Charlie Hebdo & Sacred Values

Understanding Why The Attacks Took Place  

By Professor Stephen Clarke (Oxford University)

January 7, 2016          Picture: Kelly Kline/Flickr.

This article is part of The Critique’s Great War Series Part II: Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech & Religious Violence Exclusive.

According to witnesses, the gunmen who shot and killed 11 people at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, on 7 January 2015, left the scene of their crime shouting “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad”. Soon afterwards, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) put out a statement taking credit for the killings, and reporting that the attack was intended as “revenge for the honour” of the Prophet Muhammad.[i] The attack served no apparent strategic purpose for AQAP and appears to have been provoked by deep-seated anger, fueled by Charlie Hebdo’s disrespectful, satirical treatment of the Prophet Muhammad, and of Islam more generally, over a long period of time.

It can be hard for secular Westerners to understand why anyone would be so angered by satire that they would feel the need to kill people, and be willing to risk long-term imprisonment, or their own deaths, as a result. I think the key to making sense of the actions of the killers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, is to appreciate that they were not merely reacting to the disrespectful treatment of a revered figure. They were also reacting to perceived violations of deeply held, shared sacred values. To properly understand the events of 7 January 2015 we need, inter alia, to understand how shared sacred values can motivate action. In what follows I will try to explain how shared sacred values can be motivating, and I will discuss ways in which we can negotiate with those who hold sacred values, when these are not values we share. I will be relying on ideas articulated in my 2014 book, The Justification of Religious Violence.[ii] What I have to say is in no way intended to justify the violent actions of the Kouachi brothers. However, it should help to explain why the brothers and their sympathizers felt that those actions were justified.

“The Kouachi Brothers were not merely reacting to the disrespectful treatment of a revered figure. They were also reacting to perceived violations of deeply held, shared sacred values”

Sacred values are closely associated with religion and most, but perhaps not all,[iii] religions recognize particular people, places, buildings, objects, relics and texts as sacred (or holy). In his The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim defended the view that all religious thinking is organized around a key distinction: the distinction between the sacred and the profane. The genuinely religious revere the sacred and fear the consequences of uncontrolled interactions between the sacred and the mundane, profane world. But not everyone who encounters the sacred has genuinely religious attitudes, according to Durkheim. Some people have opportunistic attitudes towards the sacred. They seek to use sacred powers for their own ends, and they freely mix the sacred with the profane. We refer to these people as magicians. Durkheim tells us that the possession of an opportunistic attitude toward the sacred, which is characteristic of magicians, is incompatible with the development of genuinely religious attitudes. To help people to develop and express genuinely religious attitudes, organized religions set up rules governing interactions with the sacred and they enforce these rules rigorously.[iv]

Groups and communities, made up of individuals who share the belief that the same people, places, buildings, objects, relics and texts are sacred, and in which genuinely religious attitudes develop, are able to experience what Durkheim referred to as ‘collective effervescence’. This occurs when they conduct rituals centred around their shared beliefs and attitudes. Participation in such rituals can trigger intense emotions, and the experience of sharing the same intense emotions can have a transformative effect on the members of a group or a community, bonding them together very closely.[v] The view that participation in rituals can bond members of groups and communities together closely is far from unique to Durkheim; and is held by a number of contemporary scholars, including Harvey Whitehouse and Jon Haidt.[vi]

Although sacred values are closely associated with religion, the sacred is not an exclusively religious concept. Some secular nationalists also treat particular items, places and people as sacred and set up and enforce rules governing interactions with those items, places and people. National flags are often treated as sacred items, and there are many countries that ban acts of disrespect towards national flags. Rituals involving national flags can be very effective in instilling feelings of patriotism and a sense of shared nationhood. Places of national significance, such as war memorials, are often also treated as sacred and serious expressions of disrespect towards such monuments are not usually tolerated. In 2011, Charlie Gilmour, son of Dave Gilmour, the Pink Floyd guitarist, was given a sixteen month prison sentence for violent disorder during a protest in London. The sentence was as long as it was because Gilmour was considered to have demonstrated disrespect for a war memorial, the Cenotaph, by swinging from a Union Jack flag attached to its side.[vii] A person who has come to be regarded as a sacred secular figure is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state. It is illegal in Turkey for anyone to insult Atatürk or to destroy objects that represent him.[viii]

Christian Triebert/Flickr
Christian Triebert/Flickr

The perceived violation of sacred values can cause true believers to experience feelings of overwhelming anger and is liable to lead them to commit acts of violence. In 1984 Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. This was widely believed to have been a response to her decision to allow the Indian army to storm the Golden Temple, the most sacred of all Sikh temples. Armed followers of the radical Sikh separatist preacher Sant Jarnail Bhindranwale had been occupying parts of the Golden Temple complex since 1980 and the Indian Government sought to evict them. The assault on the complex was badly mishandled, and unnecessarily violent. It resulted in over 2000 deaths, including the deaths of worshippers who were not involved in the occupation. Nevertheless, it eventually succeeded in evicting the followers of Sant Jarnail Bhindranwale. It also succeeded in outraging millions of Sikhs, including Gandhi’s assassins.[ix]

