Monthly Archives: January 2015

Don’t rule out a full-scale conflict in Israel-Hizbollah tug of war


Don’t rule out a full-scale conflict in this tug of war


The latest flare-up of violence between Israel and Hizbollah along both the Lebanese and the Syrian borders with Israel should, in theory, be over for now. Neither Israel nor Hizbollah are showing an interest in further escalation. But a third main player – Iran – may not be satisfied with that.

Tehran has taken Israel’s attack of January 18 very seriously. The air raid in the Quneitra area of the Golan Heights targeted a Hizbollah convoy but among the dead was a senior Iranian general, Mohammad Allahdadi. Ten days after the Quneitra attack, Hizbollah struck Israeli troops on the border with Lebanon, killing two and injuring six.

There are indications that Tehran may be preparing to push Hizbollah to exact more of a price from Israel, or even that Iran might take retaliatory action on its own. And Iran may not be prepared to let Israel have the last word by ruling out Hizbollah deployments in the Golan Heights either.

On January 30, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Ali Jaffari, said that “Hizbollah’s response to Israel was a minimum response that was given to the Israelis, and I hope this response will be a lesson not to make these mistakes anymore.”

For his part, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said: “We do not want a war but we are not afraid of it and we must distinguish between the two, and the Israelis must also understand this very well.” He added: “We have the right to respond in any place and at any time and in the way we see as appropriate.”

One of Mr Jaffari’s key lieutenants, Hossein Salami, hinted that Iran might act on its own if Hizbollah does not, saying that “No page will be closed, and the time and place to respond to them is not determined.”

Iran’s ire, and the threat of further retaliation at a time and manner of its choosing, and potentially directly rather than through proxies like Hizbollah, reflects how seriously it takes the Quneitra attack. The general who was killed was reportedly a major figure in Iran’s efforts to shore up Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad.

Also killed was Jihad Mughniyeh, son of Hebollah’s late military leader, Imad. He was assassinated in Damascus on February 12, 2008. Now, The Washington Post and Newsweek have revealed details of the allegedly close CIA role in supporting Mossad in the killing of Imad Mughniyeh. Former US officials defend the assassination, which could be viewed as a violation of American law. They say it was justified by Mughniyeh’s alleged history of involvement in terrorist acts against American targets and that he was actually plotting more at the time he was killed.

So Imad Mughniyeh’s son Jihad was not just Hizbollah and Revolutionary Guard royalty. IRGC luminary General Qassem Soleimani, who is said to have been a father figure to Jihad, visited his grave the day after his funeral in Beirut.

Mr Nasrallah described the attack as “more than vengeance, but less than war”. As Al Hayat’s Washington correspondent Joyce Karam subsequently pointed out, both Israel and Hizbollah have used the exchange of violence to rewrite their tacit rules of engagement and set new red lines based on Hizbollah’s increasing role in the war in Syria.

But Iran may not be satisfied with this. Israeli officials have been at pains to insist, off the record, that the air raid was aimed at what they thought was an ordinary Hizbollah combat unit that was coming too close to the Israeli-occupied areas of the Golan Heights. They claim that “we did not expect the outcome in terms of the stature of those killed – certainly not the Iranian general.”

But Iran may not care whether or not Israel knew that one of their generals was in the convoy. The bottom line is that Israel is trying to stop Hizbollah securing areas in the northern Golan Heights as a new base, while Iran seems determined that these areas must be secured to be used against Syrian rebel groups.

This could easily trigger another round of violence between Israel and Hizbollah.

Meanwhile, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is standing for reelection in March, has seen a bump in his poll numbers as a result of the confrontation. He may find further engagement politically appealing, even if the Israeli security establishment sees nothing to be gained.

Therefore, another full-scale conflict is still possible, even if neither Hizbollah nor Israel want one right now.

The stakes for both are huge. Hizbollah’s political standing with other Lebanese, and maybe even some of its own core Shiite constituency, could be badly damaged. And its commitment in Syria would be compromised.

For its part, Israel would be facing a stronger enemy than in 2006. The outgoing head of Israel’s military intelligence research division has even warned that the next time Hizbollah forces confront Israel, they may actually engage in “substantial operations to grab territory inside Israel”.

In the context of the Syrian war, Iran and Hizbollah are trying to deploy Hizbollah fighters in the northern Golan Heights. Israel violently rejects this because it sees it as a new front in which too it will have to face Hizbollah. This matter is by no means settled yet.

Defining Islamophobia

It’s not the signifier. It’s the signified.

Muslims hold a banner reading " No to terrorism and to Islamophobia " in Madrid on 11 January 2015 (AFP/Gerard Julien)

As with many problems in life, tackling Islamophobia in a politically and socially effective, as well as intellectually and philosophically valid, manner is a delicate quest for balance. It’s the familiar “Goldilocks” standard: not too hot and not too cold, but just right. Some argue that the very term “Islamophobia” should be abandoned altogether because it suggests, or could be used to enforce, a zone of impunity surrounding Muslim religious sensibilities that could curtail or even prohibit speech that transgresses these sensitivities.

These critics are right to worry about this potential problem.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), particularly egged on by and in turn using, the government of Pakistan, has been trying (in vain, of course) to deploy the term Islamophobia in multilateral institutions like the United Nations in order to secure a global consensus on restricting speech so as to protect religious opinion from any form of criticism or satire. Some Muslim organizations in various countries have been attempting to promote a similar agenda within the laws and regulations of individual states as well. So the concern is genuine and valid.

The term “Islamophobia” is here to stay

However, this objection misses the mark in two crucial ways.

First, we are stuck with the word. For better or worse, “Islamophobia” has come to be the accepted term for discrimination and bias against Muslims. In a conversation a few years ago with novelist Salman Rushdie, who was and is concerned about the abuse of the word Islamophobia, asked me: “What’s wrong with just calling it simply racism?” The problem, of course, is that racism or bigotry are broad, catch-all terms that refer to the phenomenon of discrimination in general. But bigotry, bias and discrimination against Muslims in the West is based on a very specific set of ideas, images, stereotypes and arguments that are both ancient and modern, and that are particular to a range of discourses that inform that bias. They overlap in many interesting ways with other defamatory discourses, such as anti-black racism, anti-Semitism and other ideologies of hate, but there is a specific set of concepts that inform anti-Muslim bias, especially in the West. Therefore, we need a word that will refer to that set of ideas precisely, as a discrete subset of the broader problem of bigotry and racism.

That term is, and will remain, Islamophobia, because after several decades of constant use it has become the settled and consensus word for it. It is not an ideal term, by any means. But it is far too late to find a different one. Anti-Semitism is an awkward term as well. The term refers to hatred of Jews, but uses a word that also applies to many other groups. Indeed, some Arabs (including those who do engage in blatant anti-Jewish hate speech) seriously, and in some cases sincerely, argue that they cannot be anti-Semitic because they are themselves Semites. There are many other problems with the term anti-Semitism, but after a couple of centuries of use, as a practical matter it is the one we are stuck with. After a couple of decades of use, it isn’t going to be all that much easier, or purposive, to dismiss or replace the term “Islamophobia” either.

It’s not the signifier, it’s the signified, stupid.

Second, what’s crucial to any term is the generally accepted definition of it, not the word itself. Any word or phrase is liable to be abused or defined in such a way that it promotes social harm. What is decisive in language is not the signifier, but the consensus view of the signified.

In the American social and political context, the power of the derogatory term “nigger” is so enormous that under current circumstances almost any word connected to the Latin term for black from which this word was derived conjurers the entire cultural apparatus of slavery, segregation, discrimination, violence and abuse. “Negro,” once widely viewed as a respectful term for black people in the United States, is now typically seen as also, although to a lesser extent, unacceptable.

Some have even argued that the unrelated word “niggardly” — which is roughly synonymous with “parsimonious,” Germanic in origin, and has no connection to the set of Latin and Latin-derived terms referring to black and darkness — is also unacceptable merely because it sounds to many listeners to be reminiscent of those now stigmatized Latinate words that evoke a painful and horrible history. Government officials in my own city, Washington DC, have had to resign because they used the word “niggardly” correctly, but their African-American colleagues nonetheless took offense on the grounds that one should know that anything that seems to come close to “Negro” in sound, let alone “nigger,” is axiomatically disrespectful.

However, Spanish-language words derived from the same Latin origin have traditionally not been perceived as derogatory in many of their own cultural contexts because they have not been widely viewed as conveying anything similar to the awful, traumatic history as their English counterparts. There are, however, signs that the taboos on English words derived from the Latin word “niger” (black) are spreading among some Spanish-speaking populations, particularly in the United States. (The French word “nègre” has also long been seen as a pejorative.)

In American popular culture, it is extremely difficult to construct a hypothetical scenario in which the casual use of the term “nigger” by a non-African-American wouldn’t at least raise the eyebrows, if not the ire, of the public. But it’s easy to construct such a scenario involving African-Americans, some of whom frequently use the term, particularly in the context of rap and hip-hop culture and music (although it is sometimes controversial), without either intending or, in most cases, causing offense.

