The Attack on Charlie Hebdo: The Problem Is Not Islam

The deadly attack in Paris by French Islamists with ties to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) provokes several basic responses.

One major response is a broad affirmation that the actions of the violent few in no way represent Islam as a global religion of over 1 billion adherents.

Indeed, the vast majority of Muslims are no less broadly humane and no more fanatic than anyone else, as was clear in Paris with the heroic actions of a Muslim employee of the besieged kosher grocery store, or the death of a French Muslim police officer defending Charlie Hebdo.

Underscoring that this is the case might be less necessary if Islamophobia were not a genuine global issue.

But, however true, the response that Islam is not about violence is unlikely to satisfy.

People are asking why—at least at this moment in global history—the most frequent and dramatic violence explicitly undertaken in the name of religion seems to occur in Middle East and North Africa countries and/or in the name of a particular branch of Islam.

Even for a scholar like myself—who has studied the diversity of orientations in Islam—and has many Muslim friends, the question still nags: why are a tiny minority of Muslims with connections to the Middle East and North Africa committing violent attacks against religious and other pluralism?

The answer may actually be the MENA geographic piece of the equation, rather than the Muslim one.

What Is Special About the Middle East and North Africa?

Put it this way: If Islamist violence linked to the Middle East and North Africa is the issue, then looking at the regional, rather than religious, piece of the puzzle may be more fruitful, particularly in light of the diversity of Islam worldwide.

The question of why the MENA has bred so much recent violence might have many answers, but there is one that I want to highlight here.

Colonialism in the region and the authoritarian governments that followed the withdrawal of the British, French, and Ottoman empires, have specifically prioritized the violent suppression of dissent. It is this violent clampdown that has influenced many of today’s Islamist opposition movements.

Several points from “Middle Eastern Politics 101” are worth keeping in mind.

First, there is the idealization of Islamic civilization before colonialism and nostalgia for its intellectual and cultural pre-eminence—think the oft-cited example of the Arab-invented navigational tool, the astrolabe. In contrast, relations with Europe were never easy—they were, in fact, violent from the beginning. And this only got worse with the arrival of colonial rule.

The relative aimlessness of many of today’s states in the Middle East and North Africa is often blamed on the legacy of such colonial practices as the European powers’ drawing arbitrary borders and practicing “divide and rule” to help their control over the region’s diverse ethnic and religious groups. All of this helps explain why political cohesion in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen has not survived the fall of coercive dictators.

Second, although Middle Eastern authoritarianism cannot be completely blamed on the colonial legacy, it’s convenient for Middle Easterners to say the West’s past and present actions have contributed to the relative lack of democracy in the MENA. Citizens’ political and economic aspirations are repressed across the region. This widespread frustration, in turn, had much to do with the 2011 Arab uprisings—as well as with the backlash that followed in Egypt and elsewhere.

Third, this repression has been particularly acute in the arena of free expression, where governments—and the opposition movements they have spawned—have often justified harsh treatment of political dissenters and journalists in the name of enhancing social solidarity.

What all of this means in a nutshell is that the Middle East and North Africa has been a region with an unusual level of popular resentment towards governments, and with many examples of force being used against any open opposition to political orthodoxy.

Before and After the Arab Spring

Before 2011 the usual pattern was to force Islamist political groups underground. This often resulted in these groups being a mirror image of the states that had outlawed them.

With the broad disillusionment after the uprisings of 2011, states like Egypt have gone back to their pattern of violently repressing groups—mostly Islamist—who, it is claimed, undermine social solidarity.

At the same time, and somewhat ironically, Egypt, and several other MENA states, have been in the forefront of clamping down on journalists whom they deem dangerous to national values or cohesiveness. Journalistic self-censorship, and media censorship more generally, have been a well-known aspect of MENA politics for decades.

Given this regional context, violent actors like the Islamists in France are not as much representative of Islam, as they are of a specific political context with far too many concrete and well known examples of using of violence to silence dissent.

An Alternative Perspective

If violence can breed violence, then the legacy of both Western colonialism and post-colonial repressive authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa should be confronted—and more clearly connected to the broader context of the tragedy of Paris.

Emphasizing the influence of repressive political structures in the modern Middle East and North Africa is an approach that does not get to the social psychological issues of the attackers or the particular context of contemporary French culture.

However, acknowledging that authoritarian repression of dissent in the Middle East and North Africa replicates itself elsewhere, and that it fosters networks that can abet terrorist attacks globally, offers an alternative view on last week’s shooting of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo. It is a different argument to the usual one that the problem lies in Islam or with Muslims—an argument that is only likely to further heighten conflict.

The key point is that excessive repression by a politically-dominant group (governmental or non-governmental) is central to breeding violence, in the Middle East and elsewhere.

David Mednicoff is Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Director of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This article first appeared on The Conversation on January 13, 2015.