It is not only violations of sacred values that can lead true believers to experience feelings of overwhelming anger. The mere suggestion by others that expressions of sacred values might be insincere can have the same effect.[x] One can also provoke outrage by asking the devout to consider ‘heretical counterfactuals’, as has been demonstrated by Philip Tetlock and his colleagues. Their research subjects were asked to consider a number of counterfactuals conditionals that would subvert core religious beliefs if they were true, such as the assertion that “If Jesus had allowed himself to be saved by his apostles or through divine intervention, Jesus would not have died on the cross and thus would have failed in his divine mission.”[xi] The subjects were not asked to accept that this was true, they were only asked to consider what would have happened if it was true. Even being asked to consider what would have happened if this counterfactual conditional was true was sufficient to elicit feelings of outrage amongst those subjects who scored highly on a measure of Christian fundamentalism.[xii]

It is easy to inadvertently imply that people do not hold their sacred values sincerely, when trying to negotiate with them, and this can cause outrage and lead negotiations to fail. Most of Afghanistan was under the control of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001. In March 2001 two giant Buddhist statues in the Bamiyan valley were dynamited on the orders of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban. The Taliban took the view that the Bamiyan statues were attempts to represent God, and were therefore sacrilegious idols, which they had a religious duty to destroy.[xiii] India, Iran and several museums in America had all offered to buy the statues and remove them from Afghanistan.[xiv] These offers were firmly rejected, which should come as no surprise to anyone who appreciates how sacred values function. Taliban leaders were infuriated by the offers, which would have involved them violating their own sacred values for material reward, and thereby signalling to their followers that their claims to uphold Islamic sacred values were insincere.

Attempts to negotiate with people who hold sacred values are very likely to backfire if they involve treating sacred values as if they are non-sacred. Jeremy Ginges and his colleagues illustrated this phenomenon in a series of studies in which offers of material incentives to violate sacred values were made. Some of their research subjects were Palestinian students, who were asked to consider a ‘two state solution’, involving a Palestinian state being established in the West Bank and Gaza and a future Palestinian government relinquishing claims to sovereignty over East Jerusalem. Another group of research subjects, who were also Palestinian students, were asked to consider a version of the same deal with an added ‘sweetener’, which was that Israel would pay each Palestinian family US$1000- a year for ten years. The sweetened deal is clearly a better deal for Palestinians than the unsweetened one, and so, absent considerations of sacred values, it should attract greater support than the unsweetened deal. And indeed, there was more support for the sweetened deal than the unsweetened one amongst those research subjects who did not consider sacred values to be at stake. But amongst the 54% of research subjects who did consider sacred values to be at stake, the offer of a sweetener backfired. Jerusalem, or Al-Quds, as it is known in the Arab world, is widely considered to be a holy city in Islam. The suggestion that they might be willing to waive their perceived right to control an Islamic holy city, as a part of a peace deal, was infuriating to devout Palestinian Muslims. The suggestion that they might be willing to do so in return for financial incentives was even more infuriating, making them even less likely to accept a deal than they would otherwise have been, and more likely to support violence.[xv]

A hallmark of genuinely held sacred values is that these cannot be compromised for material reward. It might be supposed, therefore, that we can never achieve compromises between two parties, if one side holds sacred values and the other side does not share those values. Often though, people who hold sacred values prefer to avoid conflict with those who do not share those values, if they can do so without violating their sacred values; so, sometimes, there will be a willingness on both sides to find compromises. Where there is such a willingness, there may be considerable scope to achieve compromises over sacred values. One way in which this can be done is by ‘reframing’ sacred values, as has been spelled out by Scott Atran in his 2010 book, Talking to the Enemy.[xvi] Often the subjects of sacred values are not specified precisely, and there may be scope to take advantage of their lack of specificity to find compromises.[xvii]

“A hallmark of genuinely held sacred values is that these cannot be compromised for material reward”.

While it is clear that the Golden Temple is sacred to Sikhs, it is less clear how much of, and what parts of, the Golden Temple complex are also considered sacred. To some Sikhs only the Golden Temple itself is sacred. The occupation of the Golden Temple complex by armed followers of Sant Jarnail Bhindranwale was controversial within the Sikh community. If the Indian government had made it clear that they respected the sanctity of the Golden Temple, it might have been possible for Indian Special Forces to engage with the armed followers of Sant Jarnail Bhindranwale in other parts of the Golden Temple complex, and to evict them from those parts of the complex, without leading more moderate Sikhs to feel that their sacred values were being violated. If this had happened then many of the over 2000 deaths that happened as a result of the storming of the Golden Temple complex might well have been avoided.

