Charlie Hebdo: Beyond Secular Ideology

The Charlie Hebdo incident and the subsequent discussion around terrorism has to be understood from the perspective of those who are spearheading it, writes Ali Harfouch. 

The US Secretary of State John Kerry remarked that last Wednesday’s attack were an attack against “freedom” and insisted that the battle was not one between two civilizations but between the “civilized and the uncivilized”.

Similar statements were made elsewhere. The regurgitation of a seemingly inescapable colonial discourse is complemented by demands that Muslims, globally, march in denunciation of the attacks.

It goes without saying that apologists paid heed and were quick to embrace reactionary discourses involving short-sighted self-condemnation.

The events in France and the reactions to those events ought-to be understood in a more critical fashion.

Freedom of speech/expression

Freedom is not an absolute and/or uncontested idea. In fact, freedom has paradoxically become a pretext for subordination.

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There is no neutral political entity i.e. there is no body-politic which transcends ideological/normative commitments, biases, and political interests. In turn the boundaries of “freedom” are intrinsically arbitrary and fundamentally determined by ideology and political interests.

In France, this ideology is known as laicism – an exclusionary and hostile mode-of-secularism which was historically constituted and defined through a negative representation of the “Islamic other”.

In other words, not only is the delineation of “freedom” in France defined by an exclusionary secular ideology but more importantly an ideology which is inherently anti-Islamic.

An almost obnoxiously manifest example of this arbitrariness is the French ban on the veil in its public schools. The veil is seen as representing the non-secular i.e. the anti-modern. Yet, satirical and derogatory drawings of the Prophet Muhammad (saw), and Muslims are viewed not only acceptable, but pristine and commendable examples of the freedom of expression.

As Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood have pointed out, these contradictions are not anomalies but rather they represent the paradoxical and arbitrary nature of secularism. It is time that Muslims begin to explicate these paradoxes and critically engage secular ideology.

Adopting Western values and abandoning Islamic values

For decades, political observers in the West have condemned the Muslim world for clinging on to “archaic” and “pre-modern” identities – Islam. Modernity requires that we identify with the nation-state and the universal values of the West.

If we speak, well at least when we are allowed to speak, we must speak as Egyptians, Pakistanis, Syrians and so forth. Identifying with Islam is a thing of the pre-modern past. We must now speak from within the identity structures created by Sykes-Picot and the benevolent West. More importantly, one cannot speak in the name of Islam because there are “multiple Islams” (unless your Islam conforms to the strategic interests of the West).

However, this demand is not entirely consistent. When a Muslim carries out an act of violence, the Muslim world in its entirety is expected to denounce those acts of violence both as Muslims and in the name of Islam.

You can speak as Muslims only when we ask you to do so – otherwise, remain silent. This exception only applies to Muslims. One does not recall any demands being made for the people of France to march in denunciation of the French government’s military incursions in Mali or Libya.

Ironically, France played a fundamental role in the creation of the very same politic-economic and ideological landscape, which produced the rampant violence we are witnessing today.

Yet, no global demands for denunciation are heard. The reason is simple; violence is only “terrorism” (and thus must be denounced) if it carried out from within a structure.

Beyond the Apologetic Discourse

Muslims must respond to global events but they must do so without falling into reactionary tropes and secular narratives.

This will require a critical engagement with the ostensibly “neutral” ideologies and their discourses.

Furthermore, it will also require that we are more strategic in the ways we employ politically-charged and ideologically-laden terms of “terrorism” and “extremism”.

Containing violence will require a more inclusive, political and realistic response by the Muslim community. One which addresses the legitimate concerns of Muslim youth.

Ali Harfouch is a political activist and commentator based in Beirut, Lebanon.


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