the beheadings were committed following a religious mandate against blasphemy, or that the culprits yelled “God is Great” while murdering innocent civilians, was not deemed religious enough.

Pakistani protesters demand de death of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy (she was later acquitted, and she fled the country) Photo: ASIF HASSAN

As an immigrant in Europe, albeit not a Muslim one, I have to take offense at the racism and condescension that is inherent to the argument that blames secularism for the terror. What it boils down to is the idea that there are certain characteristics that are unique and inherent to immigrants from developing nations, and which require Europeans to lower the bar. It’s a condescending understanding of immigration, which in this cases imagines immigrant Muslims as noble savages who only do bad things due to being overwhelmed or pushed by this secular society.

What these victim-blaming arguments do is to endorse the racist idea that Muslims cannot be real members of western society, because they are just so different that they can’t possibly adapt to Enlightenment values. It judges them all based on the actions of the most extreme members of their communities, ignoring the vast majority that does not engage in violence. It also validate the actions of the extremists, confirming that there is something so uniquely vile about cartoons that offend Islam, that we should not be surprised if French people get decapitated when they are published. It infantilizes Muslims in a way that seems to suggest that, unlike Jews or Christians, they can never modernize their faith, or renounce the most extreme rules of their scriptures. They are trapped in obscurantism, and it would be racist to want them to change.

Caricature by Carlos Latuff blaming Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons for the terrorism

Besides how racist it is to assume this inability of immigrant Muslim communities to adapt to Enlightenment values, the attacks against France (for tolerating blasphemy) also act as a defense of Islam and, most importantly, Islamic fundamentalism. First, they do so by pretending that the Muslim religion does not contain the kind of murderous exhortations in its scriptures that, like Judaism and Christianity, it most certainly contains. Second, they exempt Islam from being judged for the excesses of its followers, failing to admit the well-documented link between religious superstition and violence (“Any one who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices”, as Voltaire argued).

Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, it fails to explain how it is that most victims of Islamic extremism are in Muslim-majority nations, and are often Muslims themselves. Recently, a man was lynched and burned in Bangladesh over blasphemy; in Pakistan, just a few weeks ago, a Christian man was released after six years on death row after being sentenced to death for blasphemy;  in Nigeria, back in August, a Muslim man was sentenced to death, also for blasphemy, because of a song he circulated over Whatsapp. It is hard to see how Islamophobia, or European secularism, are to blame for these and thousands of other cases in the Muslim world.

Demonstrators calling for the death of Nadeem James, a Pakistani Christian sentenced to death for allegedly sending a blasphemous Whatsapp message

To their credit, the French government has responded to these attacks by closing ranks in favor of freedom of speech. Though there is some hypocrisy here (France does not actually respect freedom of speech, and regularly uses criminal law, as well as anti-terrorist laws, against people with unpopular or offensive views) it is good that, at least in this occasion, the French government has decided to stand for the civil liberties of its people. Other Western governments haven’t done so, however. The Canadian Prime Minister, for example, shamefully and cowardly stated that freedom of speech has limits, since we should not “arbitrarily or unnecessarily injure” other people’s feelings with our speech. He seems to have forgotten that the only type of speech worth protecting is the kind of speech that is hurtful, offensive, and perhaps even frightening. Things that offend nobody, and which are accepted by everyone, do not need protection.

Although many of these attacks against French secularism come from a non-Muslim sector of the liberal left, if their calls were obeyed the result would be a de-facto Islamic France. After all, in their zeal against “Islamophobia,” they seek to elevate this religion above all other mythologies. While the faithful of all other religions must simply accept that they cannot respond to blasphemy with violence, Islam would be protected in such a way that its religious rules against blasphemy would even bind those of us who are not Muslims. All of us would be trapped under the chains of superstition.

In The Antichrist, Nietzsche argued that a quick walk through a madhouse shows that faith doesn’t prove anything. Belief, no matter how strong, is worthless as a source of evidence. And although it is understandable, and maybe even desirable, that some of us choose to be courteous to the beliefs of others, we can never surrender the right to call such beliefs into question, or even to mock them. No superstition is worth a single human life, and we should never accept any argument where mere faith is used to take away our rights. Protecting the feelings of those who want to hurt us simply isn’t worth that price.

J Salmeron
J Salmeron
Lawyer. Civil Libertarian. Published photographer and writer. Passionate about Free Speech, IP, and Heavy Metal. Guilty of thought crimes.

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2 years ago

Thank you, J. I couldn’t agree more with your viewpoint.
Just one thing to add. In my experience (western Europe, conversations with secularists aged 45-60), lukewarm reactions to the French upholding of secularism are also of this kind. Many, often those with 1970-80s political violence still in their minds, are just generally wary of escalating matters; often accept to retreat a bit more and see out the last part of their lives quietly. Those with a few more decades to live (I’m 30), however, can’t afford avoiding all confrontation, as you also pointed out.

1 year ago
Reply to  J Salmeron

It’s a vast and fascinating topic. We can include in this politically-motivated violence in Germany and Italy, which peaked in 1976-79 but had episodes until 1989. What the three countries had in common was violent actions by left- and right-wing factions, triggered by reasons often related to foreign and economic policy, but also by other, never fully disclosed players. France, already the stage of crossfire attacks between armed middle-eastern organizations, saw clandestine paramilitary groups as well as violent anarchists bomb public places and assassinate a few officials and industrialists. In Germany, even more leading figures in state and industry were… Read more »

1 year ago
Reply to  J Salmeron

More to the point, I see the link between the increased danger (or perception thereof) and lukewarm attitude because the facts crudely summarized in my reply were largely carried out in the name of deep ideological beliefs, whether or not it was the work of deception. If you look into a few of these vintage terror episodes you’ll be amazed by the number of causes calling for action. But why did they call for violent action? The problem was, I think, that 1970s violent movements could clad themselves in the new, sometimes overheated wave of political participation. The former were… Read more »

1 year ago

It actually depends on how, when, and where one lies, but lying can be illegal if your words hurt either individuals (e.g., through fraud) or society at large. This could include “yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” (or pulling the fire alarm in said theater as an artistic stunt), some hoaxes, selling miracle medical pills as a cure for diseases without testing to make sure the claims are legit, or telling you what’s in them, or telling investors in your company that you can double their money in under a month, as long as they keep recruiting more investors. Writing… Read more »

1 year ago

And before I forget, some more – you’re a lawyer so i’m sure it will be of interest: “Hate speech” refers to inflammatory statements made directly or indirectly towards a group based on said group’s race, skin colour, religion, beliefs, background, mental health, physical ability, social class, sexual orientation, gender and so forth that may incite violence or encourage discrimination. It is generally nonsensical. Due to power dynamics in many multicultural societies, most hate-speech laws aim to protect historically-persecuted people from groups with power. Some research has examined the link between the prevalence of hate speech and the extensiveness of… Read more »

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