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Charlie Hebdo: Can 'moderate' Muslims sway an extremist few?

A German jihadi cheerfully extolling the virtues of slavery and beheading is an example of how difficult that task would be.

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    A woman holds a board reading: 'I am muslin, I am here to share your pain' as she waits to enter at the Pere Lachaise cemetery during the funeral of cartoonist Bernard Verlhac known as Tignous, in Paris, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. The country is tense since 20 people, including three gunmen, were killed in last week’s rampage. It began at the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which is burying several staff members Thursday. Charlie Hebdo had been repeatedly threatened for caricatures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
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Last week's murderous rampage in Paris has reignited calls for the world's hundreds of millions of peaceable Muslims, sometimes called "moderates," to do something about the jihadi few in their midst.

New York Times pundit Thomas Friedman has called for Muslims around the world to stage a march. Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch has suggested that the majority of "peaceful" Muslims "must be held responsible" until they destroy their "growing jihadist cancer." For its part, the US government runs programs designed, in diplomat-speak, to "counter violent extremism" by aiding and encouraging Muslims who oppose slavery, beheadings, and attacks on cartoonists and Jewish shoppers.

But is there much merit to this theory? Does such suasion actually work with the "one percenters" who sign up for global jihad? 

A close look at the histories of Muslims who decide to take up terrorism in the name of their faith reveals repeated conflicts between them and the congregations of mosques they attend. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two brothers that attacked the Boston marathon, was kicked out of the main mosque in Cambridge after disrupting a service and shouting at the imam that he was an "infidel" for praising Martin Luther King.

Cherif Kouachi, one of the two French brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo, likewise disrupted services at a French mosque after the imam there called on its members to vote in French elections. Mohamed Benali, who runs the mosque, told Le Figaro: "For these lunatics, when we practice and teach moderate Islam – actual Islam – we're nonbelievers."

This should at least give pause to people who argue that if only enough Muslims speak out against extremism the world will change. 

There is indeed a violent and chauvinistic strain of Islam that inspires groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State. Some young men and women drift into these circles, and then out again as their views evolve; friends, preachers, and personal experience often convince them to chose a more peaceful path. However, there always seems to be an unreachable core, the "one percent", who will reject all Muslims who don't share their views as apostates, and cluster in their own little echo-chamber. 

For some such zealots, the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are a siren call. One such individual is German jihadi and Muslim convert Christian Emde. German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer managed to travel with the Islamic State in Iraq in December, and posted a 13 minute interview with Mr. Emde – whom he calls "Abu Qatada" – on his Facebook page yesterday. The interview was conducted on a rooftop in Mosul, with two masked gunmen looking on.

His words do not suggest a man that will be swayed by sermons against the evils of violence and slavery. Emde, raised in a Protestant household, served about 16 months in prison in the UK for jihadi activity there, and was deported back to Germany in 2012. From there he made his way to Syria to fight with the Islamic State. And by his account, he's loving it.

Speaking to Mr. Todenhöfer, he promises that his group will "one day conquer Europe" and that when they do, all who do not convert to their version of Islam or pay an Islamic tax, a form of protection money, will be killed.

Asked about the world's roughly 200 million Shiites, he says their only option is "repentence... or we will kill them. Islam, or they will die. 150 million, 200 million, 500 million, we don't care about the number."

He reiterates the common Sunni jihadi position that rejects anyone calling themselves a Muslim unless they follow the precise practices and beliefs of the Islamic State. If people "persist on the wrong path there is only one option. The sword."

He is then asked about the group's practices of slavery and beheading. He's asked, "Do they represent progress for humanity?" He responds, "That's part of our religion and to teach the infidel fear, which they should have toward us. And we will continue to behead people whether they are Shiites, Christians, or Jews or anything else."

Asked again about slavery being "progress" he giggles and cracks a smile, shifting his weight excitedly from one foot to the other.

Definitely, definitely, a progress, a help and so on. Slavery always existed. It existed under Christians and Jews. Just because some ignorant people think that it was abolished, there is still slavery in the West, and the people still know that. There is prostitution, with women who are being forced and so on, under the most disgusting conditions. The slavery in Islam has rights. And if the slaves convert to Islam, there are many that have been freed... a slave, a kafira (female infidel) in the hands of Muslims is better off than a kafira that just freely walks around somewhere outside and does whatever she wants, like whore around and stuff like that."

Many senior Muslim figures do speak out against terrorism. After the terrorist attack in London in 2005, it was condemned within hours by Muslim luminaries, from Egypt's Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi, then the head of Al Azhar, the most influential institution in Egypt, to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the controversial Qatar-based preacher with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Qaradawi called the London bombings, "cruel and barbaric black actions that Islam harshly condemns." I wrote at the time:

But even a man like Mr. Qaradawi - a controversial figure who has some credibility with extremists for his past praise of suicide attacks against Israel - has little influence among the tiny sliver of Muslims who are now prosecuting what they see as a global jihad, analysts say.

While Islamic preachers speaking out against terrorism play a useful role in efforts to stem the spread of the global jihad, the rejectionist, or takfiri, beliefs of those already committed to extreme violence lead them to tune out any and all criticism of their methods.

The jihadis, quite frankly, didn't care then and don't care now. And would happily kill Qaradawi if given the chance (Sheikh Tantawi has since passed on).

The extremists have their own preachers and, thanks to the internet, a range of websites and social media playgrounds like Twitter and Facebook that they can use to organize, proselytize, and block out all those they deem as infidels.

While there's no question that the growth of mainstream Islam in proportion to the jihadis over time would cut into the pool of would-be terrorists, there are limits on what the majority can practically do to stop the violent few. And it's hard to expect them to take any blame for people they can't control. 

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