Islam, Freedom of Religion and the Recent Attacks in France and Austria by Jihadists – Irfan Engineer

Irfan Engineer

Centre for Study of Society and Secularism

It is generally believed that Islam is a backward religion, reinforcing the beliefs of medieval period, if not of the ancient period, it is conservative and even fundamentalist in its outlook, and it motivates its followers to be intolerant and violent.

Islam, it is further believed, is incompatible with modern values and political systems, including, secularism, freedom of religion, human rights and democracy. Samuel Huntington suggested that there would be civilizational clash between the west and Islam. The recent spate of violence in France further reinforces this belief. The latest bout of violence began with brutal beheading of Samuel Paty (47), a school teacher, who showed the cartoons caricaturing prophet Mohammad, which were published in Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, to his students in order to explain the value of freedom of expression. Paty was beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen Muslim youth Abdullakh Anzorov who was allegedly in contact with the jihadists in Syria. The brutal and inhuman beheading led to French President Emmanuel Macron defending “the French way of life” wherein freedom of expression was sacred. Macron went much beyond condemning the inhuman beheading of Paty which has been condemned by most Muslims, including the ‘French Council of the Muslim Faith’ and categorised it as a terrorist attack. “Islamists want to take our future,” Macron said, adding, “They will never have it.” Macron blamed Islamists and posited the beheading as a threat from Islamists in general to the French way of life. This escalated the conflict to an undesirable level.

On 2nd November 2020, a lone 20 year old heavily armed attacker – Kujtim Fejzulai – shot down 4 persons in central Vienna’s nightlife area known as the Bermuda Triangle: Seitenstettengasse and nearby Morzinplatz, Salzgries, Fleischmarkt, Bauernmarkt and Graben. Islamic State (IS) claimed the responsibility for the attack. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz claimed that the attack was “on our way of life.” However, he made it clear that, “This is no fight between Christians and Muslims, or between Austrians and migrants. This is a fight between civilization and barbarism.” He urged citizens to remember that “our enemy is never all those belonging to a religion, our enemy is never all the people that come from a particular country” but rather “our enemy is extremists and terrorists.” ( Bennhold, Eddy, & Schuetze, 2020)

Erdogan, the President of Turkey, who is nurturing an ambition to revive the Ottoman Caliphate and become leader of the Muslim world, although with little success due to dipping popular support and growing economic crisis in his country, escalated the conflict further by asking that Macron get his mental health check-up done. Pakistani Prime Minister, who is facing massive demonstrations in his country and charge of being a ‘selected PM’ by the military rather than elected by the people of Pakistan, also saw an opportunity in posing as a defender of Islam. Former Malaysian PM, Mahathir Bin Mohamad said that Muslims had a right to kill French millions! On 30th October, there was a further attack on Christian worshippers in the French city of Nice killing 3 people allegedly by a Tunisian who had arrived a night before, according to BBC. The terrorists shoot and scoot, while the brunt of their attacks is faced by the ordinary Muslim residents who live in peaceful co-existence with others and practice their faith. However, the retaliatory violence by the state and the non-state actors on the Muslims helps the terrorists as it leads to polarization and ghettoization of the community. The ghettoization of the Muslim community living with a sense of insecurity is fertile ground on which the jihadist step in with their propaganda and can cut off the community from other sources of information, ideas and knowledge. The murders of Samuel Paty and the three Christians in the city of Nice must be condemned absolutely and without any reservations or pointing to any contributory factors whatsoever, particularly by all the Muslims as the attacks invoked their faith.