In some cases the distinction is made by separating the word “nigger” from the colloquial term “nigga,” which is sometimes held to be not only acceptable but affectionate, particularly when it comes to intra-group usage among (especially young) African-Americans. However, it’s unlikely that, except in some unusual contexts, the use of the word “nigga” by non-African-Americans, particularly those who are perceived as white, would not be viewed as insulting and provocative. The history of language is also replete with examples — from “Quakers” to “queers” — of signifiers whose generally-accepted signification shifted over time from pejorative to affectionate, or at least inoffensive, often because of their calculated adoption by the group being signified.

The point is that a word itself is merely a signifier. What it signifies depends entirely on a common understanding based on culture, history and context. Even a word that, at first glance, appears perfectly suited to conveying its generally designated meaning, without the obvious built-in drawbacks, shortcomings and inaccuracies of, for instance, anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, is still liable to be defined in a way that promotes the repression of legitimate speech and ideas, or some other negative social impact.

Words are empty vessels

In our conversation, Rushdie argued that societies should abandon the more specific term Islamophobia in favor of the more broad-ranging term racism. Beyond the evident need for a term that refers to the specific network of ideas, tropes and stereotypes that inform Islamophobia, the trouble with this idea is the implicit notion that the word “racism” is somehow less susceptible to abuse by demagogues than “Islamophobia” may be. Charges of racism, however, are frequently deployed in a reckless and socially harmful manner. Accusations of anti-Semitism are often leveled by pro-Israel propagandists to defame critics of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians or other completely legitimate viewpoints that have nothing to do with hatred of Jews and do not spread fear or dislike of them. I, personally, have been baselessly and ridiculously accused of “homophobia” by anonymous online trolls who were merely using it as a pejorative in order to try to smear my character because they passionately disagree with my ardent advocacy of a two-state solution based on ending an Israeli occupation that began in 1967. And on it goes.

The words themselves are not decisive. Indeed, they are empty vessels into which can be poured, by consensus understandings of their meanings and appropriate usages, socially useful or harmful content. And even then, as noted above, they are still subject to the abuse of false accusation. There is no need to dust off a copy of 1984 to understand how any of this works. The process is constantly in motion, swirling around us all the time as our social and political realities are constructed by the meanings that we attempt to ascribe to our words.

Euphemisms and puns work the same way: there is a generalized understanding of what is “really meant.” So do most figures of speech, including almost every form of metonymy (context makes it clear when “the White House” refers to the executive branch of the United States government, for example). There’s no need to delve into Derridian deconstruction to uncover how slippery and unstable the relationship between language and meaning, signifier and signified, must always be. But, in order to achieve specific social and political goals, there is a need to put that understanding aside on a contingent basis in order to facilitate advocacy, build constituencies and coalitions, and achieve positive, demonstrable results.

The history of the battle against anti-black racism, or anti-Semitism for that matter, in the 20th century in the United States demonstrates that, in spite of the inherent difficulties posed in trying to use language for constructive social purposes (as opposed to demagoguery), real progress is, indeed, genuinely possible. And it all depends on developing, slowly and painfully, by fits and starts, new and improved social consensuses about the equality of all people in our societies and the basic respect they should be accorded in our national and collective conversations.

The real struggle is over definitions

There is no point, therefore, in searching for a different or “better” term for anti-Muslim bias than “Islamophobia.” It’s almost certainly too late, and any other word would be just as liable to abuse depending on the common understanding of what it refers to. Therefore, the goal must be to arrive at a broad-based, widespread and commonly accepted definition that achieves two things simultaneously. First, it must provide an effective and clear-cut understanding of what constitutes anti-Muslim bias. And second, it must not invite or facilitate the stifling or stigmatizing of speech and ideas that are legitimate and respectable, even if they make many Muslims uncomfortable.

The urgent task at hand is to develop a working model that can help society to distinguish Islamophobic speech — which should be shunned and for which there should be a significant social and political, although certainly not criminal, cost — from legitimate free expression that calls for no response other than normal engagement, agreement, disagreement and so forth.

All of these benchmarks need to help us distinguish between hate speech — which targets real people and spreads fear and hatred of them, thereby compromising or threatening their ability to function as equals to all others in society — versus speech that may be provocative and make people uncomfortable, but which critiques, challenges or lampoons legitimate targets, which include ideas, icons, religious dogmas and practices, political views, or other social phenomena that are the subject of proper debate and discussion.

Good faith

The first, and perhaps the most suggestive — although also one of the most subjective — of these signposts is good faith. Does the speech in question involve legitimate, sincere conversation and criticism? Or, instead, does it reflect an obvious effort to defame the targeted group and their belief system? Is the speaker lying about what the people in question, in this case Muslims, believe or do? Is there an effort to stereotype the identity group? Are generalizations being made that are obviously unfair or inaccurate? And is it clear that the speaker knew or should know that what they’re saying is fundamentally untrue, or is only true for a subset of the general group when they are presenting it as characteristic of the whole?

One of the key examples of how this “good faith” test works to identify genuinely Islamophobic speech is the “work” of the extremist Catholic anti-Muslim hate monger Robert Spencer. Like many other Islamophobes, Spencer combs through Muslim religious texts, history, practices and current events to identify and publicize anything and everything that makes Muslims, or Islam, look bad. In one of the great ironies about Islamophobia, Spencer and many other anti-Muslim demagogues are the only people other than the most strident Muslim extremists who insist that the most extreme, literalistic and violent interpretations of the faith are the only “real” or “correct” ones. Everything else is chalked up to religious dissimulation.

Spencer’s essential methodology (he has no formal academic background or training in Islamic studies or history whatsoever) is to try to find anything that might cast Islam and Muslims in a bad light, no matter how questionable or marginal the source, and present it as the unchallengeable truth. He also specializes in identifying the most extreme interpretations of Islamic doctrine and practice throughout the ages and presenting them as the “true” or “authentic” versions of the faith. Spencer’s basic view of Islam was summed up in the following passage: “Islam itself is an incomplete, misleading, and often downright false revelation which, in many ways, directly contradicts what God has revealed through the prophets of the Old Testament and through his Son Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh […] For several reasons […] Islam constitutes a threat to the world at large.”

I have explained in detail in my short essay “Religion and violence: another look at Islamophobia and anti-Semitism” precisely how Spencer and others cherry-pick from religious texts and practices in order to spread fear and hatred of Muslims in general by focusing on the beliefs and conduct of the most extreme Muslims, presenting it as if it were genuinely representative of Muslim communities in general. The technique is precisely the same as used by many of the worst anti-Semites, and described very accurately in a 2003 report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), “The Talmud in Anti-Semitic Polemics.”

Dutch-Somali politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali provides an even simpler and cruder version of this process in bad faith. In a November 2007 interview with Reason magazine, she said that the faith could be socially and politically useful, “only if Islam is defeated.” Reason asked her: “Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?”  She replied, “No. Islam, period,” explaining: “I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways. For starters, you stop the spread of the ideology itself; at present, there are native Westerners converting to Islam, and they’re the most fanatical sometimes. There is infiltration of Islam in the schools and universities of the West. You stop that. You stop the symbol burning and the effigy burning, and you look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say: ‘This is a warning. We won’t accept this anymore.’ There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.” She concludes: “There is no moderate Islam. There are Muslims who are passive, who don’t all follow the rules of Islam, but there’s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There’s nothing moderate about it.” And, she proclaims, echoing so many other Islamophobes: “Islam is a political movement.”

Both Spencer and Hirsi Ali clearly and quite intentionally spread fear and hatred of ordinary Muslims by framing the religion as a political movement that is at war with the West and is driven by vicious and malevolent goals and methods. There is no way for their audiences, assuming they believe them, not to conclude that ordinary Muslims, particularly immigrants in the West, are a serious and potentially mortal peril, and at very least are guilty until proven innocent. There is no way that these sentiments can fail to provoke precisely the sentiments of fear and hatred that most potently inform and legitimate bigotry, discrimination and even violence. Their obvious and evident bad faith is clear from this willingness to generalize about vast groups of people in the most negative, indefensible manner, which no serious person could fail to recognize as both false and the product of visceral ill will.

Impact on people’s lives

This leads immediately to the second benchmark I have proposed for identifying Islamophobic speech: its impact on the lives of real people. One of the questions that needs to be asked early on in trying to identify anti-Muslim hate speech is this: “Is the intended or inevitable consequence of this speech going to make life more difficult for Muslims to live as equals in this society? For example, does it paint Islam and Muslims as inherently or generally antithetical to Western or American society?” In particular, the question needs to focus on the likely reaction of the target audience: non-Muslims in Western societies. How will they react to the speech in question? What impact will it have on their assumptions and basic belief systems regarding Muslims, and in some cases possibly even Islam itself?

If the speech or representation in question will logically provoke a response of suspicion and anxiety regarding Muslims at large, then one is almost certainly dealing with a form of hate speech (“Muslim immigrants have no loyalty to the infidel nations in which they have settled,” for example, or “there is no distinction in the American Muslim community between peaceful Muslims and jihadists”). The impact on the audience is all-important, because it is not abstractions such as religion that need defending, but rather real people who are vulnerable, and their rights which can be abridged. Ideas are fair game. The reputations of broad identity groups are not. It’s reasonable to list all the reasons why one doesn’t agree with all or part of any given interpretation of Islam, and even to criticize it harshly, as long as the critique is based on a good-faith evaluation of what that version of Islam as a social text actually promotes. Indeed, it’s vitally important that intolerant, obscurantist and extremist versions of any religion or belief system, including Islam, particularly when they promote violence, be confronted and denounced vociferously and categorically until they are marginalized to the point of irrelevancy. But it’s not reasonable to list a bunch of fabricated reasons why Muslims, or any other broad identity group for that matter, at large are to be regarded as dangerous or threatening.


