On the day when journalists were massacred in Paris, while blood still ran wet where they had fallen, and as eye witnesses described the killers' shouts of "Allahu Akbar" – "Allah is great" – the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof asked the world not to judge the killers too quickly: most urgently, he said, don't jump to the conclusion they are Muslims.
Really? Even when they sounded the Muslim prayer? Even when they called their deeds, loud and clear in the streets of Paris, "vengeance for the Prophet"?
Here's what Kristof did not do: condemn the killings. Praise those who had been slaughtered. Express horror at their execution. And admit that men who praise Allah after committing mass murder are, religious profiling or not, probably going to turn out to be Muslim.
It just kind of is that way.
(Interestingly, in listing a number of Islamic terrorist attacks on Western targets, he also failed to mention that Muslims were involved in the attacks of 9/11. Ask yourself why.)
Instead, he begged his readers not to judge. He repeated the clichéd platitudes about the "majority of Muslims" having nothing to do with Islamic extremism, and praised, not the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, but non-Muslims who rose to the aid of Muslims who feared reprisals after the recent (Muslim-led) hostage crisis in Sydney, Australia.
What he might have done, but didn't, was take a lesson or two from the New Yorker's George Packer, a man who actually knows a thing or two about Islamic extremism, and about the courage of journalists confronting it: he was one of them. At around the same time Kristof seems to have been penning his column, Packer wrote:
"[Today's attacks] are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades. It's the same ideology that sent Salman Rushdie into hiding for a decade under a death sentence for writing a novel, then killed his Japanese translator and tried to kill his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher. The ideology that murdered three thousand people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. The one that butchered Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam, in 2004, for making a film. The one that has brought mass rape and slaughter to the cities and deserts of Syria and Iraq. That massacred a hundred and thirty-two children and thirteen adults in a school in Peshawar last month. That regularly kills so many Nigerians, especially young ones, that hardly anyone pays attention.
Because the ideology is the product of a major world religion, a lot of painstaking pretzel logic goes into trying to explain what the violence does, or doesn't, have to do with Islam. Some well-meaning people tiptoe around the Islamic connection, claiming that the carnage has nothing to do with faith, or that Islam is a religion of peace, or that, at most, the violence represents a "distortion" of a great religion. (After suicide bombings in Baghdad, I grew used to hearing Iraqis say, "No Muslim would do this.") Others want to lay the blame entirely on the theological content of Islam, as if other religions are more inherently peaceful—a notion belied by history as well as scripture.
A religion is not just a set of texts but the living beliefs and practices of its adherents."
Not, apparently, for Kristof. Saying nothing about the disgusting filth of the murders, he asked for love and tolerance – an entreaty that evidently seemed appropriate to him at the time. And yet, I imagine that, at the time of the Newtown massacre, he would have had few words to offer about the millions of "nice people" with automatic weapons in their homes, or the gentle souls who would never dream of turning their Kalashnikovs on young children.
Instead, unlike the editors of the Hartford Courant, who called the killers "craven monsters" who "claim to be connected to Al Qaeda," Kristof wrote all about the nice Muslims he knows, as if believing, somehow, that to condemn the killers is to malign all Muslims. It is the classic approach of those who reflexively view any criticism of any Muslim as "Islamophobia."
I have news for these people: the vast majority of reasonable people in the world do not think every Muslim is a terrorist. And I have news, too, for Mr. Kristof: the people who actually do think this, don't read your column anyway. Ever. And they probably never will.
Yet on and on he goes, pointing to the many Muslims on his Twitter feed who expressed dismay at the attacks, deducing (I don't know how) that therefore "most" Muslims must be against them. The fact that he does not subscribe to the Twitter feeds of those likely to praise such an attack did not seem to occur to him. But there were, in fact, plenty of Western, even French, Muslims who did so, with remarks like, "Those Charlie Hebdo sons of bitches deserved 100 deaths. Serves them right," and, "This makes me so happy, ha ha ha, those sons of bitches, ha, ha, ha, I'll go visit their graves and laugh."
Were there more of one kind of post or the other? I didn't count; and, I wager, neither did Nicholas Kristof.
The truth is, whether they are in the minority or not (let's face it – we don't really know: who has polled the population of Saudi Arabia on apostasy? Who has polled Somalis on their views about lampooning the Prophet Mohammed? Or Afghanistan? Or Iran?), there are in fact millions of Muslims in the world who believe that apostasy should be punishable by death; who believe that women should be forced to have sex on demand and punished if they refuse. There are also thousands, if not millions, of people in the world who think that depicting the Prophet should be punishable by death – just look at the riots around the world following the first publications of these cartoons in 2005 and 2006, if you don't believe me.
And all of these people subscribe, as Packer says, to a certain ideology.
So it doesn't really matter if you call that ideology "Islam" or not. There are also millions of Muslims who do not subscribe to the same ideas; and by all means, we should embrace them. Think of the protesters at Gezi in 2013. Think of Malala Yousafzai. Think of Zuhdi Jasser.
Or just listen to Maajid Nawaz. He used to embrace many of the same radical Islamic beliefs as terrorists today, dreaming of a global Islamic society. After a stint in an Egyptian prison, he renounced that ideology and started a UK-based foundation to combat it. Appearing on the BBC after the Charlie Hebdo massacre Wednesday, he said Muslims and liberal westerners have failed "to challenge Islamist extremism, to challenge the way in which we've been eroding our values. And everything that the Islamists have wanted to achieve in the way they're dividing communities, they've been getting away with so far" as a result.
Kristof diminishes this call for introspection with his column.
January 7, forever a day to be remembered along with 9/11 and 3/11 and 7/7 and far too many others, was not a day for that message, any more than the Holocaust was a time to editorialize about all those nice Germans, or the killing of four black girls on Birmingham Sunday, or of Eric Garner last July, days for writing about all those nice white people in America.
Muslim terrorists killed the staff of Charlie Hebdo.
And Muslim extremists in the West are threatening the lives of every man, woman and child in the West who believes in what Charlie Hebdo stood for.
Because words are the strongest weapon in the world.
And so Charlie Hebdo lives on.
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands.