Charlie Hebdo and Jihad: Islam is really at war with itself; leave it alone

The killings of French cartoonists by what is assumed to be a group of violent jihadis is less an attack on freedom of expression and more an indicator of the internal conflicts within Islam. The best things the west can do is stay clear

R Jagannathan January 08, 2015 13:50:42 IST
Charlie Hebdo and Jihad: Islam is really at war with itself; leave it alone

The jihadis who assassinated 10 journalists and two policemen yesterday (7 January) at Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical publication, should be seen as symptoms of a malaise within Islam, not the malaise itself. It is right to be horrified with the killings, but it would be foolish to decide that this is the end of the world as we know it.

It is possible to make it a freedom of speech issue (which it certainly is), or a fight between fundamentalism and tolerance (which it also is), or an Islam versus Christianity issue (which has had a history from the time of the Crusades). But the reality is that Islam is at war with itself. Muslims are bitterly divided as they try to reconcile the fundaments of the faith they were born into with the reality of the modern world.

When you at war with yourself, you are likely to be a danger not only to yourself, but everybody else around you.

Charlie Hebdo and Jihad Islam is really at war with itself leave it alone

The words "I am Charlie" are spelled out with candles at a gathering in solidarity with those killed in an attack at the Paris offices of the weekly newspaper: AP

Traditionally, Islam has been at peace with itself when it was at war with the rest of the world in its conquering, expansionist phase. Islam grew in confidence and became a tolerant faith when it was winning everywhere in the decades and centuries after the Prophet's death. Over the last 500 years, it is the Christian West that has been in the ascendent and Islam has been in decline - in terms of power. This reality is burning up Muslims everywhere - whether they are fire-breathing jihadis or ordinary Muslims.

As the late Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilisations, observed: “The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilisation, whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.”

One simple example will suffice: the US and Saudi Arabia are the closest of allies, but every violent type of jihadism has originated in Saudi Arabia and its Wahabist version of Islam. The Saudis probably hate themselves for being dependent on the West and the US. This is why they produced an Osama bin Laden, who too was an American ally in the fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Evidence of this conflict is in every statement and action Muslims make or take. Forces like ISIS, al-Qaeda or Boko Haram see violent jihad as the key to solving their internal contradictions. Those who say "this is not true Islam" are also trying to reconcile the literal meanings in the Koran with the modern-day need to align improbable beliefs with science, truth and modernity.

The fact is there is no such thing as true Islam, just as there is no true Christianity or true Hinduism. Each one of us can see the same things in different ways. What is true is how you live as a human being, sometimes using elements of your faith, and at other times discarding it.

Islam and Christianity have had more problems reconciling faith and reason because they have a holy book that says this is the only truth. But no book can contain the entire truth. In fact the search for absolute truth is as pointless as the search for any kind of absolutes.

People turn to religion and holy books in their search for certainty and truth, but they are looking for something that isn’t there.

Psychiatrist Salman Akhtar, brother of our own lyricist Javed Akhtar, said it beautifully in an essay on “The six burdens of sanity” some years ago. These six burdens are: factual uncertainty (we can never have all the facts to find out the truth); conceptual complexity (our interpretation of the world can never be fully correct, which explains why we like stereotypes); moral ambiguity (right and wrong are often contextual); cultural impurity (our search for purity in race, caste, or religion is flawed, but we are unable to accept it); personal responsibility (bad things happen, and it could be our fault); and mortality (whether we like it or not, we all have to hand in the pail, and this is scary).

Religion and blind faith provide us an escape from the six burdens of sanity - or insecurities – of human beings. This escape can be benign if we merely become spiritual at a personal level; if we want certainties that include the whole world, we can become jihadis or born-agains or trishul-wielding rabble-rousers.

Over the next few decades, Islam’s battle with itself will continue to escalate till they accept the six burdens of sanity as inescapable. If Christianity sounds more benign today, it is because it concluded its war with itself some centuries ago. Church, state and modernity fought one another for centuries (the Spanish Inquisition, the protestant rebellion, etc) till they arrived at a new equilibrium between faith and reason, the spiritual and the temporal, between human and god.

The battles you see in Islam today are the beginnings of a civil war of ideas among Muslims themselves.

If this civil war is taking an us-versus-them direction (ie, Islam versus Christians, Jews or Hindus), it is because of a simple fact: it is easier to eliminate internal conflicts by defining or inventing an external enemy. Just as the West has (informally) declared Islam and enemy after Communism collapsed, Islamists are trying to invent an enemy to unify themselves. History is against them. Or else we would not have nearly 50 Muslim countries and still no single Islam.

Terrorism and violent jihad will not end till Muslims have sorted out their internal conflicts and figure out how to reconcile the literal exhortations of their faith (as encapsulated in the Koran and established traditions of the hadith) with more objective ideas of reality, as established by reason, experimentation and commonsense.

So what do we - the non-Muslim world - do while Islam plays out its violent battle with itself and the rest?

The simple answer is: get out of the way and protect yourself. But don't get into an argument with Islam.

When Muslims are arguing with themselves - whether through verbal exchanges or with guns and explosives - non-Muslims will not do any good by entering the argument. They can only hurt themselves and Muslims in the process. This is something Muslims have to sort out themselves. The rest of the world should stay ready to defend itself, and encourage positive trends in Muslim thought as and when it occurs.

In short: hands off. But one should watch what is going on in Islamic discourse closely.

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