“Those who committed these acts have nothing to do with the Muslim religion,” French president Francois Hollande declared on Friday, referring to the massacre of a dozen people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine followed by an intense manhunt that ended with two simultaneous hostage crises during which four more were killed.
An unarmed French policewoman was also murdered by the terror cell which perpetrated the attacks, and numerous others were severely injured.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, echoed this sentiment by saying on Friday that the attacks had nothing to do with religion. “This is not a war against religion, or between religions,” he explained. “This is a purely unacceptable terrorist attack, criminality.”
President Hollande and the Secretary-General were reading from the well-worn playbook used by Western political leaders after every Islamist atrocity. This “No True Muslim” strategy presumes that secular political leaders have both the knowledge and power to define what real Islam is, and their vision is entirely compatible with the demands of the modern secular socially-liberal State—no fascist demands for adherence to strict religious codes, no intolerance for the beliefs of others, and absolutely no violent terrorist attacks. Anyone who violates these codes is not a “true Muslim”—a tautology that spares Western elites the discomfort of grappling with a mixture of religion and political ideology that doesn’t accept their notions of pluralistic social harmony. That’s especially uncomfortable for Hollande, who owes part of his electoral success to receiving a very high percentage of votes from the very large Muslim population of France.
Other recent examples of No True Muslim ideology abound. “ISIL speaks for no religion,” U.S. President Barack Obama asserted, using his preferred acronym for the Islamic State after they murdered captive American journalist James Foley in August. “Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just god would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. ISIL has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt.”
Obama struck a similar note when reacting to the murder of another captive American by the Islamic State, Peter Kassig… who he insisted on referring to as “Abdul-Rahman Kassig,” because the hostage had converted to Islam while in captivity. “ISIL’s actions represent no faith, least of all the Muslim faith which Abdul-Rahman adopted as his own,” said the President, making the astounding insinuation that literally every other faith on Earth is more likely to kill innocent people, hostages, or co-religionists than Islam, depending on precisely which Islamic State actions he thinks the Muslim faith is “least of all” likely to endorse.
The massed political and media elite of the Western world fell all over themselves to declare that murderous Sydney hostage-taker Man Haron Monis was No True Muslim, even though he was an imam with a small but not insignificant number of followers. The phrase “self-styled cleric” became ubiquitous to describe him—try Googling that phrase and taking stock of the hundreds of articles about Monis that instantly appear. Others who carry out violent attacks in the name of Islam are described as “lone wolves” and/or dismissed as insane, to the point that skeptics joke bitterly of playing the “Crazy or Muslim?” game when each new gallon of blood splashes across the front pages.
These No True Muslim observations would, of course, be taken as an insult by the fanatics in question. The Kouachi brothers were explicitly acting as enforcers of Islamic law when they opened fire at those magazine offices in Paris. They went so far as to inform one survivor of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, “I’m not killing you because you are a woman and we don’t kill women, but you have to convert to Islam, read the Koran, and wear a veil.”
After accurately reporting this statement, the New York Times quietly deleted it from their account of the attack, only to be called out by attentive observers who noticed the line had been removed from the story without explanation. Controversy ensued, with the Times eventually claiming that it conducted its own interview with the survivor, freelance journalist Sigolene Vinson, and she wished to retract the quote she originally gave French media about her ordeal. The new version of her story is that the terrorist told her, “Don’t be afraid, calm down, I won’t kill you. You are a woman. But think about what you’re doing, it’s not right.”
No explanation was advanced by either Vinson or the New York Times for why her earlier account of the terrorist’s words was so dramatically different. The Times also has not explained why it edited its story by stealth, instead of clearly indicating that Vinson wished to retract her earlier statement and issue a corrected account. Since she is the only living witness to the conversation, we are left to guess what the Kouachi brothers really said to her on that terrible day, and why her account of the conversation has changed. Did her earlier French interviewers fabricate the quote out of thin air or misunderstand what she told them? (At the time of this writing, no such accusation has been leveled formally.) Or did Vinson think it over and decide her earlier account of the terrorist’s words was too damaging to the No True Muslim narrative?
For the record, the Kouachis did kill a woman in the Charlie Hebdo attack, columnist and credentialed psychiatrist Elsa Cayat. Their associate Amedy Coulibaly gunned down a female police officer, Clarissa Jean-Philippe, the following day. Countless women have been murdered by al-Qaeda, the international terrorist organization that claims to have ordered the Charlie Hebdo attack and financed the Kouachi cell; and by the Islamic State, which is inhumanly brutal to women; and by the Taliban, which executes women for daring to attend school; and by the government of Saudi Arabia, which also executes women for violating its understanding of Islamic law. If the business at hand were not so hideous, the “we don’t kill women” assertion would be risible.
More to the point, even Vinson’s edited account of her encounter with the Kouachi brothers makes it clear they saw themselves as enforcers of Islamic law—“think about what you’re doing, it’s not right.” It is absolutely absurd to pretend that a very large number of devout Muslims do not share that opinion, and quite a few of them are on board with the notion of using violence to punish blasphemy. Polls have consistently shown a high degree of support among Muslim populations for imposing Islamic law on their host countries. It’s not a majority, but it’s not a “tiny” minority of extremists, either.
