Unless you happen to be a news-junkie and a Middle East expert (like me), you are probably confused about what our leaders and pundits are telling us about events unfolding around the world. On the one hand, our leaders and pundits tell us that Islam is a religion of peace, that most Muslims around the world are moderates who love peace, and that a few terrorists are perverting the peaceful ideology of Islam for their nefarious purposes. On the other hand, at least according to most Western media reports, this moderate Muslim majority never seems to be able to muster the courage to protest terrorists who attack in their name. Instead, as millions in France and other Western cities shouted, “je suis Charlie,” a few thousand counter-demonstrators in the Muslim world shouted back, “if you are Charlie then we are Kouachi.”
To understand why a vast majority of world’s Muslims did not join the good side (as all of our politicians and pundits unanimously characterize our side), we need to go beyond the headlines and understand the deeper social psychological forces at work. This article does that through an analysis of the response by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat – an organization lauded as a model for its moderation by numerous Western leaders and pundits – to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
Ahmadis as Models of Moderation
Ahmadiyya Muslims Jamaat was founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) in British India. It claims millions of followers in 189 countries of the world. Numerous Western leaders including Canadian Prime Minister Harper, US Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosy, and British Home Secretary Theresa May have lauded the movement for its “love for all and hatred for none” slogan labeling them a models of moderation. However, surprisingly, Ahmadis not only refused to join in the “je suis Charlie” campaign, their spokespeople called for banning expressions of ridicule against any religious figure. The Head of the Ahmadiyya Movement stated that “no faith or religion should be mocked or insulted and that the dignity of each religion should be respected at all times.” The Ottawa Ahmadiyya Imam argued that the satirical depictions of religious leaders should be illegal, “there should be limits placed on freedom of speech to prevent the publication of offensive material… The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has opposed such illustrations in the past…” The movement’s Canadian National President went further imploring people around the world to boycott Charlie Hebdo “because the holy prophet is very dearly loved by Muslims. This love is so deep that people would sacrifice their lives if they think that the Holy Prophet is being insulted.”
Since the events of 11 September 2001, various Western governments, in particular the United States have ramped up efforts to promote freedom of expression and democracy among Muslims both at home and abroad. After spending millions of dollars and a decade’s worth of efforts, why haven’t we been able to convince moderate Muslims such as Ahmadis to stand with us in the battle for the freedom of expression? I believe that the answer to such questions lies in understanding the social identity dynamics of Muslim societies.
Social Identity Dynamics of Modern Muslim Societies
According to social identity theory, people have a fundamental need for a positive self-esteem. Social groups engage in a variety of social identity management strategies including mobility, social creativity, and violent collective action to enhance their group’s status. Mobility primarily benefits individuals who move away from their ingroup and adopt outgroup values. Social creativity strategies involve attempts to change shared perceptions of group members to make ingroup’s status look better relative to the outgroup. The violent collective action strategies involve attacking the outgroup to steal its resources. Similar to many other religious groups, Muslims believe that they are God’s favored people who have been promised that if you follow Islam, you will be victorious over others. This certainly seemed to be true in the first few decades after the founding of the new religion as Muslims conquered city after city in the Middle East (Muslims consider this to be the golden period of Islam).
As the Mughal rule collapsed and the British emerged as the strongest power, early Muslim responses were typified by two men, both named Syed Ahmad. While Syed Ahmad Barelvi (1786-1831) invited Muslims to join him in violent collective action against the infidels, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) argued that Muslims needed to follow his lead by educating themselves in Western values and becoming members of the loyalist Anglo-Indian elite. While Sir Syed’s approach also had significant elements of social creativity, his approach was primarily perceived by most Indian Muslims as an attempt to move away from Islamic values and adopting British values of science and logic. Sir Syed launched fundraising efforts to open schools to make Western education available to more Muslims. Sir Syed also sought to rid Islam of irrational beliefs such as the belief in supernatural miracles by arguing that God does not violate his own laws of nature. In this vein, he argued against the traditional Muslim belief in Jesus’s physical ascension to heaven so that he could avoid crucifixion. Instead, Sir Syed argued that, Jesus had stayed on earth dying “a natural death.”
Having seen the disastrous results of the Jihad launched by Syed Ahmad Barelvi and crushing defeat of the 1857 anti-British rebellion, by late 19th century most Muslim leaders in India had realized the futility of a military struggle against the British. They were, however, also not convinced by Sir Syed’s call to adopt Western values because they argued that doing so would result in dilution of the distinct Muslim identity. It was in this environment that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad advocated a third way. Wholeheartedly adopting the social creativity strategy, Ahmad argued that while the West had material wealth and individual freedoms, Muslims had spiritual wealth and strong family ties. Social psychologists call this shifting the dimensions of comparison to those on which ingroup looks more favorable. Channelling Ibn-e-Tamiyy’a 13th century response to Mongol invasions, Ahmad argued that adopting inferior non-Muslim values was what caused the downfall of Muslims in the first place. The only way for Muslims to restore the lost glory of the past was to double down on their points of distinctive strength, namely, their religiosity and family values (I explore how Muslim leaders developed this narrative and how to counter in in a sister article here). Agreeing with most of his contemporary Indian Muslims leaders, he said that Jihad of the sword against the British was not a viable option because its necessary preconditions were not present at the moment. Far from asking Muslims to give up Jihad and live in harmony with other religions, Ahmad called on his fellow group members to fiercely engage in an offensive Jihad through their pens and their tongues to convert non-Muslims to Islam. Unlike Sir Syed who argued that it was uncivilized to violently attack people simply because they are of a difference of faith, Ahmad argued that in the current conditions, a Jihad of the pen is the most effective way to rid the world of false faiths.
