If one were to examine all the arguments about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, one can broadly classify them into two types: those that hold up ‘free speech’ as a cardinal virtue of the West and something that the Western liberal democracies will not compromise. Indeed, Charlie Hebdo released its cover with the Prophet Muhammad on Wednesday January 14th. The liberal position was summed up in a comment by Ahmed Aboutaleb, the Muslim Mayor of Rotterdam, who, in no uncertain terms asked those who do not agree with the West’s definition of freedom of speech to “Fuck off”.
Those, on the other hand, point out, with quite a lot of sincerity that freedom of speech does come with responsibility. And in times such as these, we need more caution, lest the world go into an unending spiral of problems. So, are these two positions ‘conceptually incommensurable’ to use a phrase by Alisdair MacIntyre. In this short piece, I want to argue that what we are witnessing in the discourse of ‘Islam’, is more about the ‘reification’ of Islam, and our attempting at putting a fixed meaning to this way of life/ civilization. I suggest that we need to look at Islam contextually and in historic terms, placing our understanding of it, in the milieu in which we find it, instead of looking for an ‘essential spirit’ of the religion.
While the first position of liberalism argues for following a tradition of modern notion of secularism, that is not fully shared by many Muslims, the second position posits a greater call for empathy and understanding. While the modern notions negate all tradition, they do forget that this modernity is also part of a long ‘tradition’. Let’s remember that John Locke, John Stuart Mill and Voltaire’s writings are also part of a ‘tradition’ that is being imitated and followed by millions. So, to argue that somehow the West represents a break away from tradition while the ‘Muslim world’ is steeped in it is also not right. Those arguing against the cartoons also point out that there is a certain element of hypocrisy involved, as a cartoonist was sacked by Charlie Hebdo in 2009 for drawing anti-semitic cartoons. This argument suddenly appears to be less about ‘freedom’, and more about ‘what types of freedoms’ and against whom they are used. So, are we in the dangerous area of moral relativism? Perhaps.
There is another way to look at the problem – to confine the problem of ‘Islam in France’ to France and argue that it is an issue with immigration and the ensuing resentment among some Muslims, who get radicalized. Indeed, with the claim by Al Qaeda of Yemen that they carried out the attacks, it is clear who did it. But it is still not clear why these particular youth carried it out and what their logic was. So, the onus shifts now on the ‘global Ummah’ to address this problem. The question to really ask is: Is it logically and ethically right to lay this problem at the doorstep of ‘Islam’? A related concern that arises is how this ‘Islam’ impacts the ‘Muslims’. Scholars have shown that there is a vast gap between belief and practice among all faith denominations. Despite the vast divergence in beliefs, ways of living between the Yemeni and French Muslims, they are clubbed together as ‘Muslims’, united by faith. While the belief system may in some cursory ways be the same, there are vast divergences in how Muslims carry on with their lives.
As MacIntyre reminds us in After Virtue (2007) the nature of what early thinkers meant by a concept has changed over time. Which means that what was ‘freedom’ to Voltaire need not necessarily work today. For instance, his anti-semitism was ok by his day and age, but not today. Similarly, as Talal Asad has written about Secularism and its hegemonic nature, one must be cautious when one speaks of sweeping notions and broad brush-strokes, that are often clear only in our own heads, but not in the real world out there. In his seminal work Formations of the Secular (2003), Asad carries out a close examination of secularism and argues that it cannot be simply understood as a totally ‘rational’ successor of religion. As there are multiple ‘modernities’ such as in Britain, France or Germany, each with its own relation of power between the Church and state, so is the case among Muslims, around the world and their understanding of their relation with the state. Moreover, the concept of the secular evolved in the West under certain relations of power, a history of bloody wars in European history and the Westphalian framework. To project this understanding onto the ‘Muslim world’ is a fallacy that has been argued by many scholars. It is for this reason too that we may not expect a ‘reform’ of Islam. There has not been and perhaps will never be an Islamic ‘Church’, and hence the relations of power between the subject and religious community will be varied, depending on how the community is organized.
A key point that MacIntyre makes is important to our discussion of contemporary Muslim societies. The almost a-historical treatment of moral ideals and ethics. MacIntyre argues that we treat the moral philosophies of Kant, Hume and Plato as if they were our contemporaries, without realizing that they lived in a different era. Similarly, we cannot treat the treatises of Al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyah and Ibn Arabi as if they lived in 21st century. Most Muslim scholars are aware of this and the various schools of jurisprudence allow for this factor to be incorporated, when they pass legal injunctions or fatwas. But Western scholarship of Islam usually ignores this basic fact of a historical interpretation of ideas and moral values. He argues at length that ‘emotivism’, the idea that moral statements only express value statements is an empirical thesis. By this, he means that it should be coupled with historical, biographical and other sociological observations before passing any judgment. It could prove to be useful in a ‘certain stage of moral development or decline, a stage which our own culture entered early in the present century.’ (p.18). While this argument can be used with the study or evaluation of how Muslim societies make use of judgment of free speech or related issues, we must also make allowance for how Islam, a global religion, with its own unique history and sociology, in each country where the faith has found root has evolved. French Islam evolved in relation to its colonies, its neighbors and understandings of what role the immigrants were to play in the country.
Speaking of ‘Islam’ as an all-consuming category, that subsumes all geographies, history and culture is not only naïve, but also dangerous. American Islam is different from French Islam, which is different from that in Saudi Arabia. As such, the rationality that each of these ‘Islams’ carries with it is also different. Among Indian Muslims, where Sufism has had a strong history, visiting graves of holy men and saints, to seek their intercession is perfectly acceptable. In Saudi Arabia, this would classify you as a ‘heretic’ or mushrik. While such beliefs vary, so do tolerances for what is permissible and what is not. So, before any substantial discussion of ‘Islam’ occurs, it behooves us, as ordinary consumers of information to ask: Which Islam, whose rationality?