This, in turn, leads directly into the third benchmark I’m proposing for identifying Islamophobic speech: stigmatization. Does the speech in question single out Islam as somehow uniquely problematic when all major religions have been, and indeed frequently still are, used for both good and ill? Is Islam being presented as special in some kind of negative way? If so, then the speech in question is almost certainly phobic or hate-mongering, in part because the track record of all religions is very poor indeed, but much more importantly because of the unimaginably vast range of ideas, beliefs, values and human experiences that are incorporated in the broader Muslim experience over enormous swaths of space and time.

Both Islamophobes and Muslim fundamentalists and demagogues share in common a desire to reduce Islam into a single, or at least a small set, of beliefs, practices, experiences and orientations. Both are wrong. There are a few — very few — things that most, perhaps almost all, Muslims historically have agreed upon (monotheism, revelation, the Prophet’s basic role, the divine nature of the Quran, and a few others), and practices that they have shared. But what is common to them is much less striking than the vast diversity to be found in the dizzying kaleidoscope of Muslim beliefs and practices across many centuries and most of the globe.

There are at least 1.5 billion people in the world today who can be accurately described as Muslim in some sense or another. They exist in virtually every country (I know some very learned and devout Japanese Muslims, for example). Among them, virtually every human phenomenon and experience can be discovered, at least somewhere. Indeed, given any group of people that rises to the huge proportion of 1.5 billion, there is very little distinction between whatever phrase accurately describes them as a subset of humanity (in this case, Muslims) and the broader category of “people.” There is very little by way of experience, practice, belief and values that can be found in the broader category of “people” that cannot be found in the gigantic subset “Muslims” — except, perhaps, atheism and agnosticism, if “Muslim” is to be construed strictly and exclusively as indicating a set of religious beliefs and is not in any sense indicative of any other kind of identity, community or cultural heritage.

Therefore, anything that tends to single out Muslims, to mark them as unique or particular, especially in a negative way, there’s all the hallmarks of hate speech and irrational bigotry. The late and much lamented Nigerian novelist and scholar Chinua Achebe is known for his powerful and evocative phrase: “Africa is people.” By this simple observation, Achebe was pointing out that the Western concept of “Africa” is so burdened with stereotypes, statistics and other abstractions that what is often lost is that behind this imaginary façade of “Africa” is simply a large group of societies that, in turn, are made up of families composed of individual people. Underneath this gigantic scaffolding of mystification lurks ordinary human beings, obscured by ideology and assumptions. Achebe appealed to his readers and audiences to recover the crucial understanding that when they are discussing “Africa” what they are really talking about in every meaningful sense is simply people, with their basic and essential needs, wants, rights, hopes, fears and common humanity.

Much the same must be said, time and again, about “Islam”: Islam is people. Behind all of the similar, and perhaps even worse and more insidious, cultural, ideological and intellectual baggage burdening the word “Islam” are, once again, simply a large group of people. To stigmatize them in general, whether implicitly or explicitly, is to attack their common humanity, and single them out for opprobrium, anxiety or suspicion based on stereotypes. Stigmatization is the essence of discrimination. So the singling out of Muslims in a negative way from other people is one of the clearest hallmarks of hate speech and defamation.


Finally, this brings us to the question of generalization, which overlaps somewhat with the earlier categories, but deserves some attention of its own. Does the speech in question engage in absurd and facile generalizations about the incredibly diverse world of Islam and the extremely heterogeneous history and present-day reality of Islam(s) as a social text? Any time one encounters blanket, categorical statements holding that Muslims think or act in a particular alleged manner, or that Islam holds some sort of belief or another, particularly when these claims represent extreme or objectionable qualities (for example, “Muslims insist that women should cover their hair in public” or “Islam preaches the killing of apostates”), one is likely to be encountering reduction as a form of defamation.

It may be objected that these standards are vague, subjective and too general. In practice, however, I do not think there will prove be a huge problem in applying them in real cases. This same process is performed daily with regard to many other vulnerable communities, including various racial and religious identities, the GLBT community, and others. Identifying hate speech is a lot easier in practice than in the abstract. We will, for the most part, know it when we see it — especially if we have benchmarks like these to help guide us.

By holding people to account for Islamophobia, we cannot mean that we expect others to always be nice to Islam and Muslims. We cannot mean that Muslims should never be disturbed or offended. We cannot come across as calling for censorship of speech some of us don’t like. In the United States, at least, the censorious position is, thankfully, almost always the losing position. In a free society, there will be forms of speech that many, including Muslims, don’t like but which will have to be tolerated and cannot be seriously classified as “Islamophobic” if the term is to have any effective social and political, or defensible intellectual, meaning. There will be blasphemy, satire, apostasy, challenges to the tenets of the faith from scholars, other religions, secularists, atheists, agnostics and others. And that’s fine. Indeed, it’s healthy and necessary.

What’s not fine, and what must never be acceptable, is hate speech. And to combat hate speech without violating the rights and the values of free speech or free conscience requires a common understanding of the term Islamophobia that strives towards that balance, that “Goldilocks” standard, which is essential. Our task is to simultaneously combat bigotry and defamation while upholding freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. It can, and indeed must, be done. And, to achieve this, our principal tool must be a widely-accepted definition and standard for judging what constitutes Islamophobia that protects people from calumny while embracing the widest possible range of expression as legitimate contributions to our collective conversation.

The old regional order was already ending before King Abdullah passed

The old regional order was already ending before King Abdullah passed


Even a coincidence can sometimes yield compelling symbolism. Hours before Saudi Arabia lost its long-reigning king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Yemeni president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi resigned in the face of a prolonged siege by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

This coincidence underscores the rise of three menacing regional forces. First is the thriving hegemonic ambition of Iran via its proxies such as the Houthi militia in Yemen.

Second are violent extremists such as Al Qaeda, who will now find it easier to falsely pose as the defenders of Sunni Arabs against their sectarian rivals in Yemen and elsewhere.

And third are separatist movements, such as the one in southern Yemen, which are threatening the disintegration of several failing Arab states.

Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia strove to position itself as the leader of efforts to confront these regional dangers. But at the time of his passing, many of these policies were in a state of disarray. Extremists like ISIL are proliferating and gaining stature. And Iranian influence is now dominant in Damascus, Baghdad, Sanaa and, to some extent, in Beirut.

The late king was remarkably successful in dealing with Saudi Arabia’s long-standing ally and security guarantor, the United States, not least after the September 11 attacks, but in recent years the kingdom has begun to doubt American reliability.

This is partly because of a sense of drift in American policy and the perception that it is fatigued with its role in the Middle East. The US is seen as abandoning not just its reckless adventures, but also what many regard as its crucial security obligations.

The biggest single source of tension with the US – its flirtation with Iran – emerged during the latter part of King Abdullah’s reign. Saudi Arabia and many other traditional American allies in the region have been deeply alarmed by the idea that the Obama administration may be seeking not simply a nuclear agreement but a broader rapprochement with Tehran. They fear that Washington would, at best, seek to balance Arab and Iranian interests and, at worst, favour the latter. Saudi dismay over US policy towards Syria is compounded by the fact that this is viewed as a symptom of the perceived American tilt towards Tehran.

In 2013, mounting Saudi frustration over real or imagined American policies led to numerous pronouncements about the kingdom’s willingness to “go it alone”. And while the rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria has helped to bring Washington and Riyadh closer together in the quest to “degrade and destroy” the group, King Abdullah’s government was still looking for alternatives.

Perhaps his most ambitious and potentially effective strategic initiative was the development of a strong alliance with the new Egyptian government led by Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Theoretically, these two traditional pillars of Arab power and stability in the Middle East could, if operating in harmony and unison, function as an axis to unite other like-minded Arab actors and thereby defend their interests, especially with regard to combating radical Islamism and Iranian hegemony.

But the alliance is not fully cemented. Among other things, Mr El Sisi does not appear to share Saudi enthusiasm for unseating the Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad. And the Egyptian president has made several, strongly-worded, and potentially trailblazing, speeches decrying the obscurantism, stridency and hostility to the rest of the world that is embodied in harsh ideologies that falsely operate under the banner of Islam. For all of its distaste for groups ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to ISIL, it’s hard to imagine Saudi Arabia officially embracing Mr El Sisi’s demands for a “revolution” in Muslim discourse that promotes “a more enlightened vision of the world”. Yet this is precisely what, in the long run, will probably be required to achieve the Saudi goals of security and stability.

A survey of the wreckage of states strewn throughout the region readily explains, and possibly vindicates, the Saudi abhorrence of revolution as an instrument of change. But without a robust reform agenda, more of these upheavals will surely be inevitable. Yemen is hardly the last Arab state liable to confront a crisis of legitimacy stemming from dysfunctional governance and state institutions that operate without consent from the governed.

