By Yasser Latif Hamdani
Tanvir Qadri, a Barelvi cab driver from Bradford, killed Asad Shah, an Ahmadi shopkeeper, in Scotland because of his faith. The extremist mindset that led to legal and social persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan starting in the 1970s has now reared its ugly head in the Britain as well. An Urdu newspaper in Islamabad went so far as to praise Tanvir Qadri. A Facebook page dedicated to the newest ‘Ghazi’ was unveiled soon thereafter. It compared this new murderer to Mumtaz Qadri. Unlike Mumtaz Qadri, however, Tanvir Qadri will not be executed because Britain does not have the death penalty. I am not a fan of the death penalty but I shudder to think how many more ghazis the Ahmadi community, and others, would have to face down in Britain, ready to kill knowing full well that they would not face capital punishment.
Herein lies the irony. The Ahmadi victim, Asad Shah, was virtually indistinguishable from any other Muslim migrant in Britain. He had beard, wore a Muslim skullcap and probably did not sell pork products in his shop. Now consider this excerpt from Charlie Hebdo’s recent editorial:
“Take the local baker, who has just bought the nearby bakery and replaced the old, recently-retired guy, he makes good croissants. He’s likeable and always has a ready smile for all his customers. He’s completely integrated into the neighbourhood already. Neither his long beard nor the little prayer-bruise on his forehead (indicative of his great piety) bother his clientele. They are too busy lapping up his lunchtime sandwiches. Those he sells are fabulous, though from now on there’s no more ham nor bacon. Which is no big deal because there are plenty of other options on offer — tuna, chicken and all the trimmings. So, it would be silly to grumble or kick up a fuss in that much-loved boulangerie. We’ll get used to it easily enough. As Tariq Ramadan helpfully instructs us, we’ll adapt. And thus the baker’s role is done.”
Does the “local baker” not sound like Asad Shah, the Ahmadi shopkeeper from Scotland? What Charlie Hebdo failed to recognise is that there are many kinds of Muslims, some of them not even considered Muslims by other Muslims, and that to stereotype on the basis of a personal choice of stocking a certain food item can be a misleading exercise in futility. After all, not just Muslims but Jews also have the same dietary prohibitions. A Hindu Brahmin baker would probably serve only vegetarian or vegan sandwiches. But I digress.
The point is that Muslims come in all shapes and sizes. There are some who might not observe dietary prohibitions and there are others who might. The distinguishing factor between ordinary Muslims and those who resort to terrorism or violence is not in what they eat but what they are prepared to do for real and imaginary grievances.
The problem that we confront, together, as human beings and not just as Muslims or Christians or Pakistanis or French is the menace of violent extremism. In order to fight violent extremism, you need to make allies not just with unobservant Muslims but also observant Muslims who nevertheless do not condone violence of any kind for any reason. Charlie Hebdo’s editorial hits at the heart of the identity question. Does a Muslim have to forsake his or her Muslim-ness — whatever varying degree he or she embodies — to be accepted as an integrated member of a western community? And where does it stop? Would Muslims have to change their name as well?
Sometimes it is the baggage of history that stops societies and corresponding national states from adapting to a new more diverse citizenry. As a frequent traveller to both Europe and the US, I have found Europe to be far more liberal and progressive than the US, except in one very important respect. In Europe, there are set, unchangeable ideas about who is French or Swedish or a German and collectively as Europeans.
The US, having started off as a country of migrants, has never had that issue, try as some might to anchor it in its puritan white Protestant past. The system in the US welcomes diversity as a matter of principle. You can be an American and a Muslim at the same time without contradiction. It is not that the line forwarded by Charlie Hebdo does not exist in the US but it exists on the fringes. It is certainly not possible that a liberal left leaning magazine would take such a line in the US.
This is one side of the story though. What happened to Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 was condemnable, regardless of how offensive their cartoons may have been. Just as Charlie Hebdo needs to realise that Islam is not a monolith, Muslims world over need to realise that freedom of expression is an immutable principle upon which modern society is based.
The appropriate response to hate speech or offensive speech is more speech. Choose the pen or your keyboard over the sword or the gun. What you write and how you respond will echo for a millennium. Killing a person for expressing his or her point of view will only amplify that point of view because you just cannot, in this day of information technology, silence people with violence. You want to serve Islam and protect the honour of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), there is nothing better than using logic, facts and argument to do so. The jihad of the pen is infinitely greater than the any violent jihad.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality.