The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris

Benjamin P. Marcus, special advisor to The Foundation for Religious Literacy, reflects on the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters on 7 January 2015, which left 12 people and 11 others injured, sparking rallies around the world.

However, if we analyze recent events through the lens of religiously literacy, we must take seriously the religious self-identification of these terrorists, asking how and why they find motivation and justification for these attacks in a specific interpretation of Islam (espoused by leaders such as Anwar al-Awlaki). In the process, we must carefully avoid on the one hand characterizing Islam as a religion of violence in an inevitable clash with the “West” and on the other hand labeling Islam a religion of peace, thereby refusing to recognize as Muslims those who commit violence in the name of Islam.

We must recognize that Islam, like all religions, is not a monolith. Though many news outlets have highlighted public expressions of support for the Charlie Hebdo attacks by some Muslims, they have routinely failed to show that far more Muslims have condemned the massacre. They have also failed to point out that Muslims around France in particular and Europe in general have already begun to experience the negative fallout of these attacks as Islamophobes step up their verbal and physical assault on European Muslims. We should be encouraged, though, to see #VoyageAvecMoi and #JeSuisAhmed trending on Twitter as non-Muslims show support for their French-Muslim neighbors.

The more popular hashtag, #JeSuisCharlie, demonstrates solidarity not with Muslims but with the satirists at Charlie Hebdo who were murdered for their cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and a number of news outlets have reprinted Charlie Hebdo cartoons as a show of support. Terrorists must learn that free speech cannot and will not be silenced by intimidation. However, the public also has a duty to recognize that these cartoons are xenophobic and Islamophobic, and they must ask what end these cartoons serve. To be clear, the measure of the strength of free speech is the willingness to protect even speech which citizens may find abhorrent. That said, the public should acknowledge that while satirists like those at Charlie Hebdo have the right to print their cartoons, these cartoons should be recognized as, at the very least, highly offensive to an already disadvantaged minority religious community.

The minority, disadvantaged status of European Muslims is evident given that major news media outlets routinely associate Muslims, and Muslims alone, with terrorism. This alienates Muslims from their non-Muslims neighbors, creating greater distrust within religiously diverse communities. For example, arsonists set fire to three Swedish mosques the week before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, seeking to terrorize Swedish Muslims through violence. Make no mistake: these attacks were acts of terrorism in “defense” of a Christian Sweden considered “under attack” by Muslim refugees from the crisis in Syria and Iraq. However, news media neither referred to these as terrorist attacks nor demanded that Christian Swedes denounce these attacks in the name of Christianity. The general reluctance to label this a terrorist attack betrays an insidious Islamophobia that equates Islam only with terror. It is the privilege of a majority community (ex. Christian Europeans) that members do not have to publicly dissociate themselves from the violent actions of a fringe minority (ex. those who bombed Swedish mosques).

Picture of Benjamin P. Marcus

Benjamin P. Marcus

Special Advisor to The Foundation for Religious Literacy

Marcus earned an MTS with a concentration in Religion, Ethics, and Politics as a Presidential Scholar at Harvard Divinity School. He studied religion at the University of Cambridge and Brown University, where he graduated magna cum laude.