Ahmad’s message was warmly received by many Indian Muslims and funds poured into Qadian to publish anti-Hindu and anti-Christian literature and distribute it in India as well as the West. Ahmadis opened the first mosques and sent missionaries to the West in the early 20th century. Along with his aggressive fundraising campaigns to finance missionary work, Ahmad needed ideas to take the battle to the Christians. This is when he revived the idea of Jesus’s natural death originally advocated by Sir Syed. Unlike Sir Syed, who made rationality and God following his own laws of nature as a lynch-pin of his argument, Ahmad argued that Jesus’s death was needed to revive Islam. Ahmad argued that Christian missionaries were tricking Punjabi Muslims peasants by reminding them that according to their own Islamic beliefs, Jesus was alive in the heavens above and Muhammad was buried six feet underground, thus proving Jesus’s superiority over Muhammad. He said that the only way to blunt this argument would be to change Muslims beliefs regarding Jesus to argue that Jesus was also dead and buried. Unlike Sir Syed, who made Western notion of rationality as the reason for the change, Ahmad argued that Jesus had to die to restore Islam’s superiority over Christianity. Ahmad said:
To believe that Jesus is alive, is highly insulting and derogatory to the Holy Prophet. I cannot stand this sacrilege even for a moment. Everyone knows that the Holy Prophet passed away at the age of sixty-three and lies buried in his tomb at Medina, which millions of pilgrims visit every year. If it is disrespectful to believe in the death of Jesus or even to think of it, then I ask how can you permit this insolence and disrespect with regard to the Holy Prophet?… how can one claim to love and be a follower of the Holy Prophet if he accepts a superior status for Jesus by pronouncing him alive and the Holy Prophet dead?
Furthermore, Ahmad argued that Muslims in Islam’s golden period had believed in Jesus’s death. Afterwards, as Christian ideas slowly crept into Islam God withdrew his favors. Going back to our original beliefs would result in restoration of the past glory. Social psychologists have found that this arcing pattern of narrative to be highly successful in causing social change especially among high ingroup identifiers who are usually resistant to all messages of social change.
To demonstrate his credibility to those Muslims who doubted his intentions, Ahmad had to emphasize his love for Muhammad and the strength of his belief in Muhammad’s superiority over all other prophets. Part of this strategy implied that when Muslims perceived a slight against the Holy Prophet by non-Muslims, Ahmad and his successors had to take the lead in expressing their disgust. Upon hearing of some perceived insult against Muhammad, Ahmad wrote, “The hurtful words which these opponents have used against the best of creation, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, has injured my heart. I swear by God that if all my children, and the children of my children, all of my friends, and all of my helpers were murdered before my eyes, and my hands and feet were cut off, and if my eyes were taken out, and if I was deprived of all my ambitions, and were to have lost all my happiness and comforts, in comparison to all these things, that grief is far greater to me when such filthy attacks are made against the pure person of the Holy Prophet .” Thus in on 22 September 1895, Ahmad published a circular demanding that the government amend Indian Penal Code 298 to make blasphemy against any religious founder a punishable offense. In 1927, Ahmadis took the lead in agitating against publication of the book Rangila Rasul by its Hindu author Raj Pal and demanded that it be banned. This included legal action by the movement’s prominent member Sir Zafrullah Khan. Defense of the honor of the Holy Prophet Muhammad has become such an integral part of the Ahmadiyya identity that Ahmadis have been at the forefront of demanding blasphemy laws around the world. Thus when he spoke to the parliament members, the current leader of the Ahmadiyya Jamaat demanded the same of the British government, “Governments need to make policies that establish and protect mutual respect, through which hurting the sentiments of others or causing them any type of harm should be outlawed.”
This case study illustrates the dilemma faced by Muslim moderates who want their fellow Muslims to turn away from violent Jihad (or any other beliefs and practices that are firmly established as part of Muslim identity). When they advocate a change in shared social beliefs (as Sir Syed did) they are seen as less than ideal Muslims. To be able to successfully argue for a change, reformers have to be seen as strong defenders of the faith and the faithful. Thus to remove religious sanctions from a military Jihad against the British, Ahmad had to be seen as more ferocious in his pen-Jihad against Christians. In order for him to get Muslims to change their beliefs in Jesus’s death, he had to be seen as the biggest champion of Muhammad and an Islamic supremacist. His championing of Muhammad lead him to make repeated calls for punishment of even the slightest perceived blasphemy against the prophet. Other Muslim leader competing with him for adherents had to outdo him in their rhetoric against insulting the prophet. Studying these social identity dynamics can help us understand how changes in a group’s beliefs and behavior that appear beneficial in the short term may actually be harmful in the long term.
Dr. Afzal Upal is a cognitive scientist of religion with expertise in Islamic movements, countering violent extremism (CVE), and narrative-based messaging. He has published over sixty articles in peer reviewed journals and conferences. He is author (with JR Lewis) of the forthcoming OUP book “Islamic sects and Islam-based Religious Movements”.