On Sunday, January 11, 2015, the world watched more than 3 million demonstrators marching in France, including 50 heads of state and government in Paris along with religious representatives -- notably Muslims, Jews and Christians. The source of this exceptional movement: the execution of a part of the editorial team of Charlie Hebdo's weekly magazine, followed by the assassination of police officers, then of French-Jewish citizens in a kosher market. On the previous day, 700,000 people had taken part in silent marches, peacefully, in major cities in France, carrying somber placards: "Je suis Charlie", "Liberté", "Contre les fanatismes", "Contre le terrorisme", "Contre le racisme" ("I am Charlie", "Liberty", "Against fanaticism", "Against terrorism", "Against racism").
Nine years earlier, the publication of drawings of Muhammed by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, reprinted partially or completely from various publications, including Charlie Hebdo but also from the Muslim-majority press of the Arab world (Al-Haq, Al-Anbat, Al-Liwa), sparked a wave of protests. For three weeks, they extended from northern Europe to Indonesia, and to South Africa, leading to several dozen deaths. In Iraq, two thousand demonstrators called for a fatwa authorizing the assassination of the cartoonists. In London, Sunni members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international pan-Islamic political organization, deployed banners calling for the decapitation of the "infidels." In Yemen, imams preached about the "legal" murder of journalists who had "copied the enemies of Islam." In Amman, the editor-in-chief of the Shihane, a Jordanian newspaper, wrote an article entitled "Muslims of the world, be reasonable." He asked: "What brings more prejudice against Islam, these cartoons or the images of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras?" He was threatened, arrested and required to publicly ask for forgiveness for his statements.
In response to the Jyllands-Posten controversy, heads of state and government took varied positions: George W. Bush, Angela Merkel and Jacques Chirac condemned the violence, while calling for an end to the "provocations." The prime minister of Norway, where the cartoons were also distributed, publicly asked for forgiveness. And in Turkey, where the drawings were not published, Erdogan sent a letter to his counterparts to affirm that no "liberty on earth may be used to degrade or insult sacred beliefs, values or symbols." Similarly, lobbying was conducted -- in vain -- by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation at the Human Rights Council to prevent the "defamation of religions and of prophets."
Our contemporary world is schizophrenic. Members of the European Union contradict themselves: France maintains "anti-blasphemy" legislation in Alsace-Moselle, which continues to live under the debt restructuring plan favoring the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths. In 2009, Ireland adopted "anti-blasphemy" legislation aiming to punish attacks on "all religions." The United Kingdom's House of Commons contemplated expanding its "anti-blasphemy" legislation, which only protected Anglicanism, before repealing it altogether. In the United States, religious satire is a taboo, as recalled by David Brooks in an editorial for the New York Times entitled "I Am Not Charlie Hebdo." "On any American university campus over the last two decades [Charlie Hebdo] wouldn't have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down." In 2012, Kuwait, a Muslim-majority Arab country, adopted legislation enforcing capital punishment against anyone blaspheming against "God, the Prophet and his wives." A small minority (four Shiite members of parliament) opposed it because they wanted to add the names of the "Twelve Imams." Saudi Arabia, which on Wednesday denounced the attack on Charlie Hebdo, had two days earlier enforced -- near the al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah -- the beginning of the sentence against blogger Raif Badawi: 1,000 lashes in series of 50 lashes spread out over 20 weeks, for "insulting Islam."
Where are the investigators and journalists who in recent years have intelligently explained that the only factors in violence are at their root social, economic, political or geopolitical? We certainly do not want to minimize the importance of these factors: the cynicism of the leaders of the multinational companies exploiting the world's natural resources, or financiers playing with stock market prices, not to mention some NGOs that divert aid money intended for populations in need, etc. And we certainly do not seek to reduce religions, as well as non-religious ideologies, to the violent image they have historically carried. But who would say that deadly acts and statements have never been committed in the name of a faith -- whichever faith it may be -- throughout history? What historian would explain away the "wars of religion" between European Christians in the 16th and 17th centuries as mere socio-economic casualties? What is the rationale behind this bastion of thought that, in recent days, led to the statements that this was a case of "madmen" who "distorted religion," as if there were religious elements purely detached from what these men did?
In 2006, the chairman of the European Council for Fatwa and the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, denounced the "offense given to Islam." Today, he condemns the "spilled blood of innocents", without specifying which, but recalling from time to time the necessity to remain faithful to the thawâbit ("the immutable principles") that comprise the hudud (punishments/ penal laws of Islam under Sharia law), including corporal punishment and death sentences. Again in 2006, Hassan Nasrallah, believing that "if a Muslim were found to execute the Imam Khamenei's fatwa against the renegade Salman Rushdie, this rabble insulting the prophet [Muhammad] in Denmark, Norway and in France would not dare to do so." Nearly a decade later, the Hezbollah secretary general has opined: "Through their heinous, violent and inhumane acts, these groups have offended the Prophet, Muslims more than their enemies have [...], more than books, films and cartoons have injured the Prophet."
Religion is a factor in the words and actions of a number of our contemporaries, with context sometimes serving as impetus. Faith in God(s) feeds the impulse for brotherhood and solidarity, for creation, just as it does the impulse for hate, violence and destruction. The tens of millions of "Bien fait pour Charlie" (well done with Charlie) and "Je suis Kouachi" (I am Kouachi) hashtags from children of the French Republic should not be taken lightly. The same goes for the hostage-taking, and the death of some of these hostages at the Porte de Vincennes market. The spread of anti-semitism in the Muslim community is a reality demonstrated during the last Muslim forum in Brussels, to which Kuwaiti sheikh Tareq al-Suwaidan, author of a 450-page essay titled The Jews: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (2009) was invited. One of the aims of this work, available online, is to "attest to, through evidence and accounts, that the falsified religion of the Jews, itself, encourages them to practice treason and treachery, and feeds them to make them a special group among humans, and confers upon them the right to exploit others on the most hideous paths of duplicity."
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a gangrene whose explanatory framework can not only be summarized as a war of neo-colonization/decolonization. It presents a number of similarities with the India-Pakistan conflict, which also began nearly 70 years ago. There is no oil behind the "Wailing Wall", under the "Temple Mount" in Jerusalem. It is religious references that led a rabbi to say: "This land called Judea and Samaria is Jewish," to which a sheikh replied "this land is Arab and Muslim," and the two urged their followers to fight -- to the point of massacring each other -- at Hebron, around the tomb of the Cave of the Patriarchs. There is certainly no lack of those regularly calling for peaceful coexistence. But one or two religious states will never be democratic societies, at least that arrangement has not existed in the past: there are always those who believe they are more equal than others in such arrangements, and this is still the case in Israel and Pakistan. A state religion, whatever the religion, creates de jure and de facto discrimination.
Should we add that these actions and customs are not exclusive to monotheists, as demonstrated by the ongoing persecution of Muslims by Buddhists in Burma or calls for hate from Hindus in India? Should we specify that neither agnostics nor atheists are immune, as illustrated by sporadic anti-religious protests, once massive in the 1960s and 1970s, conducted by the Chinese Communist Party? France, as seen from Cairo to Kathmandu with homage to its victims, is not an island in this world. Racism has fed off of fears to provoke attacks against places of worship, particularly Muslim places, as seen in recent days. The secular regime, which citizens have participated in for more than a century with periods of high tension and even conflicts, has always been based on a delicate balance depending on the way each of us appropriates the terms.
This post originally appeared on HuffPost France and was translated into English.