When I was a child, my father often mentioned Denmark and Sweden as examples of civilized countries, real democracies where citizens had rights and duties. I remember him sighing, as if to make us understand that our own country was a long way from this situation. With his modest income, he was never able to travel to these countries, but he was fascinated by the equality among citizens, and between men and women, that prevailed there. He was especially intrigued by the monarchy in Nordic countries, which people respected as a symbolic system without having to put up with its escapades and extravagances. He also recalled Denmark’s attitude toward the Jews at the time of the gas chambers. In short, he loved these countries and their culture.
My father was a good Muslim. He said his prayers discreetly and did not require anyone else in the household to follow him. We never talked about religion at the table, but he liked to recall that, in any case, “in Islam, we are all responsible before God for our own acts.” He would cite two verses from the Qur’an: “There is no compulsion in religion” and “You have your religion and I have mine.”1 That was all that had to be said. At the time Islam stayed within the confines of the mosque and the house. The Morocco we lived in was quiet, and its Islam was calm and calming.
One of my first trips outside Morocco was to the Nordic countries. I was looking for that spirit of freedom and respect among citizens. Apart from alcoholism, whose ravages were visible especially on Friday and Saturday nights, strict observance of the laws of democracy characterized these countries. I remember seeing a minister of foreign affairs doing his errands on his bicycle, and heard about another minister who lived in a small apartment like any worker. I remember how people obeyed the rules of civility. Power was not accompanied by special privileges or arrogance. I loved this equality between the governed and the highest authorities. That doesn’t mean that everything was wonderful, but some of the things people did were exactly as they should be. Clearly, these were countries where freedom prevailed. And freedom was not an empty phrase, a gimmick or a cliché used to win an election.
I avidly watched the Danish television series Borgen, and I loved its main character, a woman who becomes prime minister while continuing to take care of her family, even as it is torn apart by politics. I said to myself that this series should be shown in schools in Arab and Islamic countries as an example of how democracy functions properly and without chicanery.
When a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in 2005, I was neither surprised nor scandalized. Blasphemy is part of freedom of expression. But that’s not part of the culture or way of doing things in the Arab-Muslim world. When I was asked to comment as a writer of Islamic cultural background, I said, “For me, these cartoons don’t represent the Prophet for the simple reason that the Prophet is a Spirit, not an old man with a bomb under his turban. It doesn’t speak to me, and I think that everyone is free to draw whatever comes into their head. It’s better not to make a drama out of it.”
Sadly, the drama quickly turned into a tragedy, with demonstrations in Pakistan, Yemen and many other Islamic countries. Dozens of people died. At that point, I realized the extent to which the Nordic countries and the Islamic countries could never understand each other. Two worlds, two visions of the world, two cultural attitudes, two burning antagonisms. Each society’s history is shaped by its own experiences, which are different from one country to another. The freedom – often absolute freedom – that prevails in the Nordic countries is not negotiable, because in those societies the individual is recognized as a unique, singular entity. However, in the Arab-Muslim world, the emergence of the individual never took place. What counts is the Ummah (the Islamic Nation), the clan, the tribe and the family. The notion of the Ummah is firmly held and covers the whole world. That’s why secularism, the separation of religion from the public space and politics, is impossible. That’s also why the condition of women is often deplorable, especially in the Gulf states, some of which are financing the Islamic State “caliphate” under the table.
The entire Ummah felt humiliated by the cartoons. There was no way of explaining to it that this blasphemy was part of the story of a society that had nothing to do with the Ummah. It was deeply hurt, and the desire for punishment and revenge took root in culturally empty minds that could not accept anything other than their own religious rules.
This is a serious turn of events because it has taken place not only in Islamabad, Cairo and Sanaa but also within European society. It is the children of immigrants who carried out the attacks in Madrid in March 2004, in London in July 2007, in Paris in January 2015 and in Copenhagen on February 14, where two people were killed and five injured. The Copenhagen attacks followed the same schema as the January 7 Paris shootings: first they attack the freedom to debate and create, and then they go after the Jews. The same hatreds, the same ignorance, the same desire to turn Islam into a bloodstained religion.
No doubt it was an isolated act. In other words, there was no well-structured organization. The trajectory of the Copenhagen attacker, Omar El-Hussein, was virtually identical to that of the Kouachi brothers: delinquency, violence, prison, radicalization in the meantime, release. And then the temerity to exact vengeance and achieve a few minutes of fame, finally leading El-Hussein to inflict misery. This thirst for evil does not come on as a sudden fever. A whole environment paved the way for it, marked by a subculture in which video images played an important role.
And so, Europe has created anonymous monsters that it doesn’t see coming until a Kouachi or an El-Hussein commits his acts. The life instinct has rapidly given way to the death instinct – death given, death received. Once Europeans and fanatics are no longer driven by the same fears, they are not fighting on equal terms – or at least, not according to a logic that sees life as something precious.
It will be a long struggle because it needs to begin in school, with rigorous teaching that will confront ignorance and fear, prejudice and racism.
This article appeared in French in Libération, Paris, on February 16, 2015, and was translated for Inroads by Bob Chodos.
1 The Qur’an: A New Translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004), 2:256 and 109:6.