Responses to last week’s terror attacks in Paris are bifurcating, as they did in the aftermath of 9/11, around the question: Is this “about Islam”? While some analysts on one side of the debate identify “Islam” as a prominent cause of violence, their interlocutors offer a strategic account in which political calculations drove the perpetrators. Neither approach strikes me as persuasive. Religious violence combines a religious logic with a political logic and we cannot understand one without the other.
It is true that, in the 21st century, Islam has exercised a monopoly over violent responses to blasphemous imagery. But such bloodshed has been the exception, not the rule, requiring an explanation for when and where insult prompts violence. No less importantly, as I argue below, Muslims are entirely unremarkable among religious groups in responding with force to religious provocation. It may also be true that the Paris perpetrators had links with terrorist organizations that had pragmatic reasons for escalating sectarian conflict in Europe. But this does not explain the incentives of the killers and their supporters nor does it align with their self-professed motivations.
A precedent can help shed some light on this debate. This is not the first round of political violence in response to cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. The most significant prior wave occurred in January and February 2006, in response to the publication of such cartoons by a Danish newspaper. Those images led to protests and riots worldwide resulting in nearly 200 fatalities and about 1,000 casualties. Angry mobs torched Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran and attacked the Norwegian and Austrian embassies in Damascus, EU offices in Gaza, and the Italian consulate in Benghazi, Libya. In Nigeria, Pakistan, Libya, Indonesia, and Afghanistan, violent anti-Danish rioters clashed with police forces.
The range of responses to the Danish cartoons offers a unique opportunity for comparative analysis around a simple puzzle: Why did these images provoke violence in nine Muslim-majority states but not in 43 other states in which Muslims form the majority of the population?
I grappled with this question in an article that appeared in the International Studies Quarterly in 2011. I found that those protests were mobilized by radical Islamist movements that saw the cartoons as a direct threat to their identity. Authoritarian regimes either capitalized on this outrage, if they found it politically convenient, or suppressed it. But Muslim-majority states that afforded political rights and civil liberties permitted protests against the images and these escalated, resulting in violent riots. Religion offered the engine of unrest: Muslim radicals conceived of the cartoons as dangerous transgressions. Political constraints shaped the pathway: Violence happened in political environments that permitted protest but failed to protect the religious sensibilities of those extremists.
Although the outrage of 2006 involved death threats, assassination attempts and terror plots in Europe, it did not culminate in a full-fledged attack like the armed assault on Charlie Hebdo. Nonetheless, it can offer some insights regarding the attacks in Pairs.
1. The religious offense at stake is not desecration (mishandling a sacred object or person), but blasphemy (speaking ill of a sacred object or person). There is a strong norm against depicting the Prophet Muhammad in many (but not all) Muslim traditions but no explicit injunction against such portrayal in the Qur’an. Blasphemy, however, is a grave sin, particularly when directed at the prophet. This sensitivity can be traced to the early experience of hostility to the Qur’anic message by Muhammad’s opponents, who heaped ridicule and abuse on him and accused him of lunacy. The taboo transgressed by the Danish cartoons, like the taboo transgressed by Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses,” was thus a prohibition against insulting the prophet, not a prohibition against depicting him. The cartoons elicited outrage not because they were drawings but because they were irreverent drawings.
2. Such outrage is not a matter of offended sensibility or moral indignation let alone aesthetic displeasure. It is a frantic reaction to a perceived attack on the very moral foundation of one’s society. As several sociologists of religion argue persuasively, religious norms and taboos underpin social order and morality. Their function is to make sense of human experience, classify and organize social life, and establish its boundaries. Actions designed to prevent or punish desecration serve to clarify and buttress these rules. Secular groups have such rules as well: They respond to incest or cannibalism with disgust because it offends the most fundamental principles of their social order. The visceral revulsion at these crimes parallels the abhorrence with which fundamentalist Muslims view the Muhammad cartoons. In both cases, groups view transgressions as attacks on the social body by barbarians who wish to annihilate all things “civilized.”
3. Muslim outrage in response to blasphemy poses no challenge for regimes that can suppress Islamist protest (as did Egypt or Sudan in 2006) or those who wish to utilize it for political ends (such as Iran or Syria in 2006). It poses a real challenge for democratic or democratizing regimes (such as Lebanon, Indonesia or Nigeria) that permit public expressions of discontent but that also permit freedom of speech and publication. These are the settings in which Islamists feel most threatened: The very government that is tasked with defending their values instead defends the rights of blasphemers. This prompts what the philosopher John Kekes calls “deep disgust”: The dread that a horror cannot be kept at bay and is about to invade one’s life.
4. The unique historical trajectory of a fundamentalist movement determines which kinds of provocations it will be most sensitive to. But whether it will act on this dread depends not only on its religious values but also on its assumptions about the role of government, the nature of society, and their place in that society.
5. Therefore, what is truly puzzling about fundamentalist wrath is not merely why some fundamentalist Muslims but not others choose to resort to terrorism against cartoonists but why there is no such Islamist terrorism against abortion clinics, for example, a prime concern for Protestant fundamentalists. For reasons anchored in theology, history and politics, these Christians would never consider reacting with force to a cartoon mocking Jesus just as a cartoon mocking Moses would barely elicit a shrug from a fundamentalist Jew. But fundamentalist Jews riot, and violently so, in response to desecrations of the Sabbath and the unearthing of Jewish remains by archaeologists, two themes that neither their Muslim nor their Christian counterparts have much interest in.
6. The puzzle of fundamentalist wrath, then, is a twofold puzzle: First, why do some fundamentalist movements develop a preoccupation with particular types of religious offense but not others? Second, why do they do so in particular political settings but not others? Why do fundamentalist Jews in Jerusalem throw stones at cars driving on the Sabbath but fundamentalist Jews in Brooklyn or Golders Green do not? Why don’t Protestant extremists bomb abortion clinics in Europe? Why have there been no Muslim riots in response to blasphemous cartoons in the U.S.?
We cannot explain why fundamentalists attack without studying religion and we cannot explain when and where they attack without studying politics. This point is lost both on anti-Muslim voices, who wish to forge an essentialist link between Islam and violence, and on postcolonial activists who strive to place the blame for violence anywhere but on the shoulders of its Islamists perpetrators. (A recent obtuse counter-cartoon, purportedly designed to provoke non-Muslim readers as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons had provoked Muslim readers, bungles the point twice over: It fails to identify and transgress on the appropriate taboos but it also fails to admit that cartoons simply aren’t the right trigger for violence for those audiences. Since there’s a big difference between bigotry and transgression, and since they obviously pose no risk to that cartoonist’s life or limb, these counter-cartoons are merely cowardly, not provocative).
We should exercise caution in applying lessons from 2006 to last Wednesday’s attacks. The former were mostly popular riots, not professionally orchestrated terror attacks. My argument also sheds little light on a primary characteristic of the attacks in Paris, their anti-Semitic nature, the culmination of a long series of hate crimes on Jewish targets in Paris in the past few weeks. The bloodshed in both periods does bolster the wisdom of seeking answers to the puzzle of religious violence where the study of religion meets the study of politics.
Ron E. Hassner is an associate professor of political science at U.C. Berkeley. He is co-director of Berkeley’s Religion, Politics, and Globalization Program and chair of the International Studies Association’s section on Religion and International Relations. His publications include “War on Sacred Grounds” (Cornell, 2009) and “Religion in the Military Worldwide “(Cambridge, 2014). This year, he is a distinguished visiting fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), in the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya, Israel.