The recent brutal killing of a French priest marks yet another tragedy in a year that has been consumed by horrors. If a few months ago we were uncertain as to whether conflict had truly reached our borders, now we are left in little doubt. The reported sentiments of a woman in the streets of Rouen, where the murder took place, are striking, both for their courage and for their defiance in the face of calamity. 'We will not be afraid,' she shouted as she cycled past the media cameras through the quiet city boulevards. If only that were true.
We know is not true, rather with every attack in the Western world, our collective resolve grows ever weaker, and our mistrust towards those who look different from ourselves grows ever more pronounced. We know this because we allow our governments to continually extend their surveillance powers, despite legitimate concerns that these measures are excessive and vastly disproportionate to the threat faced. We know this because we have allowed extremist, xenophobic leaders to come to the forefront of our political arena. We know this because fear is a natural, innate response to an evil that, after every new atrocity, we perceive to be increasing.
The fruits of our collective mistrust are already evident, for with every Islamist crime, the frequency of Islamophobia-related attacks correspondingly increases. Such attacks are callous and unfortunate, but are fundamentally conducted not simply because of hatred, but also due to a sense of fear around the religion of Islam itself. After all, aren't 'moderate' Muslims are only tolerant and pluralistic because of their western upbringing? If they really followed original 7th century Islam then religious harmony would be replaced by brutal tyranny, right?
Wrong. The teachings of Islam provide comprehensive, unequivocal guidelines on the circumstances in which violence should be used. Firstly, they pronounce that war and conflict is only allowed in cases of self-defence. In other words, to act as the aggressor is condemned in all situations. Even when one must fight in self-defence, as soon as the enemy desists from fighting, violence becomes no longer permissible. Today there exists no war against Islam, and since Muslims are free to live and practice their faith across the Western world, no act of violence can be deemed theologically legitimate.
Secondly, Islam teaches that the purpose of war is not to establish tyranny or domination, but to ensure that the rights of all citizens to practice their faiths are upheld, regardless of the creed they follow. Only after thirteen years of unbearable persecution were the early Muslims allowed to retaliate against their oppressors, and the reason given for this permission was because the safety of synagogues, churches, temples, as well as mosques, was under threat. Ultimately, the Prophet Muhammad and his companions were forced to fight in order to establish freedom of conscience, not because they sought to destroy it.
Finally, Islam teaches that, whether in a state of war or in a state of peace, the killing of a single innocent person is equivalent to the killing of the whole of humanity. It therefore places a profound value on all human life. Specifically with relation to the attack on the French priest, the Prophet Muhammad ordered, 'Do not kill the monks in monasteries, and do not kill those sitting in places of worship.' How much clearer can teachings be?
As a society, we have every right to feel afraid as terrorist attacks creep ever nearer to our own lives. However we must not let that fear turn either to hatred or apathy towards the unjustified victimisation of innocent Muslims. It is by rooting out misconceptions, and understanding that evil people, not evil religions, are the cause of disharmony, that we can best forge an ideal community - one of pluralism, compassion and trust.