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Religion and security after the Charlie Hebdo shootings

On 6 January 2015, I led a major event in the British Parliament at Westminster to launch and promote a recently completed survey of academic analysis and its policy implications, Religion, Security, and Global Uncertainties. The following day in Paris, the Houachi brothers shot dead twelve people in their attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo, professedly to avenge its alleged insults to the Prophet Muhammad.

One of the central messages both of our report and of the presentations at its launch is that there is no simple cause and effect mechanism whereby “dangerous” ideas lead people to violent action. This insight remains very imperfectly understood as is apparent in both policy and media responses to recent events in France, Belgium, and Denmark which have emphasized both the heightening of hard security and the affirmation of the right of Charlie Hebdo and its sympathizers to continue to offend Muslims. The polarization of fanaticism against “free speech”, with the implication that the latter needs to be upheld by ever greater securitization, is unhelpful and potentially counterproductive.

The danger of a response that focuses on “Islamist extremism” as characterized rather stereotypically in the December 2013 Report of the Prime Minister’s Taskforce on Tackling Extremism in the UK is that it demonizes attitudes and beliefs that may be held by many mainstream and non-violent Muslims, such as legitimate criticism of Western interventions in the Islamic world. If Muslims are left feeling that views of this kind cannot be articulated in the public sphere while at the same time others are free to ridicule the Prophet, antagonism towards the perceived double standards that they face is likely only to grow. Hence the endeavor to seek out potential violent extremists risks accentuating the very problem it is intended to avert.

Protestant graffiti in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1974, during The Troubles by GeorgeLouis. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia.
Protestant graffiti in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1974, during The Troubles by GeorgeLouis. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia.

It may well be useful to apply some of the lessons learned in Northern Ireland. Here the characteristic terrorist in the Troubles was a marginal rather than core adherent of their religious tradition, and specifically religious motivation was seldom a significant factor in their actions. Nevertheless the abiding use of the labels “Catholic” and “Protestant” to define the opposing forces in the conflict has engendered an enduring sense of estrangement and confrontation between contiguous communities. This is epitomized by the continuing need for “peace walls” in Belfast. Moreover the Northern Ireland experience also showed that communities that are subjected to a harsh securitized response are more rather than less likely to condone violent actions even when they do not actively support them.

There is an obvious tension, well explored by Martin Innes in his recent contribution to this blog, between the professional and political imperatives for the security forces to avert imminent terrorist attacks and the need for longer term policies that will mitigate the danger of such threats in the future. The emphasis of our report is though on the importance of understanding “security” in broad terms of enduring social stability rather than merely in narrow terms of identifying and controlling “clear and present danger”. To that end we particularly advocate the promotion of greater religious literacy, among policy-makers, the media, and the general public, as a means to avert unjustified but polarizing fears and to facilitate the identification of genuinely dangerous individuals. A better shared understanding of religion in general, and especially of the problematic interactions between global Islam and Western secularity, is much needed.

In particular, not only is there is a need not only better to appreciate the internal diversity of Islam, but also to recognize that secularity itself takes many different forms. The explicit secularism of French republicanism contrasts with the neutrality towards religion enshrined in the First Amendment to the American Constitution, and with the acceptance that religion still has a recognized if limited public role that is implicit in the continuing establishment of the Church of England.

The world beyond Western Europe is seeing a striking resurgence of religion, of Christianity as well as of Islam. In this context it is vital to recognize that short-term “security” measures are no substitute for serious long-term reflection on how a secular Europe can best live with its own substantial religious minorities.

Image credits: Cologne rally in support of the victims of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting by Elya. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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