CAIRO — After gunmen in Paris killed 12 people, Saudi Arabia’s top body of Muslim clerics quickly condemned the attack and said it could have no acceptable justification. It was a signal from some of the Islamic world’s strictest voices that cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were not a reason to kill the artists.
Only days later, Saudi Arabia sent an opposing message: On Friday, a young Saudi was whipped 50 times in a public square in the city of Jiddah, the first of what will be 20 such weekly rounds of lashes. That, along with 10 years in prison, is his sentence from the kingdom’s religious-based courts for insulting Islam, based on posts on his blog criticizing prominent clerics close to the monarchy.
The contradiction points to the difficulties at a time of a growing debate within Islam about whether and how to reject a radical minority that some fear is dragging them into conflict and wrecking the faith.
Western critics are increasingly brazen about suggesting there is something inherent in Islam that is sparking violence by some of its adherents. Most Muslims reject this, arguing that the tumult of the post-colonial Middle East has created fertile ground for radicalism among people whose faith is fundamentally one of peace.
Nonetheless, the past year has seen increasing voices among Muslims saying their community must re-examine their faith to modernize its interpretations and sideline extremists. As much as recent attacks in the West, the rise of startlingly vicious violence by Sunni Muslim militants in the name of Islam against fellow Muslims, including Sunnis, brought it home for many Muslims that something must change in religious discourse.
In Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State group has butchered entire families of Sunnis and beheaded Sunni soldiers, as well as Western hostages. In Pakistan, a Dec. 16 militant attack on a school that killed 150 people, mostly children, stunned the country. It made many Pakistanis question any empathy they felt in the past toward militant groups — the attitude of “even if they’re wrong, they’re still fellow Muslims.”
“Now I hear more people talking openly against extremism and militancy,” said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an independent political analyst in Pakistan.
When people ask “why Islam?”, much of the answer has little to do with the religion itself. The Arab world has seen decades of bloodshed and foreign intervention unlike any in any other region — long entrenched dictatorships, regime suppression, two Iraq wars, the Syrian civil war and Libya’s turmoil.