Saudi Arabia has long understood that, in the Arab world, religion and politics are inextricably intertwined. That insight needs to be mobilised to protect and promote the regional stability Saudi Arabia craves.

The regional status quo cannot be preserved indefinitely. Change is inevitable. Arab states need to embrace a managed and gradual process of change that addresses both political order and religious discourse.

Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia sought to serve as a bulwark of stability. And under his successors it can, especially if it embraces an agenda that promotes greater political legitimacy and functionality in Arab states. It should seek to combat extremism and fanaticism through inclusion and accountability that is secured by guided social and economic development.

The Saudi sense of being “surrounded and besieged” is embodied in one of King Abdullah’s last major projects: a 600-mile military barrier along the entire length of the border with Iraq.

Saudi Arabia is increasingly encircled, but not by anything that a wall can keep out.

How King Abdullah Set Stage for Saudi Reforms — and Opening to Israel

Up to Successors To Consider Change in Insular Kingdom

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud passed away on January 22 leaving a legacy of cautious, gradual reform in his own country and a key relationship with the United States that, during his reign, at times was stretched almost to the breaking point. He also left his mark on the strategic landscape and future of the Middle East through his positioning of Saudi Arabia in alliance with Egypt, a rivalry with Iran, and a thus-far unrequited opening to Israel.

The overture to Israel came in the form of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative introduced by King Abdullah to the Arab League summit in Beirut. The proposal promised a complete normalization of relations between the Arab states and Israel in the context of a complete Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territory and a “just” and “agreed upon” solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees. It was adopted unanimously by the League in 2002, and reaffirmed unanimously in 2007.

Israeli leaders, both then and now, have dismissed the Initiative as a “non-starter,” often on the grounds that it represents a diktat or a fait accompli which Israel cannot accept. However, in 2013 a delegation of Arab states told Secretary of State John Kerry that the League was reviving the Initiative and that it had been modified to incorporate the principle of mutually-agreed-upon land swaps as part of its framework for a peace agreement. This strongly suggests that the Initiative, being subject to revisions, could be treated as the basis for negotiations rather than a non-negotiable diktat.

Unfortunately King Abdullah’s Initiative, like the rest of the Arab-Israeli peace process, appears to be in a state of deep hibernation at best. If, however, peace between Israel and the Palestinians is to be achieved it will have to be on the basis of some form or another of a two-state solution, and almost certainly involve the broader region. Therefore, in the long run, the often-overlooked and almost-forgotten Initiative introduced by King Abdullah in 2002 may one day be remembered as a significant intervention, and possibly even a key building block to peace.

On Saudi-American relations, King Abdallah most notably had to preside over, and manage, what was without doubt the greatest moment of tension between Saudi Arabia and the United States: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The outrage was carried out by 19 fanatics, 15 of whom were Saudis. It was impossible that this atrocity would not negatively impact American perceptions of Saudi Arabia, and not only at the level of popular culture. Many members of Congress and even some associated with the executive branch, publicly questioned the role Saudi society and culture – and its officially-approved and government-propagated Wahhabi version of Islam that is literalistic, rigid, frequently obscurantist and often intolerant – may have played in, at the very least, priming young Saudis to be drawn to Al Qaeda.

Those questions are not entirely resolved even to the present day. Doubts particularly swirl around a 28-page redacted section on the role of foreign governments of the Senate’s report into the 9/11 attacks, which are said by some to contain damaging, and possibly even damning, accusations about Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Al Qaeda. And some Americans are still bothered by the way in which prominent Saudis were whisked out of the United States at a time when very few other people were allowed to travel. In the initial period following the 9/11 attacks, allegedly Saudi complicity with Al Qaeda, and possibly even some measure of responsibility for the attacks themselves, became a commonplace in some sections of both liberal and conservative American discourse.

However, those American politicians and commentators who accused Saudi Arabia of being, in some way, behind either Al Qaeda in general, or the 9/11 attacks specifically, were never able to explain why any government would finance and support a movement whose primary aim is their own ouster and liquidation. The atmosphere began to clear considerably after a series of Al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2003-2004 illustrated this point, and led to a redoubled commitment by the Saudi government under King Abdullah to try to eradicate the organization.

Over the past decade, American counterterrorism officials and experts have almost unanimously regarded Saudi Arabia as a key ally in the battle against extremism and fanaticism. At the same time, Washington and its other Western allies pressed the Saudi government to reform its school curricula and find ways of encouraging its official clergy and religious institutions, which are well-funded and hence highly influential throughout the Muslim world, of toning down stridency, intolerance and extremism. Former CIA director Michael Hayden describe the extensive efforts initiated by King Abdullah’s government, and particularly its Interior Ministry, after 2003 as “perhaps the world’s most effective counterradicalization programs.”

With the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria last year, Saudi Arabia once again became a key ally against terrorism and joined the American-led campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the extremist group. But U.S.-Saudi cooperation on counterterrorism has been undermined by Saudi perceptions that the United States is “tilting” towards Iran in an effort not just to achieve an agreement on nuclear weapons-related issues, but a broader rapprochement. King Abdullah had a long history of personally and emotionally criticizing American foreign policy, particularly the invasion of Iraq and the more recent diplomatic engagement with Iran.

The thaw with Tehran was so unnerving to Saudi Arabia that a series of unprecedented declarations by officials and prominent citizens were publicized to the effect that the kingdom was willing to “go it alone” without Washington. The emergence of ISIS as a major mutual threat last year appears to have at least muted such comments, even if it has not resolved the underlying concerns. To help offset these anxieties, King Abdullah led Saudi Arabia into an intensified alliance with Egypt under its new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, that aims to counter the Islamist trend in Arab politics and shore up the Sunni Arab world against a perceived threat from Iran and its proxies.

Americans, perhaps, don’t sufficiently appreciate the extent to which Saudi Arabia has felt surrounded and besieged by enemies. With the fall of the Yemeni capital, and the surrender of its government to the Iranian-back Houthi rebels on the very day of King Abdullah’s death, this feeling has only intensified. Indeed, one of the last major initiatives instituted by the Saudi government before King Abdallah’s passing away was the initiation of a plan that has been developed since 2006 for a “northern border security project.” This is a euphemism for a giant series of fortresses, barriers and walls along the 600 mile border with Iraq designed to keep extremists and chaos away from the Saudi homeland.

Significant American concerns about Saudi policies haven’t been resolved either. While there is widespread acknowledgment that King Abdullah led significant efforts to counter radicalization, particularly within his own country, few consider the efforts thus far to have been sufficient. Under Abdullah, the Saudi government still allowed itself to be almost bullied by the religious right into cracking down on “un-Islamic” or “decadent” social events such as book fairs and similar otherwise innocuous events.

The late King emphasized educational reforms, and took limited steps to encourage a greater role for women in society including appointing some female government officials and allowing for coeducation at the university level. In 2001, he promised women the right to vote and run for the limited elected offices in the kingdom. But despite several public suggestions that he might dispense with this unique prohibition, Saudi women are still not allowed to drive. They remain subject to extraordinary restrictions and limitations that are onerous even by the standards of the rest of the Islamic world.

The recent controversy over the draconian sentence against liberal blogger Raif Badawi, which includes 1,000 lashes with a cane to be delivered in public (only the first 50 have actually been carried out), or the recent public beheading of a convicted murderer, again demonstrate the gulf between official Saudi perceptions and most of the rest of the world. Badawi’s case has been taken up by Amnesty International, and many of his supporters were hoping that King Abdullah would intervene personally with a pardon – an eventuality which would fit a long-standing pattern of royal “mercy” in recent Saudi history. These hopes now pass to Abdullah’s successor, King Salman.

While reforms under King Abdullah were limited and cautious, they did have some impact.

Among other things, there is an increasing pattern of prominent Saudis becoming far more publicly critical of official conduct. For example, last week the veteran Saudi journalist Khaled Almaeena complained in the New York Times that, “You reach a stage where you can’t defend the country… when someone is being lashed every Friday.”

As King Abdullah exits the stage, the floggings (and a wide range of related and analogous policies and practices) may be continuing. But the debate about their propriety is also intensifying. And that, at least, helps to set the stage for more far-reaching changes in the future.


Thank you, Bobby Jindal

The Louisiana governor has provided a timely demonstration of real Islamophobia

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks on the topic of "Rebuilding American Defense" at the American Enterprise Institute 6 October 2014 in Washington, DC (AFP/Getty Images/Win McNamee)

One of the more tiresome political clichés, almost as ubiquitous as the indefensible and virtually meaningless claim that “everything happens for a reason,” is the idea that almost anything can become a “teachable moment.” Frequently, indeed most of the time, in practice that’s really not true. Occasionally, however, even (or as it turns out especially) the most ridiculous outbursts — provided that they emerge at the right time and place — can constitute an invaluable intervention in the collective conversation.

Enter Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who is still insisting — despite well-established fact — that there are “no-go zones” in European countries like Britain and France where non-Muslims, including the police, dare not enter and which are ruled by vigilante extremist fanatics. Thesepreposterous allegations first surfaced on the FoxNews cable television channel, floated by self-styled “terrorism expert” Steven Emerson, who absurdly cited Birmingham as an entirely Muslim city in which non-Muslims hardly dare to enter. He added the claim that in parts of London, “Muslim religious police ‘beat’ anyone who doesn’t dress according to […] religious Muslim attire.”