It might have been possible for outside parties to have arranged for the safe removal of the Bamiyan statues from Afghanistan in 2001 if they had demonstrated a concern for the sacred values of Islamist hardliners within the Taliban. The issue of what to do with the Bamiyan statues had already been discussed within the Taliban two years earlier and at that time Mullah Omar had managed to persuade hardliners to allow the statues to remain intact. He pointed out that there were no longer any Buddhists in Afghanistan worshipping the statues.[xviii] His reasoning was that if the statues were not currently being treated as idols then they did not count as idols. This reasoning may not sound very convincing, but it was enough to keep Islamist hardliners at bay for a couple of years, which is more than any of the various foreign negotiators managed. What these negotiators appeared to have failed to understand was that they had to find a way for Mullah Omar to reconcile his willingness to allow the Bamiyan statues to remain intact, with his commitment to Islamic sacred values. For the most part they sought to persuade the Taliban to refrain from destroying the statues by talking up their heritage value. But this only served to annoy Mullah Omar, who equated a concern for the preservation of statues amongst wealthy foreigners, with a lack of concern for the suffering of impoverished Afghanis.[xix]

Sometimes opportunities will arise to suggest creative ways to reframe sacred values that can enable compromises with those who hold those values, but at other times there are no such opportunities. As far as I can see, no such opportunities arose during interactions between Charlie Hebdo and AQAP, in the lead-up to the events of 7 January 2015. These interactions consisted of AQAP issuing death threats to Charlie Hebdo staff, and Charlie Hebdo staff ignoring those threats.[xx] AQAP are a militant Islamist group who hold that displays of disrespect for the Prophet Muhammad ought to be punished by death, and Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine that operates in a peculiarly French tradition of strident opposition to all religious authority. A motto that has been used on the banner of Charlie Hebdo is ‘Nothing Sacred’.[xxi] Neither side appeared interested in seeking compromise. The events of 7 January 2015 were a tragedy. But it would also be tragic if people drew the lesson from these events that compromises are not possible, and violence inevitable, when sacred values are at stake. Where there is sufficient will, there may well be compromises over sacred values that can be found; and violence that can be prevented as a result.[xxii]

Footnotes & References

[i] Karl Vick. 2005. “Al Qaeda Group Claims Responsibility for Paris Terror Attack”, Time, January 9: (accessed 18 August, 2015).

[ii] Steve Clarke. 2014. The Justification of Religious Violence, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

[iii] Jack Goody. 1961. “Religion and Ritual: the Definitional Problem.” British Journal of Sociology, 12(2), pp. 142-64, p. 151.

[iv] Emile Durkheim. 1912 [2001]. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press. See also, The Justification of Religious Violence, pp. 137-141.

[v] The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.

[vi] See, Harvey Whitehouse. 2000. Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Oxford: Oxford University Press; and Jon Haidt, 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon/ Knopf.

[vii] Christina Odone. 2011. “Charlie Gilmour: Cenotaph Jailing was Prejudice not Justice at Work”, The Telegraph, 18 July. (accessed 18 August, 2015). See also, The Justification of Religious Violence, p. 137.

[viii] The Justification of Religious Violence, p. 137.

[ix] The Justification of Religious Violence, pp. 135-6.

[x] Jonathan Baron and Mark Spranca. 1997. “Protected Values.” Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 70: 1-16.

[xi] Philip E. Tetlock, Orie K. Kristel, Beth Elson, Melanie C. Green and Jennifer S. Lerner. 2000. “ The Psychology of the Unthinkable: Taboo Trade-Offs, Forbidden Base Rates and Heretical Counterfactuals”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78 (5): 853-70, p. 864.

[xii] The Psychology of the Unthinkable: Taboo Trade-Offs, Forbidden Base Rates and Heretical Counterfactuals, p. 865.

[xiii] The Justification of Religious Violence, pp. 136-7.

[xiv] Alex Spillius. 2001. “Taliban Ignore All Appeals to Save Buddhas”, The Telegraph, March 5th: (accessed 18 August 2015).

[xv] Jeremy Ginges, Scott Atran, Douglas Medin and Khalil Shihaki. 2007. “Sacred Bounds on Rational Resolution of Conflict”, PNAS, 104 (18): 7357-60. See also, The Justification of Religious Violence, pp. 144-5.

[xvi] Scott Atran. 2010. Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood and the (Un)Making of Terrorists. New York: HarperCollins.

[xvii] For further discussion of ways to avoid conflict when sacred values are at stake, see The Justification of Religious Violence, pp. 207-11.

[xviii] Luke Harding. 2001. “How the Buddha got his Wounds”, The Guardian, 3 March: 19 August 2015).

[xix] “The Rediff Interview/ Mullah Omar”. 2004. Rediff, 12 April: (accessed 19 August 2015).

[xx] Thomas Joscelyn. 2015. “Al Qaeda and Other Jihadists Repeatedly Threatened French Magazine”. The Long War Journal, 7 January: 21 August 2015).

[xxi] Adam Gopnik. 2015. “Satire Lives”, The New Yorker, 19 January: (accessed 19 August 2015).

[xxii] Thanks to Francesca Minerva for helpful comments.

Stephen Clarke
Stephen Clarke
Steve Clarke is a senior research fellow in the centre for applied and public ethics, Charles Sturt University and senior research associate of the Uehiro centre for practical ethics, University of Oxford. He is the of The Justification of Religious Violence (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014) and the Co-editor of Religion, Intolerance and Conflict: A Scientific and Conceptual Investigation, edited by S Clarke, R Powell and J Savulescu (Oxford University Press).
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