Paris – no knee-jerk responses, but no cop-outs either

The worst terrorist attack in western Europe for a decade has left us all feeling numb. Our thoughts go out to the bereaved and injured. But inevitably our minds look to the consequences. What we must avoid is any knee-jerk responses. Two such responses we must avoid are: first, a rush by governments to remove yet more of our hard-won freedoms; and second, a rush to close our borders to refugees coming from the Middle East.

Our freedoms of speech, expression and religion, and our rights to privacy and to live our lives as we want were hard won over many centuries and we must defend the honour of those who fought and sometimes died to secure them for us. When it comes to refugees from the Middle East, the first thing we should remember is that this type of horrific slaughter is exactly what the refugees are fleeing from. The terror we saw in Paris should make us more acutely understanding of why the refugees are fleeing, because attacks like this have been going on in Syria and Iraq now for a decade.

It is true, of course, that among the refugees there may be a small number of terrorist operatives. That is no reason to block entry to all refugees, any more than home-grown terrorist operatives are a reason to do away with our right to privacy. It is a reason to process incoming refugees quickly and efficiently, and monitor them for any association with known radical circles in the UK. The overwhelming majority of refugees, having just escaped Islamism, will want to be as far away from it as possible in the UK. So any refugees found to be associating with radical Islamists are clearly not refugees at all, and therefore are in the country illegally – and can be deported immediately and without any legal obstacle at all.

We should also be clear that the Koran did not cause these terrorist attacks. I have read many of the world’s holy books including the Koran, and it is a holy book much like the others. The Koran is actually considerably less violent than the Old Testament.

Many liberals are tempted to say that Islamist terrorism is as unrepresentative of Islam as Anders Breivik was of Christianity. However, this is only partially true, and this is where things get difficult for liberals. The number of Christians having sympathy for Breivik ‘s motives has always been vanishingly small – much less than a single percent – but a ComRes poll in February found that 27% of UK Muslims had sympathy for the motives behind the Charlie Hebdo murders. Likewise, while the number of Christians in militias like Breivik’s is a few dozen at most, there are, right now, more British Muslims fighting for ISIS than there are Muslims in the British armed forces. In addition, 45% of British Muslims believe clerics preaching that violence against the west can be justified are in touch with mainstream Muslim opinion. These figures are inescapably distressing and indicate a cultural disconnect that needs to be addressed.

Many progressives and liberals sadly gave mealy-mouthed responses to the Charlie Hebdo murders, often straying into victim-blaming and absurd moral-relativism. Now is the time to restate our commitment to our core cultural values of tolerance, equality, freedom, secularism; and to say that we will not surrender our cultural freedoms of expression – either to authoritarian governments or to other cultures that dislike our values or the things that we say, write or draw. Now is the time to be standing strong behind progressive, liberal, secular Muslims (like our own Maajid Nawaz) in their call for considered, reasoned responses to Islamist terrorists, but also crucially in their calls for Islamic culture and religion to modernise and reform in the ways necessary to adapt to the modern world.

* Dr Mark Wright is a councillor in Bristol and was the 2015 general election Parliamentary candidate for Bristol South.

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39 Comments

  • François Hollande defended the “temporary resctrictions on freedom” but said it was vital they were eventually restored, adding: “France will remain a country of movement.”

    He also rejected suggestions of a link between the refugee crisis and Friday’s attacks, announcing that France will accept 30,000 refugees in the next two years.

    Sounds OK to me…

  • Glenn Andrews 19th Nov '15 - 2:13pm

    Well said; the enemy here is not just the extremists directed from Raqqa; it’s also those who want to defend our liberty by taking away our liberties….. in fact if there is to be a knee jerk reaction, it should be what more freedoms can we grant our citizens!

