Don't Restart Europe's Wars of Religion

The continent can't afford a clash of civilizations.

The reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks exposed divisions as well as unity.

Photographer: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

On Jan. 7, the day jihadists attacked the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in France, I was in a small village in Anatolia, Turkey. I had barely registered the horrifying news when a friend forwarded me a tweet from New York Times columnist Roger Cohen. "The entire free world," it read, "should respond, ruthlessly."


For a few seconds I was pulled back into the Cold War when Turkey, a NATO member, was technically part of the "free world." Even back then the category was porous: Ronald Reagan included in it the jihadists fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan.  

The words seem more anachronistic a quarter century later. Our complex and often bewildering political landscape is only superficially similar to the world we knew then. Devout Anatolian masses rising from poverty have transformed Turkey politically and economically. I did not dare show Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons to the local villagers who pass my house several times every day en route to the mosque next door, let alone argue that the magazine had the right to publish them.

There is no disagreement, except from fanatics, about the viciousness of the murderers, and the need to bring their associates to justice. But the aftermath of the attacks revealed strikingly different ways of looking at the broader issues around them: Our views on free speech, secularism, and the nature of religious hurt turn out to be shaped by particular historical and socioeconomic circumstances.

Many Muslim schoolchildren on France reportedly refused to observe the minute-long silent observance for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks mandated by French authorities. Not just Muslims, but also Pope Francis and even 42 percent of the French surveyed after the attacks were critical of the cartoons depicting the Prophet in degrading positions.

On the other hand, anti-immigrant ideologues have managed to resurrect the "clash of civilizations" discourse. Politicians have spoken alarmingly of war -- even, in Nicolas Sarkozy words, a "war of civilizations," as though the mayhem of the "global war on terror" hadn’t spread to enough places yet.

The most strident voices in this debate are those accusing the other side of double standards. Muslims have been charged with being hypersensitive to mere cartoons but callous about the violence of the fundamentalists in their midst. Other critics have contrasted the unprecedented nature of Western solidarity for Charlie Hebdo with public apathy about the much more numerous victims in the non-West of jihadist extremism as well as of Western violence. They have also pointed to how the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which in 2005 originally published cartoons depicting the Prophet, refused to print cartoons about Jesus for fear of offending Danish Christians.

One way of avoiding this impasse of accusation and counter-accusation is to acknowledge that many of our standards of assessment derive from different experiences and community traditions. Though there are laws against blasphemy and insult to religion in many European countries, France has institutionalized its anti-clerical past by proscribing religion from public life. For Muslims, the Prophet is not a distant figure of authority, in the way the revered icons of Christianity are for Protestants. He is an exemplary figure, whose life is worthy of emulation in the smallest detail. Hence, many Muslims perceive any mockery of him as an unconscionable assault on their faith and identity.

Another way of avoiding clichéd and sterile polemic is to admit is that standards in public life are often unavoidably dual, even multiple. We are hardly consistent in individual, let alone collective life, as any honest examination of our motives and actions would reveal. And private and public incompatibilities are bound to rise when we are citizens of nation-states with their own cultures and laws while living at the same time in the enlarged arena of the globalized world.

I see some of these frictions in my own self. The part of me shaped by American and European thought cannot abandon the basic legacy of the Enlightenment -- the expulsion of the theocratic from the political realm, and the inviolability of individual rights. At the same time, I realize that Europe has to find a modus vivendi with the people it once dominated with its cultural as well as military power -- people who now make their own special claim to dignity, equality, and freedom from insult and calumny. 

Many such fault lines now run through the heart of the so-called free world, and that’s where the preachers of jihad lurk. The advocates of retaliatory wars will continue to assume a much simpler reality with their hoary oppositions: religious and secular, backward and enlightened, free and unfree. But if we are to admit how deeply and irrevocably interconnected our world is, then we must find new ways to break the cycle of counter-productive violence.

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