By Yasmine Bahrani
In the wake of the Paris bloodbath, the attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., and Bamako, Mali, and murders elsewhere before and since, people desperately want to understand the root cause of all this violence. That’s true not only in the West, where many blame Islam itself. It’s true in the Middle East, too, where we are struggling to come to grips with the carnage and the region’s role in it.
Many of the usual suspects were singled out in the reaction here to the most recent attacks. Various Arab and Muslim writers blame Iran and Israel; others point to the West’s policies in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Of course, some media voices repeat the well-worn view that we Arabs are the victims of hidden conspiracies. But more self-critical voices have arisen as well.
Though their influence might still be minimal, a few journalists are speaking out. In the Arabic newspaper Al-Mada, Iraqi writer Adnan Hussein offered a suggestion: We must overhaul the educational system. In a piece published just two days after the Paris attacks on Nov. 13, he said that from elementary school through university, our young people are taught — sometimes with a stick — that Islam is not only great, but also better than other religions, and that those who are not like us belong in hell. What has emerged, he wrote, is a “savage faith that stirs up decapitation, spills blood, instigates plunder and rape.” As for the real Islam, he lamented: “It has no place in our lives, or in the best of cases, it has a barely audible voice that almost nobody hears.”
On the same day, celebrated Lebanese writer and editor of the Al-Hayat newspaper Ghassan Charbel wrote that to rescue itself, the Arab and Muslim world must participate in the struggle against Islamism. Charbel called for shutting down platforms of hate and said the Middle East needs to undertake “a deep re-examination” of its society. He called for “universities, schools, mosques, TV and electronic sites to reclaim their platforms from that handful” of destructive ideologues who control them. “What threatens the Arab and Islamic world today,” he said, “is no less dangerous than the threat that Nazism posed to Europe.”
Such writers are asking Middle Easterners to examine their institutions and society more broadly for their share of the responsibility for the violence. But this view is not limited to elite journalists; it is one that many of my own students at American University in Dubai share.
Recently, I asked my students what they thought about commentary that appeared in the Guardian newspaper in November suggesting that France and Britain had failed their immigrants through clumsy — and ultimately alienating — efforts to promote multiculturalism (in Britain’s case) and assimilation (in France’s). In this way, author Kenan Malik said, French and British policies gave Islamism an entrée into isolated Muslim communities.
Nearly all my students rejected the premise, arguing that immigrants were responsible for their own actions whether they were isolated or not. Of course, many of these students come from families who fled countries terrorized by Muslim extremists and have no sympathy for them. But they don’t blame Western multiculturalism for the rise of home-grown Islamism. “That’s silly,” shrugged one Syrian girl.
Why, then, I asked them, don’t Muslims march in the streets of London, Paris and New York loudly condemning the Islamic State? Because, they answered, mainstream Muslims are too scared that the extremists would come after them. The class brainstormed about what could be done instead. Most concluded that they, too, would be afraid to call attention to themselves.
When I asked another class what responsibility we have to explain to others that terrorists don’t represent all Muslims, the response was mixed. One Saudi student said it was not at all our responsibility. “If a (Western) person wants to learn about Islam, he should Google it,” she said. Another, an Egyptian, was angered by the question: “If I hear one more time that Muslims have not done enough to condemn terrorists. . . .” Many Muslims are weary of such criticism.
But others emphasize the work that needs to be done, whether it is in coming to terms with their own cultures’ problems, as Hussein and Charbel urge, or through advancing the acculturation of Muslim communities into Western societies. The Jordanian journalist Mousa Barhouma has written about such challenges for years, advising Muslims living in the West to integrate. If you are a Muslim who moves to Holland, he told me, “Don’t act shocked if they serve beer at the local restaurants.”
In a recent piece in Al-Hayat, Barhouma wondered whether anyone was struck by the fact that the carnage at Paris’s Bataclan theater took place on Boulevard Voltaire. Perhaps they were, and perhaps it was in response to this assault against not only life but also against reason itself, that more voices demanding responsibility are beginning to be heard.
Yasmine Bahrani is a professor of journalism at American University in Dubai.