Emerson has a long history of making up nonsense and spewing it in public. He blamed the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing on “Middle Eastern terrorists” because the culprits had “tried to kill as many as possible.” The attack was, of course, carried out by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Earlier, he had blamed the first World Trade Center bombing on Serbian extremists, when, in fact, Islamist fanatics were responsible.

Both Emerson and Fox subsequently apologized, particularly after an outcry from British Prime Minister David Cameron (who correctly pointed out that Emerson is “clearly a complete idiot”), as well as Birmingham authorities and officials in France (which was also accused of harboring extremist Muslim “no-go zones”).

Not for Bobby Jindal such lily-livered, craven kowtowing to the ruthless tyrant Fact! The sovereign independence of his imagination and convenient fantasyland will never capitulate to the dictates of reality.

In a speech at the increasingly jingoistic Henry Jackson Society in London [full disclosure: in the past, when the group had a rather different profile than it presently does, this author wrote a couple of papers for the think tank], the Louisiana governor accused some Muslim immigrants in the West of seeking “to colonize Western countries, because setting up your own enclave and demanding recognition of a no-go zone are exactly that.”

In a subsequent interview with CNN, Jindal insisted that such “no-go zones” do, in fact, exist, even though Fox and Emerson had both apologized for making the claim, and there is no evidence whatsoever supporting the allegation because it’s a ludicrous fiction. Indeed, this leap of bizarre, parochial, surrealist imagination about the strange doings in foreign countries that can take hold of the American mind, particularly on cable television, seems pulled directly from the brilliant satirical movieTeam America: World Police, which skewers, among many other things, how some Americans are capable of constructing the most preposterous fantasies about other societies, particularly in the context of anxieties about terrorism.

To his credit, CNN’s Max Foster pressed the governor to name one of these areas. Of course he couldn’t. But that didn’t stop him. Jindal insisted: “Look, I’ve heard from folks here that there are neighborhoods where women don’t feel comfortable going in without veils.” Obviously, that settles that, since he “heard” about it from “folks.” He also cited aDaily Mail article about urban problems that did not, in fact, mention religion or actually buttress any of his claims. In a final perfect grace note, Jindal had the astounding temerity to boast that in propagating this laughable fiction, he was merely being brave and honest especially since: “I knew by speaking the truth we were gonna make people upset.”

The episode is important — very important — because it illustrates much about the practical mechanics of bigotry and Islamophobia in contemporary American culture. There are several crucial facts to understand before any analysis of this brouhaha can proceed.

Jindal is a Rhodes scholar. That suggests he is not a stupid man, and he isn’t. And it means he studied (and lived) at one of the finest schools in Britain. So he knows he is lying, and that what he’s saying is not only untrue but ridiculous.

Moreover, Jindal knows where right-wingers have gone off the rails in recent years. In 2012 he complained: “It is no secret we had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with offensive, bizarre comments — enough of that. It’s not going to be the last time anyone says something stupid within our party, but it can’t be tolerated within our party. We’ve also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism. We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters.”

So it’s impossible not to conclude that Jindal is quite certain, correctly, that although his present comments about “no-go zones” in Europe deeply insults the intelligence of the voters, his comments will nonetheless be politically helpful to him.

There are several reasons for this.

First, there is still a zone of impunity for attacks against Muslims in the United States. Jindal figures he can get away with this, and he’s right.

Second, he knows that many people in the United States will believe him. They will want it to be true, and they will assume that it is true, and really not care whether or not it actually is true. This is already the case with several prominent “conservative” (read bigoted) commentators on the political right who are backing Jindal to the hilt.

Third, he understands, as Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post has pointed out, “that in politics, the worst thing you can be is irrelevant,” and that this outburst, no matter how ridiculous, is getting him a lot of attention. “Point, Jindal,” Cillizza concludes, and it’s hard to argue with that evaluation.

Fourth, and most importantly, Jindal is very familiar with the codes and dog whistles he is deploying. He packages his comments as an attack on “radical Islamists” and the “radical left,” when it’s quite clear that many if not most of his audience will assume that those terms actually, in practice, refer to Muslims in general and mainstream American liberals. Jindal is presenting his outburst as a defense of Western societies from an alien onslaught. “The huge issue, the big issue in non-assimilation,” he says, “is the fact that you have people that want to come to our country but not adopt our values, not adopt our language and in some cases want to set apart their own enclaves and hold on to their own values.”

This crude xenophobic fear of the other is a powerful political tool, as old as human society itself. French neo-fascist politician Marine Le Penessentially played the same card in an 18 January New York Times op-ed, in which she shamelessly tried to exploit the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices to press for “a policy restricting immigration.” She characterized what she called “massive waves of immigration” as an attack on “our laïcité, our sovereignty, our independence, our values.”

Both of these calculating cynics know perfectly well what they are doing by appealing to the public’s basest instincts of fear and loathing. They are dividing the world into “them” versus “us,” and making it very clear that the identifying characteristic of the “them” is that “they” are Muslims. Naturally, they don’t provide any benchmark for distinguishing radicals versus anybody else. It doesn’t matter to their game. What they are doing is seeking popularity and support based on chauvinism and jingoism.

Unfortunately, following Jindal’s outrageous comments, someone namedArsalan Iftikhar argued on MSNBC that the governor “might be trying to scrub some of the brown off of his skin.” This, of course, played into the racially-charged agenda Jindal is promoting and provided the Louisiana governor with a great deal of unintentional support which he certainly did not deserve. It’s a perfect example of precisely how not to argue against bigotry or, as in this case, Islamophobia.

On this site last week, I argued that the most recent Charlie Hebdo cover wasn’t bigoted, Islamophobic or in any other way objectionable. It’s useful now to have a perfect example of what Islamophobia actually looks like. Jindal is trying to cover his tracks by saying he’s talking about extremists, but by propagating urban legends and paranoid mythologies he is deliberately creating an atmosphere in which his listeners have little choice, assuming they believe him, but to conclude that there is a very dangerous menace in the form of an immigrant community that constitutes a dangerous fifth column in a clash of civilizations.

Like Le Pen, Jindal’s rhetoric is not only grotesquely unfair and untrue, it can only have the effect of making it more difficult for the individual members of Muslim communities and their families in the United States and other Western countries to function effectively and happily in their societies. It promotes fear and hatred of them. What makes it “phobic” is that it is irrational, particularly given that Jindal’s claims rely entirely on a mythological urban legend. Charlie Hebdo is an iconoclastic magazine that makes fun of Islam and all other religions. In its irreverence, it is clearly an equal opportunity offender. However, what Jindal is doing precisely singles out Muslims, stigmatizes them and promotes the idea that they are particularly or uniquely dangerous.

In any free society there has to be space and protection for rhetorical attacks, critiques, lampoons or any other speech that challenges religious ideas, icons or other sensitivities, particularly when they are dealing with abstractions, no matter how sacrosanct they are in some people’s eyes. Of course, this can cross the line into bigotry. But the benchmark for judging must always be the impact such speech has on the ability of actually existing, living human beings to live rich, full and, especially, equal lives in their own societies. Muslims, like other believers, are just going to have to live with critiques by atheists or agnostics or others about their religious views. But when those critiques cross the line into hate speech, they abandon any sense of fairness or accuracy and make claims that are clearly intended to, or will inevitably, stigmatize existing communities and create fear and hatred of them.

Assertions that Islam promotes murder, terrorism, lying, rape and so forth are not critiques of Islam. They are hate speech, because it is manifestly untrue, cannot be argued in good faith, and will inevitably have the effect of creating fear and hatred on the part of non-Muslims against individual Muslims. In the same way, attacks that argue that Judaism also promotes murder, terrorism, lying or rape are not only anti-Semitic, they are a very familiar and old-fashioned form of anti-Semitism. Indeed, the accusations by bigots against Muslims today are virtually indistinguishable from traditional accusations anti-Semites in the West have leveled against Jews, particularly from the middle of the 19th century until the end of the World War II.

So, I suppose that Jindal (and Le Pen, for that matter) are to be thanked, in a bizarre way, for reminding us of what Islamophobia really looks like, since so many people got confused about Charlie Hebdo and its iconoclastic caricatures. Their thinly-veiled, indeed barely-disguised, attacks on people (in this case Muslims) reminds us most helpfully that opposition to bigotry is about the defense of our fellow human beings and their right to be free from calumny. The battle against Islamophobia must, if it is to be successful and respectable, always be squarely directed along those lines. It cannot be about protecting people’s feelings or religious sensibilities. It cannot be about preventing attacks on religions — which, if they are true at all, can defend themselves — or any other set of abstractions.

But it can and must be about squarely recognizing, and insisting that others acknowledge, that attacks like these — which threaten the ability of individual people to practically and functionally be equal to others in their societies, and to live without being subjected to a climate of fear and hostility — have no place in respectable circles. Obviously there shouldn’t be any laws restricting bigotry. Free speech, if it is to have any meaning and really be free, must protect the most outlandish and ridiculous of opinions. But societies have a clear ethical obligation not to treat bigotry as if it were respectable.