Hollande’s No True Muslim remark also runs counter to the declarations of imams such as Anjem Choudary, who wrote an op-ed for USA Today making it clear that the Charlie Hebdo slaughter was very much connected to Islamic law, and the punishment for insulting the honor of Mohammed is indeed death. “Because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see,” wrote Choudary. He urged avoiding violence by imposing Islamic restrictions through government censorship.
But still, Western politicians, and quite a few media liberals, insist on playing this absurd game where they insist No True Muslim would do anything horrible, so therefore the perpetrators of horrible acts cannot be true Muslims, QED. The Muslims who agree with Choudary are all said to be misinterpreting their own sacred writings, which Western political and media leaders understand much better than they do. A remarkably vigorous cottage industry of liberal opinion writers explaining what the Koran and hadiths really say about mockery of Mohammed has been churning ever since the last bullet ripped through the Charlie Hebdo offices.
Confronting the real challenges presented by alienated Islamic populations in America and Europe is far less pleasant than redefining the problem into a minuscule radical fringe with no social, political, or theological influence. It also allows the Left to engage in its favorite pastime: making itself feel superior by sneering at the domestic political opponents it really hates. Those skeptical of the No True Muslim narrative can be insulted as ignorant bigots. One fashionable liberal theory holds that “Islamophobia” is a proxy for racism; what truly bothers critics of Islam is the color of the faithful’s skin.
This is the painfully obvious reason why liberals begin fretting about a hypothetical “anti-Muslim backlash” with almost comical speed after every domestic terror incident. They’re much more interested in accusing conservatives of crimes they never actually get around to committing than discussing the motivations of killers who have actually pulled triggers and stacked up corpses.
The use of force to impose Islamic law upon secular societies is not merely a talking-point debate, although it’s not surprising that today’s fast-burning Internet media culture tends to treat it as one. It is highly relevant to know how many Muslims, within France and beyond, either approve of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, or understand it. It would be foolish to assert that all of them do. Isn’t it equally foolish to say that none of them do? How persuasive have political efforts from outsiders to define True Islam been? There are hundreds of “no-go” zones in France that are considered off-limits to non-Muslims, including the police. Sharia law rules in these regions, not French law. These areas are not growing more pluralistic or getting smaller.
Erick Erickson of RedState conducted a provocative thought experiment on Twitter this morning, saying of the slain Charlie Hebdo attackers: “Dear France, wrap their bodies in the carcasses of pigs.” He received a substantial amount of outraged response from people within the Western media establishment… which he found curious, because if they really believed the assertion that the terrorists weren’t true Muslims, they should have absolutely no problem with his corpse disposal recommendation, and neither should any true Muslim.
Likewise, if the threat emanates from the proverbial “tiny minority of extremists,” there’s no reason for the craven cowardice of media elites who refuse to display the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, for fear of sharing the artists’ fate. In countless ways, the conduct of political and media elites betrays that they don’t really think these terrorists have nothing to do with genuine Islam, and they don’t really believe that a microscopic number of insane extremist fanatics is responsible for all the trouble. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, the media claims, I will show you terror in a tiny handful of extremists… but none of the other tiny handfuls of “extremists” they’re perpetually complaining about, or accusing of incipient violence, command a comparable degree of self-censorship from the mainstream press, do they?
As for the defensive, self-flattering claim by editors who won’t display the forbidden toons that they’re equally worried about insulting people of any faith, this is easily disproven by the most casual review of their attitude toward Christians, Jews, and everyone else but Muslims. For an especially sharp and grimly amusing example, consider that at the very same time the Associated Press was piously declaring that its commitment to universal respect for religion prevented it from showing the extremely news-worthy Charlie Hebdo cartoons, it was selling images of a 25-year-old “artwork” called “Piss Christ,” which depicts a crucifix submerged in urine. They pulled the “Piss Christ” photo out of their library when they were called on this hypocrisy, but they somehow forgot to take down the photos of the Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung. Editors approach the business of blasphemy very differently when they know a sizable number of people stand ready to kill them for it. They claim otherwise because liberals have a unique gift for maintaining their arrogance even while groveling.
Isn’t all this pretense to the contrary making life more difficult for the moderate, reform-minded Muslims we should be supporting? Presenting the problem as a matter of “lone wolf” lunatics acting in complete isolation, with no connection to any significant school of Islamic thought, greatly undersells the magnitude of the challenge moderates face.
A more bracingly honest approach was taken by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi when he called for Islamic reformation at a New Year’s Day speech in Cairo. “It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!” al-Sisi declared, saying that the entire world was waiting for a “religious revolution.” Clearly he doesn’t think the problem can be surgically resolved by simply declaring that everyone who disagrees is a fake Muslim who doesn’t count.
Viewed in the best possible light, the No True Muslim narrative is an effort to use cultural pressure to change a population, something the masters of Western political and media culture believe themselves to be very good at. None of the cool kids think using force to impose sharia law is cool, and you want to be a cool kid, don’t you? The ultimate goal is sound enough, because pluralistic society demands both government accommodation to religious liberty, and religious citizens accommodating neighbors who don’t share their faith. The free speech portion of the American First Amendment won’t survive if the government abstains from censorship, but the people become comfortable with using force to silence each other, likewise with the religious liberty provisions of that noble Amendment.
The Charlie Hebdo massacre is the latest overseas example of how free speech and religious liberty are deeply entwined. They are not under assault by only a tiny handful of extremists with little influence beyond little radical cells meeting furtively in basements.