The horrifying attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in which 12 people were killed was manifestly an Islamist attack on a magazine which had in the gunmen's view, committed a blasphemy that therefore deserved violent retribution. The attackers’ reported shouts of “God is Great” and “We have avenged the Prophet Mohammed” rounded out another episode in what has become an all too familiar pattern of horrors where violence is placed in an Islamic frame.
Yet it is easy to miss the underlying purpose of such an attack, which was far wider than an attack on freedom of expression. It aimed to provoke an increase in global tensions and the likelihood of further and wider conflict, as well as to intimidate journalists in respect of how they cover and respond to Islam.
So the attack, and others like it, need to be understood as regular acts of terrorism in a struggle for power, and crimes motivated by a profoundly religious, though horribly distorted, worldview.
The religious basis on which jihadists justify their actions is therefore a critical issue, and so too the question of who has the authority to define that basis.
Islam, and perhaps Sunni Islam in particular, by virtue of its diffuse and often personal structures of authority, seems to lack effective means for defining the boundaries of the faith. Most especially, moderate Islam seems to have difficulty in establishing that extremist interpretations are wrong in ways that command universal recognition. All too often, young people are able to believe that the most extreme forms of Islam must somehow be the most authentic. We have seen in the last few days once again how this can end in violence and terror.
But this is a problem that only Muslims themselves can address. It is profoundly awkward and even self-defeating for the West to seem to be trying to define Islam. Yet this task of defining the authentic and invalidating distorted and extreme alternatives has proved sadly hard for Muslims to do definitively.
There is however the possibility of at least defining who is in a position to do this authoritatively.
The historic institution of the Azhar University in Cairo has a weight of history behind it that goes back to tenth century, and the present Grand Imam, Dr Ahmed El Tayeb, (who was educated at the Sorbonne) would very much like play this role. However, the relation of the Azhar to the Egyptian state, since the time of Nasser, has allowed many extremists to question its autonomy and thus its legitimacy. In any case, no one institution can do this on its own when what is needed is action by figures of religious standing across the Islamic world acting in concert.
This makes highly relevant the unprecedented milestone achieved in 2005 in Jordan, where 200 recognised Muslim scholars from 50 countries were convened by King Abdullah. Together they represented all eight main schools of Islamic jurisprudence, both Sunni and Shia. They put forwardThe Three Points of the Amman Message which effectively defines who is a Muslim, and forbids the excommunication (or proclaiming to be takfir) of fellow Muslims, while also establishing the precise conditions required for a religious edict (fatwah) to be authoritative.
This was an historic declaration and should have done much to define who can truly speak for Islam. It would thus have undermined those unqualified for this task such as those who promote violence in the name of their faith.
Unfortunately the Amman Message has hitherto largely gone unrecognised at the grassroots level, where its acknowledgement is most needed.
There is, therefore, here an urgent task that must be completed if the spurious religious validity used by extremists to legitimise the horrors they perpetrate is to be ended. Failure to achieve this tarnishes the vast majority of Muslims who have no sympathy for such actions and are true to the witness of history, where Muslims have lived for centuries in peace with people of other faiths.
The lesson of the attacks in Paris, the spate of hostage beheadings and the cruel rise of the Islamic State, has to be that without the means of establishing the unique authenticity of moderate Islam, things may only get worse.
Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff has served as Dean of the Anglian Cathedral in Cairo and specialised for over a decade in interfaith work.