Jindal’s comments should have meant the end of his career, and if he had made similar comments about many other groups it would have. In the future, there is no doubt that these kinds of remarks about American and European Muslims will not be uttered with the complete impunity that currently exists. But to get to that stage not only will everyone of goodwill have to redouble their efforts to stigmatize bigotry, we are going to have to be very clear about our definitions, identify hate speech as narrowly as possible, and choose our battles carefully.

America needs to develop a consistent policy in Syria

America needs to develop a consistent policy in Syria


United States’s strategy in the campaign against ISIL, particularly in Syria, is reaching a crisis point. On the ground, the limitations of the current approach are becoming clear. And politically in Washington, the issue appears to be ripening as a potential wedge that Republicans, now in control of the Senate, could use to attack the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

Many, including incoming Senate armed services committee chair John McCain, see the growing controversy over Syria policy as a more effective critique than the failed efforts to exploit the tragedy at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Both American military and independent assessments emphasise that, despite almost 800 air strikes against it in Syria, ISIL is continuing to consolidate and expand control over territory in that country. Critics point out that any campaign in which enemy forces are acknowledged to be intensifying control over key territories cannot be judged a success. And once that is acknowledged, the questions can only be these: what is going wrong and what can be changed to correct it. The voices in Washington that are demanding to know how policy is going to be adjusted to fix what’s broken are growing louder and more numerous by the day.

The Obama administration counters that nothing is going wrong at all. The Wall Street Journal quoted a senior American defence official as explaining: “Certainly ISIL has been able to expand in Syria, but that’s not our main objective.”

A military spokesman added that “gaining territorial control in Syria has never been our mission” and “That it wasn’t the objective of our air strikes”. Instead the air strikes in Syria were merely “shaping” actions designed to influence events on the ground in Iraq. But few are buying the idea that this is no big deal.

From the outset, American officials have acknowledged that there cannot be a clear distinction drawn between Syria and Iraq in the battle against ISIL, largely because the terrorist group doesn’t recognise one and acts accordingly. In August, Gen Martin Dempsey, US joint chiefs of staff chair, insisted that ISIL “will eventually have to be defeated,” but asked and answered the crucial question, “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organisation that resides in Syria? The answer is no.” He added that in this context the border between Iraq and Syria is “nonexistent”.

This prepared American legislators and citizens alike for the campaign of air strikes in Syria that quickly followed. But it also gives them ample grounds now for questioning not merely the wisdom, but the viability, of the administration’s “Iraq first” approach. In practice this has meant that whenever ISIL experiences major setbacks in Iraq, the terrorists retain their ability to seek refuge and regroup in Syria. Confusion over how such an approach is supposed to produce its stated goals of “degrading and destroying” ISIL is, to say the least, understandable.

Bewilderment and frustration are only intensified by a recent announcement that the American military will deploy 400 troops to train “moderate” Syrian rebels to fight ISIL. The problem isn’t simply that this figure seems impossibly small given the uncontested importance of the counter-ISIL mission. It’s also that this development brings into sharper focus than ever the crucial problem of American policy ambiguity on the future of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad. These moderate rebels, after all, will inevitably will be drawn from groups and constituencies that must be at least as opposed to Mr Al Assad, who is responsible for more than 100,000 deaths over the past three years, as they are to ISIL.

Spokesmen for the Free Syrian Army have made it very clear they intend to use any US weapons or training to fight Mr Assad as well as ISIL. And they claim that the Americans understand and approve this. But American policy statements on the subject are actually very murky, and the higher one goes in the pecking order, the less they seem consistent with any such interpretation.

In December, Gen John Allen, head of the global coalition to counter ISIL, affirmed that, when the conflict in Syria is concluded, “as far as the US is concerned, there is no Bashar Al Assad, he is gone”. However, when asked if the United States is considering ways of removing the Syrian president, Barack Obama simply said, “No.”

Indeed, former defence secretary Chuck Hagel was dismissed after an internal memo he circulated warned that the campaign against ISIL was, as The New York Times summarised it, “in danger of unravelling because of its failure to clarify its intentions” regarding Mr Assad’s future.

Mr Obama has, at times, come close to acknowledging the contradiction that is bedevilling his policy towards Syria. But, he insists, his plan has a “strong chance of success” in Iraq, while Syria remains “more challenging”.

The unavoidable fact, however, is that the coalition cannot have a plausible strategy to defeat ISIL in Iraq without simultaneously having one in Syria. That will require a greater effort in Syria, and one moreover that is based on an unambiguous American stance against the continuation of Mr Al Assad in power. Until that happens, expect confusion and frustration to keep intensifying over a policy that is drifting into crisis.

Where’s the Moral Clarity of #JeSuisCharlie When Free Speech Isn’t Safe?

Worlds Apart: A Pakistani policeman stands guard at the Parliament as it passed a symbolic resolution condemning Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed as ‘blasphemous.’

After any great tragedy, especially if it involves a sensational crime, people invariably set to work. Societies erect symbolic monuments of affinity and empathy. Narratives are constructed to make sense of the cataclysm. A sense of order is restored through theatrical displays of civic unity and common purpose. And the collective hunt is on for that most elusive of big game: moral clarity in a world that typically offers a hazy and sometimes obscure reality of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Such determination was readily evident in France in the wake of the appalling massacre at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. It even took on an international dimension, with world leaders converging on Paris to take part in an inspiringly vast anti-terrorism rally. At the head of the march, indeed, four other dignitaries, including French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, carefully separated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The resulting news photograph spoke volumes about the apparent eagerness of the human family to unite, despite all other differences, in condemnation of this brutal assault on free speech.

Everyone, it seems, can agree that it is absolutely and categorically morally unacceptable for armed hoodlums to massacre cartoonists in order to “punish” or deter such expression. This was the simple and unassailable assertion of moral clarity that was supposedly being offered as a corrective to the heinous massacre by the collective voice of the international community and humanity in general, lunatic fringes notwithstanding. But was it really?

In some significant Muslim-majority states that same week, discordant notes were being struck that disrupt this quest for harmony and consensus. The Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, who was arrested in 2012 for co-founding the website “Liberal Saudi Network,” received the first 50 of the 1,000 lashes he was sentenced to, in addition to 15 years in prison and more than $250,000 in fines. One of the key charges against Badawi was “insulting Islam” — in other words, blasphemy.

There isn’t any moral equivalency at work here. Badawi was not killed. Indeed, a bootleg video circulating online that apparently depicts his public flogging outside a mosque in Jeddah after Friday prayers suggests that it was a humiliating, unpleasant and painful experience, but not the brutal and bloody affair one might have feared.

Instead, what is troubling is a logical continuum. Badawi was judged guilty of blasphemy and of “insulting Islam.” For that he was punished by the state. A part of his punishment was corporal, in which the supposed sins and crimes of his mind were expiated by the mortification of his flesh. There is a world of difference between Badawi’s fate and that of the Charlie Hebdo victims. But there is also a chain of reason in which the basic ideas behind the Saudi judicial flogging can be twisted to rationalize the Charlie Hebdo attack.

A dreadful incident — that same week, as it happens — illustrates how this pseudo-logical sequence can unfold. Pakistan is one of the countries most bedeviled by the abuse of blasphemy charges against defenseless people (usually religious minorities of one sort or another), deployed by cynical political forces to serve their own narrow and parochial interests. In 2011, Aabid Mehmood was accused of claiming to be a prophet and was indicted on charges of blasphemy. On January 6, he was abducted from his home and his bullet-ridden corpse was discovered the next day in a deserted area. In a similar incident on January 8, a policeman shot and wounded Muhammad Asghar, who is on death row in Pakistan for blasphemy. The same accusation — that he claimed to be a prophet — was leveled against Asghar, who has reportedly been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

When states make blasphemy a crime punishable by not just imprisonment but also flogging and even, theoretically, execution, the moral case against murdering accused blasphemers is reduced merely to arguments against vigilantism.

Moral clarity on free speech and punishment fades into an even greater haze when the attitudes of many Western states are brought into the mix. Some European countries still have anti-blasphemy laws on the books, and many, including France, have criminalized Holocaust denial. When the pro-Nazi historian David Irving was sentenced to three years in prison in Austria for Holocaust denial, there was very little outcry in the rest of Europe or the West. France has just exacerbated reasonable claims by Muslims and other minorities of a double-standard by arresting 54 people, significantly including the noted comedian Dieudonné, for “supporting terrorism” through their own comments. So it’s true that some obnoxious speech and satire is protected, while others — especially anti-Semitic outbursts — are frequently prosecuted in France.

People yearn for moral clarity because our response to atrocities must be principled and consistent. But even in much of the West, in fact, there is no moral clarity — only a thick fog of partiality and selective outrage — regarding free speech and punishment. For there, too, the idea that certain forms of expression cross the line not only of decency and respectability but also of permissibility and criminal legality is already hard-wired into the law and the conduct of the state.

Of course none of that even begins to justify the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. And the proper response to that atrocity for states and their leaders can’t be limited to histrionic expressions of outrage. Many Muslim-majority states and Western societies need to take a good look at their own laws and conduct. They must communicate at least enough moral clarity on freedom of speech to deny any basis for rationalizing or justifying violence or any other form of coercion in the name of punishing blasphemy.