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Nov '15 - 2:22pm

    ‘ However, this is only partially true, and this is where things get difficult for liberals. The number of Christians having sympathy for Breivik ‘s motives has always been vanishingly small – much less than a single percent’

    Breivik’s views and actions had absolutely nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with far-right ideological paranoia and hatred of Islam: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2011/jul/24/norway-anders-behring-breivik-beliefs

    I’m not sure what we are supposed to read into a set of random polls about what Muslims in the UK are supposed to think. After all another poll shows Muslims in the UK to be more patriotic than the average Britain: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/12000042/How-patriotic-are-British-Muslims-Much-more-than-you-think-actually.html

    So we are supposed to believe from the polls that Muslims are sympathetic to Da’esh and at the same time fiercely patriotic to the UK…

    Finally, why does all this random polling mean that all liberals should support the version of reality put forward by Maajid Nawaaz, who has little credibility in Muslim communities in the UK?

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Nov '15 - 2:28pm

    ‘ I have read many of the world’s holy books including the Koran, and it is a holy book much like the others. The Koran is actually considerably less violent than the Old Testament.’

    Can you provide evidence for these two claims? I would be interested to read your explanation about the Old Testament, which contains a great variety of writing from history to poetry, and cannot be understood or indeed dismissed, without reference to context and background.

  • George Kendall 19th Nov '15 - 2:48pm

    I’ve talked to Muslims after tragedies like this, and their common reaction is “but this isn’t Islam.”

    They’re right. But Mark is right too. The polls he quotes make sober reading, and we mustn’t shy away from reality.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Nov '15 - 2:58pm

    I agree there should be no knee jerk responses or cop-outs, but one view I am against is the kind of thinking that Justin Trudeau demonstrated after the attacks on the Canadian parliament when he simply said “we will find who was responsible and punish them.”. Full stop. Then a big lecture on how it won’t change us.

    It is not just those who have carried out attacks that should be punished, but those who are plotting them too. We also need to target those plotting attacks against Muslims. There is plenty of hate out there and it shouldn’t take a massacre for us to take this threat very seriously too.

  • David Cooper 19th Nov '15 - 3:02pm

    @We should also be clear that the Koran did not cause these terrorist attacks… it is a holy book much like the others

    I don’t follow this logic. It is quite possible that some holy books are more likely to provoke violent behavior than others.

  • Ben Jephcott 19th Nov '15 - 3:28pm

    I agree with the first part of the article … but then the author loses his way. The opinion polls he refers to have been spun … look at the wording of the questions that were actually put to Muslim respondents and the context. It is worth checking out the Daily Telegraph link Helen Tedcastle points to. The sensationalist reading of the poll findings is wrong:

    “Some Twitter users have tried to extrapolate this to Britain’s 2.7 million Muslim population, claiming that it means 810,000 Muslims are ‘sympathetic to the Hebdo killers’.

    “But that looks to be seriously stretching things, as the question merely sheds light on those having “some sympathy for the motives”, which is not the same as agreeing with the attacks. All it shows is that 27 per cent of Muslims surveyed by ComRes feel they understand why Charlie Hebdo was targeted. It does not show that they endorse the attacks, nor does it show they want to do the same.”

    And by his own actions, wilfully causing unnecessary offence, Maajid Nawaz has thrown away any credibility he once had with mainstream Muslim opinion.

  • “for Islamic culture and religion to modernise and reform in the ways necessary to adapt to the modern world.”
    Dubai isn’t modern? It seems a bit more modern than parts of Britain to me.

  • people talking about violence in the bible and the Koran are missing several points. Firstly Christianity has over the centuries produced plenty of political and social tyranny so these arguments are some what moot unless you think say the Inquisition, various violent schisms, slaughters of perceived heathens, and numerous executions over centuries of recorded history had nothing to do with the religion .Also the Koran features the teachings, societal ideas, legal rulings and political thoughts of a spiritual and military leader who fought wars of expansion. through out his life.

