Stop demonizing Islam

Thousands of people gather at Place de la Nation during a rally in Paris, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Muslims are scary and need to be banished until they are properly civilized. I say this as a test to see how far satire can go in Charleston without being violently punished. As it turns out, although some free speech is bigoted, most of it is protected by the ground rules of an open society.

Yet sometimes even the most ardent defenders of these ground rules can inadvertently compromise them.

From Pope Francis to cable news, Muslims have been called upon to condemn the recent attacks in Paris against Charlie Hedbo. But demanding that Muslims account for terrorism is about one thing and one thing alone - putting them in their place.

To begin, some conceptual clarity is in order. The violence in Paris, and the much more brutal massacre by Boko Haram in Nigeria last weekend, were acts of terror. This means the use of cheap, symbolic violence against civilians to attain both internal and external political goals.

Terrorism follows a distinct logic: Violence serves the internal functions of organization and control, and terrorized populations may eventually press their governments to accommodate the goals of the assailants. And while it is unlikely France will become a blasphemy-free Islamic caliphate anytime soon, the truth is that terrorist violence is both an effective signal to internal constituents, and often results in the political concessions its perpetrators seek from the states they attack.

There have been essentially two sets of reactions to the Charlie Hedbo killings. The first has been the defiant screams of Je Suis Charlie! from the rooftops. Driving this massive gesture of solidarity is the fierce defense of free speech as a presumed cornerstone of civilization.

To be sure, there isn't a seamless agreement over what this principle means. People disagree over what constitutes blasphemy and bigotry, what is funny and what is tasteless.

And the event throws into sharper relief liberalism's schizophrenia over whether criticizing Islam is legitimate or ethnocentric. Moreover, different societies that consider themselves "open" have different degrees of what they consider "free" (many of my fellow Canadians do not like online "hate speech").

But the vigorousness of these debates only reinforces free speech. Moreover, a quick look at Middle Eastern newspapers shows cartoons lampooning the Kouachi brothers and their ilk - the men that carried out the attacks and gave chase through Paris - in no uncertain terms.

Yet the second and more troubling reaction casts a wide net around the world's 1.6 billion Muslims, roughly half of whom live within democratic societies. Comedian Bill Maher said on Friday, "When there are this many bad apples, there's something wrong with the orchard."

Did this violence occur because of Islam? No. As Fareed Zakaria pointed out, the idea of punishing blasphemy comes not from the Koran, but from the strategic calculations of political leaders in some Muslim majority states. Rulers in countries like Pakistan have historically built ruling coalitions by coopting fanatics and by using political Islam to legitimize authoritarian rule. Religious identity is an instrument of political authority that can manipulate young men into doing horrible things on its behalf.

Add to the mix the legacy of colonialism and the modern dynamics of globalization, which helped create pluralistic, cosmopolitan societies concentrated in cities like Paris. There, cartoonists felt the wrath of young men who have a profound misunderstanding of their roles as Muslims because of political imperatives, not religious ones.

Holding all Muslims responsible for these events is textbook Orientalism. This refers to Edward Said's book of the same name, which argues that societies project negative characteristics upon certain groups in order to reinforce a superior cultural identity. Fixating on the recurring image of the irrational, violent Muslim defines the entire "Muslim world" as the "constitutive outside," which has no place in civilized society. Above all, organizing and classifying the "Muslim world" isn't in the service of objective knowledge, but about power and domination.

This is not about "political correctness." No one is saying totalitarian ideologies are exempt from condemnation or satire. It's about recognizing that misrepresenting Muslims is about protecting hegemonic power structures under the guise of enforcing the ground rules of open societies.

But Muslims have a place in open societies and are under no obligation to demonstrate their credentials according to externally constructed identity decrees.

When ground rules are broken as they were in Paris, everyone is shaken. But it is also wrong to signal to Muslims that they are merely itinerant guests who can be stripped of their rights and privileges should they not take responsibility for the actions of all Muslims.

The fact is that Muslim leaders worldwide have independently and freely condemned the Paris attacks. But making this a requirement is also a violation of the ground rules.

Membership in an open society is based on equality, and just as free speech protects the rights of satirists, it also guarantees that its members are not required to speak in order to reassure.

Christopher Day is an assistant professor of political science at the College of Charleston.