Tout Est Pardonné

Charlie Hebdo’s latest cover isn’t objectionable; it’s brave and touching

The latest Charlie Hebdo cover (via Twitter)

You would think people would have the decency to let this go. You really would. But with the blood of much of its core leadership still wet on the ground, French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is in trouble with the devout and the sanctimonious, as always. I suppose they wouldn’t have had it any other way. Their latest cover has come under heavy fire from many quarters. It depicts a figure identified by many people, including some of those associated with the magazine, as representing the Prophet Muhammed. Under the banner “Tout Est Pardonné” (“all is forgiven”), the figure is tearful and holding a sign reading “Je Suis Charlie.”

It may be their finest hour. Somehow the usually puerile and intentionally vile Charlie Hebdo has managed, on its own terms, to be magnanimous and occupy the high moral ground while at the same time nonetheless infuriating the thin-skinned religious types that are its favorite targets. That’s an impressive circle to square. My friends and colleagues at The National newspaper in the United Arab Emirates have made the best case one could against Charlie Hebdo’s new cover, but I find it entirely unconvincing. Here’s why it makes no sense for anyone to be offended, annoyed or angry.

First, there is no consensus or blanket ban against representations of the Prophet in the vast spectrum of religious belief that constitutes Islam as a social text, both historically and in the present day. There have, in fact, been thousands of representations of Muhammed by Muslims that have been respectful and devout. Whenever this issue comes up, some historian of religion or art or something has to devote — and really we ought to be able to say waste, but unfortunately we cannot — some of their time to explaining how false and ahistorical the claim that there is an “Islamic” prohibition against representing the Prophet really is. The latest example comes from Christiane Gruber in Newsweek, but there are dozens of other similar articles that make this elementary, but somehow weirdly elusive, point for those who somehow still don’t or won’t get it. This oldie but goodie from a few years ago by my friend Omid Safi is always worth revisiting as well.

Second, several commentaries following the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices, including this one by Lucas Powers or this one by Jack Jenkins, have made the case that the problem isn’t with representations of the Prophet Muhammed as such, but is one of perceived disrespect. Let’s put aside for a moment that nobody has a right to expect their beliefs to be respected in a free society and especially by cartoonists and satirists. It’s extremely hard to argue that the new Charlie Hebdo cover isn’t respectful, if we assume it really is depicting the Prophet Muhammed. If that’s the case, he is being shown (and not at all for the first time by this magazine) as being much more humane and decent than some of his followers, particularly violent extremists. This time, the magazine has depicted him as being opposed to violence that has been foisted on his name and reputation by murderous gangsters (they did this before in their famous “It’s hard to be loved by jerks” cover a few years ago). In the immediate context of the massacre — and given the well-established beliefs of the iconoclasts, atheists and communists that make up the staff and leadership of Charlie Hebdo — clearly this cover is not only relatively respectful, it’s downright generous.

Third, it’s worth noting that there isn’t anything inherent in the image that necessarily identifies it as a representation of the Prophet Muhammed. If one believes such representations are “sacrilegious” or “blasphemous” and one looks at this image and concludes that it qualifies, to some extent it is the viewer themselves who imposes that reality on an image that could be interpreted very differently. Obviously, not only does nobody know what the Prophet Muhammed actually looked like, it can be confidently stated that this is not in any way a remotely convincing caricature of an inhabitant of the Arabian Peninsula in the sixth and seventh centuries. So, to a certain extent, to those who are offended by it, this cover is a trap. If there is blasphemy at work, the bulk, if not all of it, is imposed on this otherwise and on its own terms rather ambiguous image by viewers and readers who are insisting on seeing it in the most objectionable light possible. One could, after all, easily dismiss it as not really representing anything remotely like the Prophet Muhammed.

Those who claim to see genitalia or other provocative images buried or encoded in the cartoon are equally demonstrating their own proclivities. They are only there if you think you see them. I don’t, and for me they are not there. If you do think so, and see them there, that says a lot about you and nothing at all about the image itself. Dust off the Freud, read a bit and think again.

Fourth, what’s the alternative? What if Charlie Hebdo had, to the contrary, announced that it would never again depict an image that could be interpreted by anyone as representing the Prophet Muhammed? Would that not mean, simply, that the terrorists had won? that iconoclastic satirists had been cowed by terrorism, brutality and mass-murdered into silence? Is there anyone who respects the Prophet Muhammed or follows the traditional values of mainstream Islam and would not be horrified that a sudden “respect” for their sensitivities was not attributable to having been, in some sense, legitimately earned, that the power of the argument had carried the day, but instead that raw fear and terror had prevailed?

Even for those who disapprove of depictions of the Prophet Muhammed, isn’t murder far worse an offense? If the terrorists have created a binary between the two (as indeed they surely have), isn’t it worse for murder to prevail over iconoclasm? Is there really a good argument to be made that the correct response to this terrorist attack is for the magazine to surrender in the face of that assault? If so, what’s the limit? Who next should feel compelled to alter their behavior and abandon their values because they don’t want to be shot by violent extremists? And wouldn’t that imply, in the final analysis, a tacit endorsement of the effectiveness, if not the validity, of terrorism and murder as a tactic? If we really oppose violence, clearly we cannot seriously counsel capitulation to its coercive force.

Fifth, it is up to those who do not approve of depictions of the Prophet Muhammed on the grounds of the religious sensitivities of some Muslims to propose a practicable and viable way of balancing their disapproval with the requirements of any society that values freedom of conscience and expression. Of course they are free to disapprove all they want. Publications such as the New York Times can decide, as it did, that it did not want to reprint images that many people find religiously objectionable. That, too, is a free-speech right, and a perfectly legitimate decision. And so is the choice made by Charlie Hebdo today.

If publications are not free to make both the New York Times’ and theCharlie Hebdo judgments, then what sort of free speech are we really talking about? Ultimately, there can be no freedom of speech, or freedom of conscience and religion either, if there is no freedom to “blaspheme” in the eyes of others, and to engage in iconoclasm and irreverence towards faith, in general or in particular. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation continues, mainly through Pakistan (which, of course, is one of the worst violators of human rights via anti-blasphemy laws and usually unpunished vigilante actions), an outrageous “Combating the Defamation of Religions” initiative at the UN and other multilateral agencies. This effort to create a zone of impunity around religious sensibilities has been, and will remain, a complete failure because it’s an obvious and blatant attack on the fundamental and universal principles of freedom of speech and conscience.

The onus is very much on those who would go beyond countering speech with speech and look instead for governmental or even international authority to protect religious sensibilities by restricting speech to explain how any of that could possibly be consistent with freedom of religion, freedom of thought and conscience, and freedom of speech. Making the case about double standards and hypocrisy, which is sometimes accurate especially with regard to Europe, doesn’t bolster the argument for restricting speech. It makes the case for eliminating restrictions on indefensible exemption such as laws criminalizing Holocaust denial in a number of European states.

Finally, there is an objectionable quality to the way in which people engaged in this debate who are critical of the new Charlie Hebdo cover typically presume to speak on behalf of large groups of Muslims, whether in France or anywhere else. It’s typically said that “Muslims have been insulted” without any consideration that there undoubtedly is a significant constituency of Muslims who don’t care what Charlie Hebdo publishes at all, and hence have no objections. People are even attributing this sensitivity to Ahmed Merabet, the French police officer who was one of the first victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. With respect, no one knows how this victim of terrorism would have reacted to Charlie Hebdo’sresponse on its cover today. He might have been insulted. Or, like quite a few Muslims I know, he might have regarded it as a moving and touching, and entirely appropriate, reaction to a terrible crime and tragedy.

Terrorist acts, not cartoons, provoke Islamophobia–provoke-islamophobia

Terrorist acts not cartoons provoke Islamophobia


In response to the appalling attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the cry of Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie) has gone up in France, the rest of Europe and around the world.

The idea, of course, was been to express complete solidarity, to the point of total identification, with the slain journalists and their right to publish provocative and even offensive material. However, almost immediately a dissenting voice also emerged in western discourse, condemning some of the material and refusing to identify with it.

Everyone ostensibly condemns the attacks, but some have been pointing out what was supposedly objectionable about Charlie Hebdo’s content and style. Almost all of these charges end up embracing the idea, although often without using the term, that Charlie Hebdo was an Islamophobic publication.

What difference would it really make in this case? Even if it were Islamophobic, that does not justify heavily armed thugs bursting into its staff meeting and murdering a dozen people.That said, the charge is very serious. One of the problems is that the generic style that Charlie Hebdo follows is peculiarly, perhaps even uniquely, French. It is puerile, crude, vile, intentionally disgusting, and patently offensive. It is so quintessentially French that there is an untranslatable term for it: gouaille.

This doesn’t translate into other languages because no one else quite has the same tradition of mockery calculated to be disgusting. The best explanation of the tradition in the context of the attack was provided by Arthur Goldhammer on the website of Al Jazeera America.

Goldhammer explains: “The whole point of Charlie’s satire was to be tasteless and obscene, to respect no proprieties, to make its point by being untameable and incorrigible and therefore unpublishable anywhere else.”

He adds that “the essence of Charlie Hebdo was to express the inexpressible in images with the power to shock and offend,” and warns that the rush by “respectable” publications to lionise and champion Charlie Hebdo makes no sense because it is “the precise opposite of what the living Charlie was about”.