  • @Helen Tedcastle
    “I would be interested to read your explanation about the Old Testament, which contains a great variety of writing from history to poetry, and cannot be understood or indeed dismissed, without reference to context and background.”

    Interesting. Perhaps you could show how it’s done by explaining in what “context” we might interpret the story of Elisha and the bears. For those unfamiliar with this charming Old Testament tale, the prophet Elisha was out one day when he came across a bunch of cheeky kids who made fun of his bald head. In a rage, Elisha cursed the youths in the name of the Lord. The Lord promptly obliged by sending two bears out of the nearby woods. The bears tore the children to pieces. The following writer makes a pretty risible stab at ameliorating this unpleasant story, but in the end can only resort to telling us that the dead kids ought to have heeded the “seriousness” of God’s message :-

    https://answersingenesis.org/bible-questions/elisha-little-children-and-the-bears/

    Answering your point directly, the problem is that violent religious extremists can “contextualise” away the proverbial “good bits” in any religious text just as convincingly as you might explain away the ultra-violent bits. Perhaps we’d be better just contextualising away the entire texts by chucking them in the bin, seeing as the authors did not see fit to leave us religious texts that are unambiguously a force for good?

    On the general question of whether the Koran is more or less violent than the Bible (the fact that such a question can even be debated is to me reason enough to reject both), the Bible contains many more violent passages; but on the other hand, many of those passages are stories about violence rather than divine authorisation to do the same. The Koran contains more of the latter category. Which is worse? The following quiz is well worth reading :-

    http://www.alternet.org/30-most-violent-exhortations-bible-torah-and-quran

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Nov '15 - 8:51pm

    @Cllr Mark Wright

    ‘ The fact that Maajid Nawaz has limited support among the Muslim communities in the UK doesnt mean that he is wrong. We wouldnt apply that “popularity” standard to assessments of facts in other critical issues like this.’

    If someone is trying to ‘reform’ Islam in the UK and has no credibility with the very communities he seeks to influence, then that I would say is quite a serious drawback.

    I have read both the Old Testament and the Qu’ran. Of course the Old Testament cannot be regarded as a ‘Holy Book’ because it contains many books – it is a library. It also contains a great deal of variety: Law, history, poetry, song for example. It can be read as literature or history or it could be read literalistically. Might I suggest that a good number of people who are neither Jews nor Christians read it this way, who do not have a full understanding of the symbolism, context or history. A good example is the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham (which does not happen in the end). This text has been misinterpreted as ‘violent towards children’ by some recent polemical authors, when it is actually a text about Abraham sparing his son through his belief in God’s law, in a era when there was routine infanticide.

    So no, I don’t accept that the Old Testament can be dismissed as violent. Likewise the Qu’ran.

  • Regarding the opinion polls quoted, there have been numerous such polls taken in Britain and many other countries, and the results are always depressingly familiar. Quibbling with the wording of one poll doesn’t really cut the mustard. Here are links to many more such polls :-

    http://www.thereligionofpeace.com/pages/opinion-polls.htm

    It’s not all grim news. A piece on BBC Breakfast this morning suggested there is evidence that the various “Prevent”-type programmes in the UK are actually having good results (despite coming under vociferous attack from many LDV contributors in the past). Other countries, including France, are supposedly envious of the way in which we have been tackling the problem at source rather than waiting until it’s a military situation. It was suggested that this is one reason why France is suffering much more than us at the moment, despite taking an anti-US line over Iraq.

    Another Muslim man working in the radicalisation prevention field was shown on ITV News this evening. He pointed out – as I did here a couple of days ago – that young Muslims want to engage with the debate and offer solutions, but at the moment are not given a voice. Cameron should get on the phone to this man straight away. Thankfully, I don’t read newspapers these days so am spared the acres of drivel no doubt being written by the usual pundits at the moment. How great it would be if all pundits were banned for a week (or longer) and their places taken by ordinary young people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Increasing understanding is the way we should be going.

