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Why Will No One Let the Muslim World Be Secular?

Ideas

Zócalo Public Square is a magazine of ideas from Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise.

Here we go again. Each time deranged terrorists invoking Islam strike in the West, alongside the mourning of the victims comes the heated debate over how the world’s Muslims should react to the attack.

Belligerent rightists demand that Muslims distance themselves from terrorists or be deemed their accomplices. Righteous leftists warn against bigotry and Islamophobia while affirming that Muslims, being overwhelmingly moderate people, have nothing to do with terrorism. And then you have the Bill Maher approach: urging Muslims to prove their overall moderation beyond simply condemning terrorism.

It is a truly bizarre ritual, this rush to assess whether Muslims en masse are moderate or terror-friendly; and, in either case, to what extent.

The absurdity of the exercise begins with the way mainstream western discourse defines “Muslims”: a monolithic compact of 1.6 billion people intensely adhering to a faith by mere virtue of geography. Labeling all North Africans and Middle Easterners pious Muslims is akin to assuming that everyone who lives in America, or Europe, is devoutly Christian. There is a difference between cultural heritage and religious obedience. Why would the notion of a “Christian world” be dubious and debatable, but that of a “Muslim world” never be questioned?

As a liberal Moroccan journalist, it was bad enough to have my state refuse me my freedom of conscience; it’s all the more galling when it is Western liberals who refuse me that right with their blanket paternalistic sentiments about what “those people” are like.

It’s no wonder the West has been quick to give up on, or forget, the liberal, cosmopolitan youth that fueled the Arab Spring of recent years – a demographic that hardly fits into the Western view that everyone in these countries is primarily characterized by religiosity.

Islam is not encoded in anyone’s DNA. Being religious is a personal choice, one that every individual is free to make—or not—as stated in the Universal declaration of Human Rights. As it happens, human rights (including freedom of belief) are widely denied to the 1.6 billion persons we’re talking about, by most of the governments they live under—as well as by the prejudices of well-meaning Western liberals who bend over backwards in their politically correct efforts to be understanding of “Muslim countries” and their ways. What well-meaning Westerners need to understand is the wide gap between Islam as it should be—a personal choice—and as it most often is—a set of pervasive constraints enforced by undemocratic States.

In all the countries where Islam is the religion of the State, merely criticizing the faith (let alone leaving it) is a criminal offense. In 2007, as the publisher of the Moroccan weekly magazine Nishan, I ran a cover story about popular humor in my country. Because the issue included jokes about Islam (harmless ones at that—the most notable one featured God assigning a deceased Muslim man of virtue to hell, before teasing him: “Smile, it’s the candid camera!”), copies of the magazine were publicly burnt by grimacing extremists, and my colleagues and I received hundreds of death threats. Yet instead of cracking down against the fanatics, the government prosecuted us for “damaging religious morals,” and banned the magazine for 3 months.

It’s not just about mandatory religiosity. In most “Muslim countries,” school curricula include inescapable religious classes at every grade, with disturbing teachings about the role of women (mainly to procreate and stay at home), the duty to “defend Islam” and “fight its enemies,” and so on. Grown-ups are not spared either, with omnipresent state media never losing a chance to hammer into them that Islam is the highest moral norm, and transnational Arab channels like Al-Jazeera engaging in constant “us-versus-them” rhetoric (“us” being Muslims and “them,” Westerns, of course). Even opposition parties (mostly made of Islamist groups) do nothing but double down on religious intransigence, hoping to outdo the—already bigoted—official institutions. In these conditions, the psychological pressure is such that opting out of Islam is unthinkable—or more accurately, unthought-of—for the vast majority of the people.

This is not to say that no one living in the swath of territory from Morocco to Indonesia adheres to Islam out of intimate conviction. Many obviously do. Yet as long as coercion isn’t replaced by freedom of choice, the extent to which these people can be truly identified with the Islamic faith is dubious. Flatly calling 1.6 billion people Muslims—even with the purpose of praising their moderation—only makes you the accomplice of their oppressors.

The same flawed assumptions are taking place in France. As a consequence of the horrendous Charlie Hebdo massacre perpetrated by local-born-and-bred religious fanatics, “French Muslims” are, once again, in the eye of the storm. Depending on the political sympathies of the commentator, they’re either guilty of moral association with terrorists or misunderstood moderates. But no one is letting them off the hook for their Muslimhood.

All sides of the debate presume that the five million citizens of North- and West-African descent, whose parents immigrated from former French colonies one or two generations ago, are Muslim. Many of these families are certainly religious by choice, but those who’d rather not be are afforded very little space to carry on with their secular lives—especially amidst so many well-meaning efforts to “understand” the immigrant communities’ “Muslim essence.” All this despite the fact that the French republic is supposedly blind to the religious affiliations of its citizens.

Secularism—actually, headscarf-banning laïcité, a more aggressive brand of it—is the cornerstone of modern France’s founding values. Alongside fine wines, exotic cheeses and relaxed sexual mores, its church-bashing culture (of which the slain Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were the proud flag-bearers) is one of France’s main staples. Any French intellectual would gasp in horror at the assertion that 60 millions of his fellow citizens are Christians, yet president François Hollande lumps together the other five million to refer to them as “Muslims” (who should not be conflated with terrorists, yes, we know).

French citizens of North- or West-African origin have attended the same schools as their native countrymen; and they studied Voltaire and the enlightenment age just as much as them. Unless we consider that ethnicity impacts mental processes (the definition of racism) there is no reason to believe that France’s citizens of color are less receptive than others to the proud teachings of the école républicaine laïque. Yet the country’s common discourse singles them out as a religious group. Liberté Egalité Fraternité? Not really.

Westerners are rightly concerned about the danger posed by Islamic radicalism, but anxiously assessing the commitment of more than a billion people to religious moderation doesn’t help in any way. All it does is deepen the—already profound—misunderstanding.

When it comes to Islamic terrorism, the worthy social debate is about the way to drain its breeding ground. My two cents: promoting secular democracy in the so-called Muslim countries (and please, no need to bomb them for that—empowering local liberals is enough) would be a good place to start.

Ahmed Benchemsi is the editor in chief of FreeArabs.com. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.


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