Having established that, is Charlie Hebdo in any meaningful sense Islamophobic? The question is crucial, in order to to help us come to a collective understanding of what that contested term should properly mean.

A workable definition is indispensable for those who would effectively and honourably oppose Islamophobia in any given society, and globally.

The key to a practicable definition of Islamophobia that can help identify truly objectionable speech, must be that it refers to living human beings and their fundamental rights. It cannot be about protecting people from being offended, or having their feelings hurt. Still less can it be about protecting abstract ideas, religious dogmas, or cultural norms from being questioned, critiqued or even lampooned.

The proper metric to identify genuinely bigoted speech is whether or not the expression in question is intended or likely to have the effect of promoting fear and hatred against broad categories of people based on their identity. Would such speech make it more difficult for communities to function effectively in their own society? In other words, does the speech attack the legitimate rights and interests of identity-based communities? Does it prevent them being seen as, and treated as equal by, and with regard to, other communities?

Charlie Hebdo certainly does not meet this standard. While many of the images it printed over the years were offensive to Muslims and many others, and were intended to be so, did its track record really suggest that its presence on the French scene in any way compromised, challenged or complicated the ability of the Arab and Muslim migrant communities in France to function properly in that society? Clearly, the answer is no.

Its new crop of critics don’t take the idea that it was an equal opportunities offender seriously – but they should. Many of these new critics had probably not even heard of Charlie Hebdo a week ago. And some of the rest may have flipped through an issue or two at most. But the magazine really was an equal opportunities offender and this is an absolutely crucial point to acknowledge.

Did Charlie Hebdo single out Muslims and Islam for special vitriol? I don’t think any sincere or serious reader of the magazine over the past decade or so could honestly maintain that, any more than a viewer of the American TV show South Park could make that claim about its representations of Muslims, Mormons or Scientologists, for that matter.

Charlie Hebdo did, in fact, go after everything in its path with its classically puerile gouaille style of irreverence. Like many other lampoons, it was particularly drawn to mocking religion. But it spoofed all religions equally. The fact that it did not give Islam a pass is hardly evidence of Islamophobia.

The fact is that for all of its calculated offence, Charlie Hebdo did not attack or compromise the ability of French Muslims to function successfully in their own society. It is not obnoxious and freewheeling satire but terrorist atrocities that really and devastatingly promote Islamophobia in France and around the world.

The False Piety of the Hebdo Hoodlums

Fanaticism has an unerring ability to undermine its most cherished values. The fanatic’s fog of irrationality and rage typically renders him (and the most powerful fanatics are reliablyhims) not only incapable of successfully pursuing imagined goals, but often only effective in damaging or destroying them. The thugs who broke into the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo yesterday and murdered twelve people in the name of God and religion no doubt imagined that they were “avenging blasphemy.” But in reality, they committed an act of supreme blasphemy. They insulted, traduced, and denigrated the Prophet Muhammad, Islam, and Muslims the world over as effectively as possible.

Like any good lampoon, in the course of satirizing everything it encountered, Charlie Hebdohad, on numerous occasions, depicted the Prophet Muhammad in its cartoons. Indeed, it reprinted the notorious set of cartoons first printed by the Danish publication Jyllands-Posten that touched off a wave of hysterical threats, unrest, and riots in several countries in 2006. In November, 2011, the Charlie Hebdo offices were bombed on the eve of the publication of an edition entitled “Charia Hebdo,” that also claimed Muhammad as a “guest editor.” The magazine and its editors fielded numerous threats from Muslim extremists, and turned up on a kind of “most wanted” list published by the Al Qaeda magazine Inspire.

The idea that Charlie Hebdo was not only a legitimate target but also an important one was long- and well-established in extremist Islamist circles. For many traditional Muslims, especially in the Arab world and Sunni tradition, any depiction at all of Muhammad—even one that attempts to be respectful—is unacceptable. The caricatures in Charlie Hebdomade no effort to be respectful—that, indeed, was usually their point. The extremists sought to redact in blood what ink had portrayed on paper.

Sensitivity, indeed hypervigilance, about the Prophet is deeply rooted. A Persian saying advises, “Bā khudā dīwāna bāsh o bā Muhammad hoshiyār,” which more or less translates as “go crazy with God, but be careful with Muhammad.” The prohibition against representations of the Prophet has its origins in an effort to prevent iconography from diluting the pure monotheism of the faith. Tradition holds that Muhammad repeatedly warned that he should not be the subject of any veneration.

From this, the idea arose that representations of the Prophet were blasphemous, because they could potentially become an alternate source of devotion that could challenge the primacy of God and his literal word, the Koran. In many iterations of Islam, this prohibition has become absolute. The effect, however, has been precisely the opposite of its intention. Rather than keeping the Prophet life-sized, the prohibition of his image has served instead to sacralize, in very precise terms, the Muhammad of the Muslim imagination.

Moreover, as Islam has developed over the centuries in competition with, and along lines broadly parallel to, its monotheistic siblings, Christianity and Judaism, Muslims have developed a special sensitivity about Muhammad because what he represents is what uniquely distinguishes Islam from rival Abrahamic faiths. There isn’t much in Christianity or Judaism that Islam does not incorporate in some way, but Muhammad cannot be anything other than a dividing line between the youngest monotheism and its predecessors. A perceived attack on Muhammad, therefore, seems to charge directly into the deepest chasm between them, and to tweak an exposed Muslim nerve—particularly in the era of postcolonial states in Asia and Africa and alienated, unassimilated immigrant communities in Western Europe.

The violent extremists, therefore, are irresistibly drawn to the bizarre quest to “avenge” Muhammad from supposed slights, especially satiric ones. In so doing they are besmirching his name and his memory in the most insulting manner. They are constructing the global image of a “man of God” who requires his followers to murder innocent people in broad daylight, including bystanders, in order to punish or prevent any form of disrespect. What they have painted in coagulate gore is the portrait of a tyrant who, even from the grave, dispatches his minions to enforce a totalitarian order centered around a narcissistic cult of personality expressed not in endless fawning icons, but even more powerfully in a complete prohibition against any depiction at all.

Sometimes, there is more at work in these violent outbursts than what first meets the eye. The first of these now depressingly familiar instances in which Muslim extremists employ terrorism to supposedly implement these strictures was the notorious 1989 fatwa by the Iranian dictator Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, urging the killing of author Salman Rushdie and all those involved in the publication of his satiric novel The Satanic Verses. At the time—and ever since—almost everyone had assumed that Khomeini was either cynically manipulating a “scandal” that began in Britain and India for both global and domestic political purposes, or was genuinely pursuing a fanatical interpretation of Islam that allows for no dissent, satire, or freethinking.

But another, even more cynical, interpretation is also available, although deeply neglected. It’s not enough to merely observe that Rushdie’s novel isn’t blasphemous at all, and that this would be obvious to anyone who really read the book. More to the point, all who actually did read it carefully—and there is no doubt that the bookish Khomeini, or at least some in his inner circle, had done so—would immediately see that one of its most successful passages is an extended and brutally effective caricature of Khomeini himself. The character known as “The Imam,” a disgruntled exile in London who wants to turn back all clocks and reverse the passage of time, lampoons Khomeini politically and intellectually. Rushdie even mocks this Khomeini stand-in’s physical features and facial expressions. Rushdie’s book didn’t ridicule Islam or Muhammad. But it did roast the Ayatollah in no uncertain terms.

It’s entirely plausible—and indeed, I think, likely—that a megalomaniac like Khomeini was motivated in large measure to extract revenge against Rushdie and all of his collaborators more on personal than religious or broader political grounds. No one knows if there is any connection between the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and an organization like ISIS. But, it is suggestive that the final tweet from the magazine before it was attacked featured a caricature of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The latest Muslim megalomaniac—so self-aggrandizing that he actually appointed himself the new “caliph,” a move suggestive of the classic French cartoon Iznogoud, in which the Grand Vizier’s catchphrase is “Je veux être calife à la place du calife” (“I want to be Caliph instead of the Caliph”)—or his followers may also have taken this personally.

Of course, such a personal slight isn’t necessary. For Takfiri and Salafist-Jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda or ISIS, as well as other violent Muslim extremists and their followers, almost no excuse for violence against anyone outside of their immediate circles is required before the trigger is pulled or the bomb detonated. The good news is that with the rise of ISIS, the sentiment against such extremists in the Muslim world, and especially the Arab Middle East, is rapidly expanding—particularly among governments and national leaders. The bad news is that their appeal is sustained, and perhaps intensifying, among a violent fringe alienated from mainstream societies in both the East and West.

Muslims are growing increasingly uneasy with the effort to dismiss, or otherwise explain away, the death cult that has arisen on the fringe of the faith as an aberration or an irrelevancy. Westerners, for their part, are growing tired of Islamophobic rhetoric that blames Islam as a religion or Muslims at large for violent Islamist extremism. One can dare to hope, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, that these parallel movements might lead to an effective coordinated response, bringing Islamic and Western traditions of free expression forcefully to bear against the bloody, self-defeating legacy of Islamist extremists. And a converging, cross-cultural defense of free speech and rational religious pluralism is the best sort of homage we can pay to the writers and artists brutally gunned down in Paris.