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Nov '15 - 11:13pm

    Stuart
    ‘ Answering your point directly, the problem is that violent religious extremists can “contextualise” away the proverbial “good bits” in any religious text just as convincingly as you might explain away the ultra-violent bits. ‘

    The helpful commentary you gave explored the Hebrew terminology as well as the context in order to extrapolate the meaning. Hebrew is a language for which words have multiple meanings so some exploration of terms is essential for understanding this story. She also gave a brief theological explanation for the story’s meaning. You may not be satisfied with her explanation but her response seems to me to be reasonable.

    In literary studies, there is also analysis of language, context, characters and message. I cannot see what the problem is in doing the same with biblical texts. Why does the meaning of a biblical text have to be self-evident and straightforward? There are difficult texts in the Bible whose meaning justifies more than one interpretation. This is not controversial.

    Violent extremists do not just cherry pick – they have constructed a narrative and interpretation based on their wahabi – salafist principles. That’s why it falls to the Imams of the major schools to deconstruct their narrative and justifications.

  • Ben Jephcott 19th Nov '15 - 11:30pm

    @Cllr Mark Wright
    The notional opinion poll you suggest doesn’t work – the whole point is that the poll about Hebdo asked whether the respondee had any sympathy for the motivation of the Hebdo attackers, not for what they did, nor whether their motive should somehow reduce the blame attached for their crimes. Your suggestion is not a parallel but qualitatively different.

    On Maajid Nawaz, even he eventually apologised for his tweeting of the Prophet cartoon, which certainly opened eyes – and drove thousands of voters into the arms of our opponents for absolutely no good whatsoever. Are the Liberal Democrats really an organisation dedicated to scandalising and insulting the minority religious communities we so obviously fail to represent? If so, eleven out of ten on the Dawkins scale, but we won’t win many votes – or observant Muslim members and activists.

    As for ‘forcing secularism’ into Christianity, that is nonsense, Liberals and reformers through the 19th and most of the 20th centuries instrumental in challenging the establishment, clerical or otherwise, were almost entirely Christian, and were fighting for tolerance, pluralism and religious diversity, not the narrow version of secularism which has become so suddenly fashionable.

  • Helen’
    You raise some interesting points and I agree that reducing religious works to a simple arguments about violence is problematic and doesn’t tell the whole story. However, might I suggest that religion is more than it’s holy texts and you can see throughout history that religions go through different phases as different interpretation become more prominent and others recede.

  • Firstly, nationality is far more of a fluid concept than it was around the time Norman Tebbit was growing up. Given that since well before the time of Major, Britons have been agonising over whether we are Europeans or not, is it really that suprising that young men (and the occasional woman) may sometimes have conflicted loyalties. I truly believe that this violence is tribal just as the conflict in Northern Ireland had little to do with the teachings of Jesus. Why would Muslims join the army, given that most campaigns.in recent memory have involved the Middle East. Sorry but reading the Bible doesnt tell you about Northern Ireland and reading the Koran. Terrorism has been around for a very long time and its effect is magnified by social media. All the folks with a tricolore filter and #jesuischarlie are part of the problem

  • @Mark I’ll accept that I have lost my way when you accept that your piece has islamophobic overtones. Breivik is not like any Christian I have ever met any more than the Paris terrorists are like any Muslim I have ever met. I find him to be a straw man. I may be perturbed by terrorism but Islam doesnt bother me any more than Scientology.

  • @Mark, its going to be tough to address your piece or comments which have many arguments I agree with given moderation, which itself is necessary, perhaps I could submit a piece though I doubt I can get anything published. In Iraq, British and American forces have killed a great many people. Our interventions in Afghanistan Iraq and Libya have been failures (versus a better eventual outcome in former Yugoslavia.) It doesnt surprise me that not many Muslims join the British army in the context of the conflicts we have been involved with in the last 20 years. It also doesnt surprise me that people leave the UK to fight abroad where they have ties and sympathies, this has always happened.

