January 9, 2015
The terrorist attack on editors, cartoonists and policemen at Charlie Hebdo’s office is an insidious trap to destroy freedom. At a superficial level, it seeks to punish what its perpetrators consider impunity: an insult to their religion. But the attack is even more sinister. It is to make sure that some things become unthinkable. That no one dares express, reproduce or, therefore, even entertain certain ideas.
But he attack also lays a deep trap, where every response can be seen by the perpetrators as vindication. It is, like all al-Qaeda traps, designed for a “heads we win, tails you lose” strategy. If you give a call, in the aftermath of an attack, saying we should respect people’s religion and not be provocative, the attackers have won a kind of victory. They have induced self-restraint. If, on the other hand, such an act inflames anti-Islam feelings, as, despite best efforts, it might, then also a purpose is achieved. It produces the kind of polarisation al-Qaeda would like. States might use the language of bringing the killers to justice. But in the era after 9/11, it has invariably led democratic states to commit all kinds of excesses in different parts of the world, to the point where their moral self-confidence is dented. Again, al-Qaeda achieves its purpose.
Sometimes, we respond to such attacks by saying the perpetrators are not representative of a religion. What we are, in fact, saying is that the religion could not be behind the instigation of a wrong. The act is a betrayal of piety. We make claims like “this is not real Islam”. The sentiment behind that claim is understandable. And it does capture the fact that violence might be the desperation of a minority rather than the sentiment of the majority of believers. But it again traps you in a zone of the unthinkable: you are not allowed to think that Islam might have something to do with this. One of the grounds on which we condemn the perpetrator — he is not a representative of Islam — becomes a ground for his victory. It rests on sequestering the religion from criticism. We think we are distancing the perpetrator from the religion; but in doing it we are also distancing religion from criticism. Charlie Hebdo might have wanted to mock religion. But by saying, with good intent, that Islam could not do wrong, we have implicitly acknowledged the sacredness of Islam. A victory for the perpetrators.