By Vernon Schubel
Last Friday I was heartened to see that Kenyon students had, on their own initiative, placed posters around the campus which read “Je suis Ahmed” and displayed a photo of Ahmed Merabet, the French police officer who was shot and killed by the same terrorists who murdered the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. Ahmed Merabet was a Muslim who gave his life protecting others. We should also remember Lassan Bathily, a Malian Muslim who worked at the kosher market where Amedy Coulibaly murdered four people. After first hiding more than a dozen customers in the stockroom freezer he made his way out of the building in order to provide the police with a layout to the store and a key to unlock the metal blinds which surrounded it. At great personal peril his actions saved lives.
In the aftermath of the inexcusable murders in Paris, a parade of ill-informed journalists, “terrorism experts” and politicians has flooded the media pontificating about a supposed clash of civilizations between Islam and “the West.” Muslim voices have been notably absent from these discussions. The questions posed have been largely simplistic and lacking in context: What is it about Islam that leads to these kinds of attacks? Is there something inherent in that religion of Muslims that facilitates terrorism? Much of this discussion has assumed a binary between a civilized “West,” which venerates free speech and the right to criticize religion, and a humorless “Islamic world,” which cannot tolerate satire, especially religious satire. Of course, that binary is totally false. Muslims, in fact, have a long tradition of religious satire that pokes fun at the ulama and other authority figures. And Islam has produced a list of its own notable “blasphemers,” such as Al-Hallaj, Hafiz and Pir Shams, who are now venerated as cultural heroes.
Some commentators, especially those on Fox News, seem consciously committed to generating a fear of Muslims. Among them there has been a peculiar obsession with President Obama’s refusal to use the term “Islamic extremism” to describe the killers. These “experts” assert that Islam taken to its extreme — a truly radical Islam — must inevitably look like the violent and intolerant religion of ISIS or al-Qaeda, because, they insist, violence and intolerance is the very essence of Islam. This is, of course, nonsense. The overwhelming majority of Muslims have unequivocally condemned the violence in Paris. And Muslims are no more, or less, prone to violence than any other community. While it is undeniable that some Muslims find excuses for violence and prejudice within their religious tradition, they are certainly not alone in that. Hindu nationalists have slaughtered Muslim shopkeepers in India and Buddhist nationalists continue to persecute the Muslim minority in Burma. Should we somehow place the blame for these atrocities on the entirety of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions?
If one feels the need to ask what it is about Islam that led the murderers to kill, surely one is also obligated to ask what it is about Islam that led Ahmed Merabet and Lassan Bathily to protect and defend others. Was there something in Islam that taught them to love and defend other people, even strangers? Notions of love, both human and divine, are central to the Islamic tradition. Many Muslims assert that love is the true essence of Islam — not only love for God and the Prophet, but also love for the poor, love for the oppressed, in fact love for all humanity because all human beings are equal before God. From this perspective the truly radical Islam is the religion of proponents of universal love like Rabi’a, Rumi and Pir Sultan Abdal and not the aberrant doctrine associated with al-Qaeda. The power of the simple declaration “Je suis Ahmed” is that it unambiguously affirms our common humanity, no matter what our faith or ethnicity. Let us hope that this message of pluralism and inclusivity ultimately drowns out the darker voices promoting fear and division.
Vernon Schubel is a professor of religious studies and director of the Islamic civilization and cultures concentration. Contact him at email@example.com.