  • Jayne Mansfield 20th Nov '15 - 10:16am

    @ Ben Jephcott,
    The answer to whether the respondees had any sympathy for the motivation of the Charlie Hebdo Killers ought to have been, ‘no’. A majority of muslims understood the implication of the question and had no problem saying it. A sizeable minority seemed unable to.

    I am no longer a Liberal Party supporter, but I am a member of the human race and there are some things that wrong whatever one’s culture or religious belief, and descending into barbarism and killing people because they cause offence to one’s sensibilities should, in my view, be beyond the understanding of normal humankind.

    @ Alistair,
    My children ( actually adults, have the tricolour filter on their facebook, as do their friends. I gather from French friends, that the French people are gaining some comfort from these small gestures of solidarity against the evil that has befallen their liberal, multicultural city. If you find such gestures from empathetic people who feel otherwise helpless, maybe you could explain why.

  • Mark, some fight with the Kurds and all manner of militias. People from the UK are fighting on all sides, including some we support. The same happened with Brits fighting in the Spanish Civil War. I believe we need a mechanism to remove British nationality from people who are voluntarily joining ISIS though this is currently impossible as you cant make someone stateless and ISIL is not recognised as a state, otherwise we could restrict access to some combinations of dual nationality as many nations do. I know is provocative, but comparing how many folk were killed in the 20th and 21st century by Christians and Muslims, I dont find Islam to be more aggressive culturally than Christianity.

  • But Mark “we” dont have higher standards of behavior – as I explained, we have killed massive numbers of noncombatants in the Middle East, so many we dont even count them. Its not whataboutery, the media places a higher value on western life than other life. Just because we have a professional army doing our killing out of sight and the media is fatigued by the middle east doesnt mean we are morally superior. Im not suggesting there is moral equivalence betwen different types of fighting but when you look at the numbers Im not as a westerner feeling that superior.

  • Helen Tedcastle 20th Nov '15 - 2:58pm

    Mark Wright

    ‘ @Helen: Yes, people can make religious texts say pretty much whatever they want to believe. That’s why it’s about the culture, not the words.’

    There are two things going on with interpretation within religious faiths. One is the question of authority in interpretation. All the mainstream religions have sources of authority ie: Rabbis, Beth Din or a hierarchical structure or in the case of Buddhism and some strands of Islam, lineages of teaching. There are principles and methods of interpretation involved which remain pretty constant. What changes is the way this is communicated. That is not therefore, a relativistic approach ie: it’s not about words but just about culture. Words matter but also communication and understanding matters.

    In Islam, there are several schools or sources of authority and interpretation. The Salafists are a relatively tiny but extreme example, which Imams across the largest and most mainstream schools are busily refuting and undermining. This doesn’t get much publicity but it’s happening.

    Incidentally, one of the most effective exemplars of the communication of ancient texts and teachings in palatable form to western audiences, is the Dalai Lama.

  • @Helen
    “Hebrew is a language for which words have multiple meanings so some exploration of terms is essential for understanding this story.”

    Yes, the commentator I linked to thinks she can make the Elisha story less grotesque by suggesting that some of the children might have been teenagers or even young adults, and some of them might have simply been maimed by the bears rather than killed outright, as if a God who only mutilates teenagers rather than killing little kids is not problematic.

    “Why does the meaning of a biblical text have to be self-evident and straightforward?”

    Let me throw the flip-side of that question back at you – what good is a religious text that requires a degree in theology or the help of expert clerics before the average person has a hope of understanding it? Especially when, as often seems to be the case, the “obvious” and superficial reading of the text actually appears to be the complete opposite of what the clerics tell us the true meaning is?