Is Islam a violent, intolerant, backward looking, fundamentalist religion as the jihadist represent it to be? Do all Muslims support killing of non-Muslims on grounds of religion whether for blasphemy or any other reason? The answer to all these questions is a big NO. Overwhelming majority of the Muslim world have not supported the beheading. Do Erdogan, Imran Khan and Mahathir Mohamad represent the sentiments of their countrymen? The demonstrations against Imran Khan are continuing, Erdogan has not been able to leverage his popularity and Malaysian opposition which advocates for Islamic law are unpopular. The Arab countries, Iran and Indonesia with largest Muslim population have not come out in support of the attack, and even condemned it. Muslim political leaders and the civil society across the board in India have condemned the attack. A very miniscule minority among Muslims believe that Islam requires the faithfuls to not only follow the sharia law as propounded by them, but also enforce it upon non-Muslims at gun point. Revenge and retribution, even targeting innocent persons, using violence and terrorism is a legitimate method, and establishment of a caliphate their political objective. They target not only non-Muslims, but also Muslims and strike fear in their hearts. Shias and Ahmadiyas in Pakistan, women in the entire Muslim world and others whom they proclaim to be non-conformist Muslims are their targets too. The Sunni Muslims too do not have choice to follow their Islam as they deem right. A section of western media uses these violent incidents to represent it as a threat to “western” or “modern way of life” and to the world order and peace by amplifying its potential threat. The spate of mob lynching and communal riots in India may have killed more than the terrorist attacks in the entire world, but that is treated as a ‘minor law and order’ problem or freedom of religion problem that does not warrant ‘we’ and ‘they ‘divide’, although it is also threat to the freedoms, democracy and rule of law. Gun wielding teenagers have killed more Americans in schools and other places than the Muslim terrorists. However, the “threat to American way of life” is perceived only from the “jihadists” and Islam in general.

Islam and the freedom of religion

The Quran on the other hand is a book for guidance of the entire humanity and gives freedom of religion or beliefs. Only the all forgiving, merciful and compassionate God can judge the conduct of human beings, not any human agency. To God alone humans are called upon to turn to for guidance and not to any human agency, institution or state. There isn’t enough space to recall numerous verses in the Quran that are about freedom of religion and recall the rich traditions and debates. We would mention a couple of verses in the passing. The central values of Islam are truth (Haq) justice (Adl), compassion (Raham), merciful (Rahim), most forgiving (Ghafoor) and wisdom (Hikma). The most righteous are the ones who do justice in their dealings with everyone. Quran (5:8) states – “O believers! Stand firm for Allah and bear true testimony. Do not let the hatred of a people lead you to injustice. Be just! That is closer to righteousness…”. Hatred for anyone belonging to any religion is not being just and therefore not being righteous. Quran (5:32) lays down that if you kill any innocent, it is as if you kill entire humanity, and saving one life is like saving entire humanity – it may be the life of a person belonging to any religion or faith or even a non-believer. In several verses, Quran enjoins the believers to do good and forbids evil deeds – “Amr bil maroof wa nahi ‘anil munkar” (3:111). There is no compulsion in religion, Quran (2:256) lays down – truth stands out from error. In chapter 109, Quran addresses those who reject faith and tells them – “To you your way and to me mine”. There is no mention of blasphemy in Quran, let alone any punishment for the offence. The Prophet himself faced a lot of insults during his lifetime. A woman would throw dirt on him regularly. He would peacefully pass by without a word. When the prophet Muhammad learnt that she was sick and bed ridden, he visited her and prayed for her speedy recovery. Due to lack of space, we are just mentioning a few instances from the Islamic history to recall the rationalist thoughts in Islamic history.

During the Umayyad period, there was a rich debate between the two broad schools within Islam – the Jabariyas and the Qadariyas. The followers of Jabariya school believed that all events and activities are predestined, they are just played out here in the world. The Umayyad rulers patronised the Jabariya school which called upon the faithfuls to submit to the rulers as fate was predestined and the Ummayad Caliph was merely implementing the measures and policies already predestined, including their luxurious lifestyle and the poverty of the rest. The Qadariya school on the other hand disputed this notion and argued that God guided human beings as to what was the righteous path (sirat al mustaqeem) and left it to the individuals to be guided by God or by the satan. God then left it to the individuals to discern what was the righteous path based on the revealed scriptures and tread on that path or entirely ignore that guidance. Quran describes God as compassionate, merciful and just, argued the Qadariya followers, and it would go against the Quranic revelation if God were to pre-determine the conduct of the human beings and then punish them for their misbehaviour and misdemeanours. The Abbasid period (750-1258) was known as the Golden period of Islam when the books of knowledge from all over the world, including India and Greek philosophy were translated in Arabic and collected in Baghdad in a grand library called House of Wisdom, or Bayt al Hikmah. Greek philosophy influenced the Islamic theologians which gave rise to two schools of theology within Islam – the Asharites and the Mutazilites. The Mutazilites were rationalists. They believed in the createdness of the Quran as temporal and not eternal and uncreated. They held that good and evil are objective and that the moral values of actions are intrinsic to them and can be discerned by human reason. The Asharites on the other hand believed that the Quran was uncreated and eternal. The Mutalizilies argued that the reward and punishment which God metes out must be merited by creatures endowed with free will. With regard to our acts in this world, God creates in us the power to perform an act but we are free to choose whether or not to perform it.

