THE BLOG
01/14/2015 10:33 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

Start With 'Thou Shalt Not Kill'

In response to the Paris massacres, as we reach out to the Muslim world, we should not focus on the value of freedom of expression but on that of life. There are both principled and prudential reasons for starting with "thou shalt not kill." Americans tend to speak about human rights as if they were all created equal, indeed are one bundle. Actually, we pay much more mind to legal and civil rights than to socio-economic rights, which some democracies -- and the UN Declaration of Human Rights -- hold dear.

Nor do all legal and civil rights have the same standing. Logically, the right to life takes precedent because all other rights are contingent on the right to life being respected -- while respecting other rights does not secure the right to life. In plain English, dead people have few rights, while those alive may live to fight another day for other rights. Moreover, our criminal code, and that of most other nations, including Muslim ones, punishes murder much more severely than other crimes, revealing the special reverence we hold to life. First of all, don't kill.

Most of the arguments made in defense of Charlie Hebdo are beside the point when we seek to address devout Muslims who are not jihadists -- the group we should most seek to win over. The fact that Charlie Hebdo is an equal-opportunity offender, and mocks all religions and many other sacred values, does not comfort a devout follower of the Prophet. That shutting down the press will silence democracy and democracy cannot survive silence, is not much of a conversation starter with the majority of Muslims.

In an analysis of a very large number of public opinion polls conducted in Muslim countries, we found that the majority of all Muslims, including Arab Muslims, reject violence (terrorism, suicide bombings, etc.) -- but only a minority favors human rights. (We called them "illiberal moderates.") True, a greater number favors democracy; however, they often do not mean by it what Americans do. This is revealed in that Muslim majorities favor a still greater role for religion in public affairs. And in observations, such as that by a leader of the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda, who told a Washington, D.C., group that he is all in favor of democracy -- because he cherishes full employment. In short, trying to talk with a devout Muslim about John Locke or Thomas Jefferson may be a rather short conversion.

It would be more productive to start with those lines of the Quran that rejecting forcing one's beliefs on others, such as "And do not take any human being's life -- that God willed to be sacred -- other than in [the pursuit of] justice" (17:33) and "O you unbelievers, I do not worship what you worship, nor do you worship who I worship... to you your way and to me mine" (109:1-6). The Quran exhorts all Muslims to "call them [unbelievers] to the path of your Lord with wisdom and words of good advice; and reason with them in the best way possible" (16:125). When Muhammad exclaims, "Oh Lord, these are certainly a people who do not believe," Allah responds to him, "Turn away from them and say: 'Peace'" (43:88-89).

The main subtext of our message ought to be: you may well be offended, and you may well feel that even if one has a right to publish these cartoons -- it is wrong to exercise this right when dealing with sacred subjects. But it does not follow that it is acceptable to respond to being offended -- by killing anyone. One of the surviving editors of Charlie Hebdo told the BBC that "Islam must accept humor." I beg to differ. Islam must not be used to try to legitimate killing, but should not be expected to laugh at what we find funny or mock those we try to belittle.

Because we believe Muslims will be better for it if they live in a democracy, and we are called upon to help them see the light -- we tend to ask them to accept the whole megillah. However, if they cannot come to embrace the Bill of Rights, do not see the value of freedom of expression, and are offended by cartoons -- we can live with that and with them. The main point that we must state more clearly is that we will not tolerate if they will continue to seek to impose their values on others by killing people. The good news is that on this point, polls show, we are closer to agreement with most Muslims than on any of the others. Hence, let's start with "thou shalt not kill."

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and author, most recently, of The New Normal: Finding a Balance between Individual Rights and the Common Good. You can follow him on Twitter.