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Civilisational politics threatens everyone’s freedoms, not just Muslims’

January 1, 2016 at 8:00 am

The anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo murders offers an opportunity to reflect on what has been a turbulent year, especially in France but elsewhere too. Personally speaking, such reflections are tinged by surrealism because on the morning of 7 January 2015 I was suffering from flu and had a temperature of 41 degrees. The launch of my book on Islam and freedom of speech controversies was scheduled for the following Monday, and that synchronicity seemed at the time to be too outrageous to be true. Drifting in and out of feverish sleep, I could not tell whether what I was hearing on my bedside radio was real or merely in my imagination.

During the rest of the year, I had plenty of opportunity to discuss those events at various debates and discussions, on the radio and TV, at literary festivals and in print. At no point was the assumption that the attack on Charlie Hebdo represented an attack on freedom of speech and hence “western values” interrogated seriously.

The underlying assumption is that “they” – people like the Kouachi brothers and other Islamist terrorists – hate “freedom”, which is a Western value that is alien to “them”. Some are careful to stress that “they” does not include all Muslims, but only a tiny minority of extremists; others are less scrupulous. However, whether nuanced or not, the assumption rests on a syllogism that a) freedom is a Western value; b) “they” hate the West; ergo c) “they” hate freedom.

The problem is that these terrorists don’t believe the West to be free. As any cursory examination of the ideological parameters of Islamism will reveal, its proponents believe that the West is indeed not free but in a state of jahiliyya. This term has traditionally been translated as “ignorance”, which in turn is linked strongly to kuffar, or “unbelievers”. Although there are other ways to translate jahiliyya that offer a profoundly different way of conceptualising and relating to non-Muslims, the customary translation is particularly hospitable to Islamists because it corresponds to their simple apprehension of the world in crude binary terms.

The point is that “unbelievers” are in a state of bondage not freedom. Jahiliyya enslaves them. From this perspective, then, it makes no sense to suggest that Islamist terrorists are attacking the West because they “hate freedom”. Rather, it is clear that they attack in the name of freedom. Sayyid Qutb’s ideological innovation, so crucial to all forms of contemporary takfiri (declaring Muslims to be non-Muslims) jihadism such as that practised by Daesh, was to extend the sphere of jahiliyya to encompass other Muslims and interpretations of Islam of which the terrorists do not approve. This absolves them of the heinous sin of stirring intra-Muslim discord or fitna, which is handy, I guess, if you believe that you are fighting for the kingdom of heaven.

When Islamist terrorists trained or inspired by Daesh attack “the West” they do so not because they hate its values or despise its culture, but because of the brute political fact that the existence of “unbelief” is a testimony to the incomplete realisation of their political vision, namely the global extension of the Dar al-Islam (House of Islam) as they define it. The idiom of “Western imperialism” that they use to underline this vision is, all at once, a description of reality, a justification of their claim to be waging a war of “liberation” and a symptom of this incompleteness. Their call to jihad is a call for completion, to institute their imagined realm and freedom and justice in secular time.

To that extent, Andrew Neil’s celebrated rant on The Daily Politics in the wake of the November Paris atrocities reveals the redundancy of the kinds of “values-talk” and “civilisation-speak” that are customarily, even ritualistically, mobilised after terrorist attacks such as these. Balancing the glittering achievements of French culture – Balzac, Zola, Monet etc. – against those espoused by Daesh and its like on the imaginary scales of civilisational achievement probably made him and many other people feel better momentarily, but the cold fact is that Daesh and its supporters don’t give Balzac, Zola, Monet and the rest of French culture a moment’s thought (with the possible exception of the French proclivity for wine).

Likewise, the Kouachi brothers probably didn’t give two hoots about freedom of speech. Of course, we can never know precisely why they chose to attack the offices of Charlie Hebdo, but it seems to me much more likely that they did so in direct response to that magazine’s high-profile provocations rather than to make a deeper philosophical-cum-political point about freedom of speech. Put simply, Charlie Hebdo was attacked because of the ways in which it used its right to free speech not because of freedom of speech per se. Had the magazine exercised that right in a different way it probably would not have been attacked, although someone or something else surely would have been, a point underscored by the attack on the Jewish supermarket later that day, and the multiple and apparently randomly selected Parisian targets in November.

While it is true that not all shades of Islamist jihadism are as implacably hostile to any form of political settlement as Daesh – hence the rather strange emphasis within Daesh ideology on political eschatology, the “end of days” narrative that is, in fact, common to many religious fundamentalisms across the world (for example, the Left Behind movement within US Christian fundamentalism) – the present leadership does indeed seem to be attached strongly to a “victory or death” scenario that, paradoxically, is both rooted in an underlying political fact – the contest for supremacy – and is utterly indifferent to politics, insofar as that can be defined as the pragmatic assessment of what is possible within the balance of power.

With that in mind, it is too simplistic to say that French interventionism in the politics of the Middle East, especially the government’s early and willing contribution to air strikes against Daesh targets in both Syria and Iraq, was directly responsible for the terrorist reprisals in Paris. It is perhaps more accurate to suggest that French foreign policy aided and abetted the shift in Daesh tactics that led to those atrocities.

The wider point, though, is that when, in response to terrorist attacks, Western politicians and media resort to “values-talk” they not only misrepresent the motivations behind specific outrages by deploying abstract terms – such as “freedom” – that are extremely mobile and shift according to perspective, but they also obscure the material conditions underlying the political problem behind an illusory mirage of “civilisation-speak” because “values-talk” is a way of articulating, covertly, a “clash of civilisations” rhetoric without appearing to do so.

However, in doing this, these politicians subscribe unwittingly to the same political calculus as Daesh. The implacable logic of such civilisational politics leads inevitably to “total victory”; there is no room for containment or détente because as long as the “other” exists the threat persists. Hence, the extension of the British government’s counter-extremism strategy to encompass “non-violent extremism”, itself defined as consisting of ideas and beliefs that are incompatible with British “values”.

There is more than a risk that such an extension will bring under suspicion not just those who espouse and express “non-violent extremist ideology” but also “conservative” and “orthodox” Muslim beliefs and practices; potentially any Muslim belief or practice that does not conform to a prescribed form of permissible religiosity as dictated by the state. The British government will never admit it, but this extension of the counter-extremism strategy is a way of policing thought and expression beyond direct incitement and expressions of racial or religious hatred. Apparently, we are told to believe, the threat to “freedom” (of speech, of religion) posed by this kind of approach is not something to worry about; but we should. We all should, and not just those of us in the Muslim community.

Anshuman Mondal is Professor of English and Postcolonial Studies, specialising in post-colonial studies, at Brunel University, London. He is the author of Nationalism and Post-Colonial Identity: Culture and Ideology in India and Egypt (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), Amitav Ghosh (Manchester University Press, 2007), and Young British Muslim Voices, an account of his journey across the UK talking to young Muslims. His latest book is Islam and Controversy: The Politics of Free Speech after Rushdie (Palgrave, 2014).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.