In India Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898), a reformist and a rationalist philosopher, in his commentary on Quran wrote that there could be no contradiction between the word of God (Quran) and work of God (natural world). Exploring and understanding laws of nature was the domain of science and equally necessary. Maulana Shibli Nomani (1857-1914) on the other hand explained that science and religion operated in two different circles. One explored natural laws and the other moral laws. Science would measure weight of air e.g. and the energy generated from nuclear fusion and fission. However, for what purpose to deploy that energy was the domain of religion – whether to prepare destructive bombs or to harness it for better purposes. The moral laws and life after death was the religious domain. They were not contradictory. Muhammad Iqbal, the poet philosopher gave series of lectures in Lahore arguing for ijtihad and rejuvenation of Islam. Each generation had to understand Islam with its own experiences and views. These are some of the rational heritage of Islam.

This rich heritage is product of freedoms and liberties which are part of tradition of Islam. The covenant of Medina which was the constitution of the first state established by the Prophet granted freedom to practice religion to the Christians, Jews and Muslims in accordance with their traditions. The first Caliph after the Prophet was elected by consensus and so were the other three rightly guided caliphs. It is only with the Umayyad and subsequent dynasties and empires that the illiberalism, closing the doors of ijtihad or reinterpretation and dynamism in understanding the Quran was lost. Dynamism in knowledge and Quranic interpretation was considered a threat to the dynasties. It is during this period that the term jihad was used more for the political wars between dynasties and not for striving to be guided by the righteous path of justice and taking care of the most needy in the society. As change in religious beliefs could signal revolt and rebellion against the dynasty, religion and religious doctrines were forced on the populace and blasphemy laws were promulgated to protect the regimes. Gradual colonization of the Muslim world and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the first world war led to colonization of large part of the Muslim world under the west. The Muslim world did not emerge from the colonization and went into a conservative shell to protect its beliefs. It is time to come out of the shell, embrace knowledge, continue the rich heritage and openness and work for the betterment of the humanity and moral teachings of Islam.

There are intolerant, extremists, fundamentalists and violent people in every religious community. Muslim community also has its share. However, in case of non-Muslims, the entire community is not blamed for the act of extremist individuals. Any act by a Muslim extremist, which should rightly be condemned, attracts global coverage in media holding the entire community responsible for the offence subtly through the prominence accorded to it, length of coverage, choice of words and headlines. In India we have our share of extremists – the cow vigilantes who lynch innocent Muslims to death if they are transporting animals, and often force them to proclaim victory to Lord Ram against the teaching of their faith. The Chechen youth, the jihadists and the cow vigilantes are not only against freedom of expression and democracy, they act against the teaching and values of their own religion. Let us come together and condemn all such inhuman brutal and violent actions irrespective of to which religion the offender belongs. Law must take care of such offences rather than castigating the entire community. Let religious ideas be diverse and let all of them be expressed with sensitivity and humility so that it leads to greater understanding of truth. If they are expressed in offensive manner, sensible people should leave it to the law to deal with it if it constitutes any offence. Graham Staines wife Gladys Staines forgave those who killed her husband and two sons who were sleeping in a station wagon on the basis of false accusations. They are more of heroes of humanity than the killers of Samuel Paty.