My friend and 3QD colleague Ali Minai wrote this excellent piece almost a year ago in Brown Pundits but it is still very relevant and worth reading today in the wake of the Paris horror:
The word “takfīr” (pronounced “tuck – feer”) is one of the most fearsome words in the Islamic lexicon. Deriving from the same root as “kāfir” – infidel – it refers to the act of declaring someone who is nominally a Muslim to be an infidel. And, of course, as the whole world knows by now, a Muslim who has become an infidel is worthy of being killed as an apostate under strict Islamic law. The institution of takfir is not new in Muslim societies, but it has generally been a marginal one. Today, it is at the core of the jihadi extremism that has set the world on fire from Nigeria to India and from Peshawar to Paris. The extremists do not kill based only on takfir – the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were not Muslims to begin with – but this idea is central to their ideology, which specifically targets Muslims who, in their opinion, have lost the right to live because of their infidelity. Among these are numbered the 136 innocent children gunned down in Peshawar and the soldiers of the largest army of any Muslim majority country in the world. More broadly, its remit extends to entire sects, such as the Shi’as and the Ahmadis, who have been targeted repeatedly in Pakistan.
However, another version of takfir is now afoot in the world. Call it “reverse takfir”. Unlike the militant version, it is well-intentioned and self-consciously humane, but it is also dangerous. This “benign” version of takfir is epitomized by the idea that the acts of violence being committed by self-proclaimed holier-than-thou Muslims are not the acts of “real Muslims” and do not represent “real Islam”. In effect, it declares the terrorists to be infidels! The idea is widespread, and is espoused in three different contexts: By well-meaning non-Muslims (such as Presidents Bush and Obama) seeking to avoid stereotyping and the implication of collective guilt; by ordinary Muslims wishing to dissociate themselves from the beheaders; by Muslim sectarians wishing to separate their brand of orthodoxy from that espoused by terrorists; and – most ironically – by Muslim governments and security forces seeking an “Islamic” justification for attacking extremist fellow Muslims, thus implicitly buying into the central jihadi argument of apostasy as a capital offense. The urge to do this reverse takfir is understandable and not without factual basis: Most Muslims are indeed not violent extremists who wish to kill infidels. And it does help protect innocent Muslims from backlash, which is rather important. The problem, however, is that it also feeds the narrative of denial and deniability that allows the militancy to thrive.