    It’s no wonder that a religion designed in this way should confuse people, and lead them to basically come up with their own warped interpretations. If you were a God or a prophet and were setting down a religious text which you knew was going to have massive influence for centuries to come, wouldn’t you want to write something that was unambiguous and comprehensible? To borrow a train of thought from Epicurus: if God meant to give us uplifting and life-affirming religious texts, but accidentally allowed them to be very easily interpreted as murder manuals, then he must be incompetent. If God meant to give us religious texts that incite violence, then he must be malevolent.

  • @Ben Jephcott
    “the whole point is that the poll about Hebdo asked whether the respondee had any sympathy for the motivation of the Hebdo attackers, not for what they did, nor whether their motive should somehow reduce the blame attached for their crimes”

    Are the following two questions any more amenable to you? They seem quite fair and non-leading to me :-

    1) Some people think that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. Other people believe that, no matter what the reason, this kind of violence is never justified. Do you personally feel that this kind of violence is often justified to defend Islam, sometimes justified, rarely justified, or never justified?

    2) Please tell me if you have a very favourable, somewhat favourable, somewhat unfavourable or very unfavourable opinion of the Islamic militant group in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS.

    These questions have been used by an organisation called the Pew Research Center. They do this kind of research often in lots of different countries. The answers are fascinating – pretty encouraging in places, but with spikes of support for terrorism in some places that are pretty alarming. Answers to question 1 on page 23 here :-

    http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2013/09/Pew-Global-Attitudes-Project-Extremism-Report-Final-9-10-135.pdf

    Answers to question 2 here :-

    http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/11/17/views-of-isis-topline/

  • Helen Tedcastle 21st Nov '15 - 12:07pm

    Stuart
    ‘ …what good is a religious text that requires a degree in theology or the help of expert clerics before the average person has a hope of understanding it?’

    I suppose that’s like saying, what’s the point of having lessons in English Literature with specialist teachers – why not read the book yourself and make of it what you will, because teachers have no insight of any significance. It’s a very reductionist argument. There is such a thing as the best way to approach a religious text and then there are ways which can distort the meaning of the text. The Elisha text is not an incitement to violence. The only way it could incite to violence is if someone reading it is seriously deluded enough to think they were a prophet and thought the story was about them. As most people don’t think that, it is perfectly possible to interpret its multiple-layered meanings in a mature and reflective manner.

    It’s interesting that in this same thread, the writer attacks what he sees as religious people reading anything they want into a text and now you are stating that it’s ludicrous to have a body of scholars or authority to help with insights into the text!

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Nov '15 - 2:02pm

    Stuart

    It’s no wonder that a religion designed in this way should confuse people, and lead them to basically come up with their own warped interpretations. If you were a God or a prophet and were setting down a religious text which you knew was going to have massive influence for centuries to come, wouldn’t you want to write something that was unambiguous and comprehensible?

    Or perhaps you would come in earth disguised as a human being to explain what you really meant by it, to criticise those hypocrites who twisted it to satisfy their own desires, and to show you were on the side of those who suffer from them by letting yourself be one of their victims.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Nov '15 - 12:46pm

    Cllr Mark Wright

    One of the problems with Islam is that there isn’t an authority which can say “No, your interpretation is wrong”. There seems to be a phenomenon when if there’s no-one who can be accepted as the last word on this, the “holier than thou” game gets played, and each more extremist interpretation plays it and makes out that it means they are more true to the religion than the moderates.

    One of the things that has kept me in the Catholic Church is seeing this happen in Protestantism. Liberal protestantism is moving to extinction, with the literalist extremists gaining ground all the time.

    As I hinted in my previous message, one of the strongest messages coming from Jesus in the Gospels is an attack on this sort of holier than thou attitude. Anyone who just says “The Bible” is missing the point, as much of the New Testament is a discussion on just these issues and a rejection of the literalist attitude. Christianity explicitly is NOT about “Here’s the book, now invent a religion around it”. Anyone who is trying to be a literalist can’t be because they are missing the points in the New Testament which literally reject the literalist attitude.

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