Recent events in Paris have quickly seized global attention. Last month, two people were stabbed outside the former offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, after it republished the controversial caricatures mocking the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to emphasise the right to free speech. Then, a high school history teacher was brutally murdered on 16 October on a street in a Paris suburb, who had reportedly shown images mocking the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in a lesson on freedom of expression. Quite rightly, the world stood up and condemned the act and so did the Muslim community leaders in France, as well as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). However, sadly, it also defies logic why the criticism about the "justification for blasphemy-based harassment of any religion in the name of freedom of expression" was relatively muted in comparison.
Around two years ago, the European Court of Human Rights ruled upholding an Austrian court's decision that: "Defaming the Prophet Muhammad exceeds the permissible limits of freedom of expression." A cursory look at global media, however, reveals that showing cartoons denigrating the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) to school children, as well as the decision to republish the insulting cartoons by Charlie Hebdo, were both seen as acceptable and defiant gestures in defence of free expression. In comparison, the immense hurt resultantly caused to more than two billion Muslims, including those that have lived in Europe and France for a long time, was barely highlighted with the emphasis it deserved. The French may defend such insults towards religious beliefs as the essence of laïcité – a French word for secularism that separates religion and the state in the country – and see freedom of expression as absolute. However, to France's large Muslim community, in addition to their brethren worldwide, laïcité has meant a lack of respect towards their beliefs.
Interestingly, the claim that freedom of expression is absolute is false, as France and other European countries have laws against anti-Semitic hate speech. On the one hand, the republic prides itself as the nation of Voltaire, with a tradition of trenchant social satire – to which Charlie Hebdo clearly saw itself as heir. On the other hand, France has restrictive privacy laws, some of the toughest hate speech laws in the European Union and a ban on Holocaust denial. This combination of Voltairean bravado and restrictive measures has created a deeply contradictory attitude towards free speech. France's position on free speech is thus fraught. On many occasions, their hypocrisy that freedom of speech can be trashed if it does not suit their purpose has also been exposed. The problem seems to be France's inability to recognise Islamophobia and anti-Arab xenophobia as hate speech.
Thus, this is hypocritical too. France has been jostling between freedom of expression and Islamophobia over the Charlie Hebdo caricatures ever since the magazine reprinted them in 2006. Interestingly, to the French, the so-called freedom of expression does not appear to apply when the French flag is desecrated, or when President Erdogan apparently questioned President Macron's mental state, prompting the recall of the French ambassador to Turkey.
Adding insult to injury, French President Macron is in the process of exploiting the beheading for political ends, giving him an opportunity to push new legislation strengthening the 1905 act on laïcité, allowing for closer scrutiny of schools and associations exclusively serving religious communities. French police have now started swooping in on mosques and Islamist groups across the country. Much to the chagrin of the Muslim world, he also bellowed "Islam is a religion in crisis all over the world today, we don't see it only in our country," prompting Muslim leaders like Erdogan and Imran Khan to condemn these insulting and Islamophobic remarks. In retaliation, there is an ongoing boycott of French goods within Muslim countries.
Read: Turkey's Erdogan calls for boycott of French products
Islamophobia is nothing new in Europe. Even closer to home in the UK, Islamophobia has become the new normal. France, however, is older than these recent events. Further in history, the European New Right or Nouvelle Droite (ND), which repackaged racism as blood and soil ethno-nationalism, originated in France in the 1960s. In recent times, the country has been home to some of the most well-known Islamophobic, racist writers including Macron's political opponent, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front (now known as the National Rally) and Renaud Camus, whose theory of Great Replacement inspired the Christchurch killer who slaughtered 50 Muslims in cold blood.
Furthermore, France banned the Islamic headscarf in public in 2004. A year after the 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, it also banned burkinis. Even Macron called the 132-year colonisation of Algeria as "crimes and acts of barbarism" that would today be acknowledged as "crimes against humanity". Has France ever apologised for this atrocity, let alone paid compensation? Even a suggestion made to such effect in 2017 drew a sharp rebuke from his rivals on the political right. France has always wanted those not ethnically "French" to reject their past, including their culture and beliefs, and to be secular in the truest sense possible, so as to integrate with "mainstream" society. For some, however, this only represents a new form of intolerance.
Insulting the dignity and personality of the beloved Prophet of Islam (PBUH) is part of the well-oiled global Islamophobia campaign, and is nothing new either. During his time, the Meccans called him a poet, a magician and a madman, among other names. Today, he is insulted with other labels. Modern critiques of some of the Prophet (PBUH)'s undertakings are meant to question the civility of Islam in the ongoing manufactured clash of civilisations that fuel both Islamophobes and extremists. Michael Bonner notes: "Many of these modern arguments over historiography, and over the rise of Islam and the origins of Jihad more generally, began in the nineteenth and the earlier twentieth centuries among European academic specialists in the study of the East, often referred to as the orientalists." He goes on to note that the motivation of these arguments cannot be disconnected from "their involvement in the colonial project."
Be it as it may, Islamophobes always invoke the freedom of speech argument to peddle their racist ideology. Even before the Charlie Hebdo saga, the Danish cartoons row, The Innocence of Muslims movie and the Qur'an burning frenzy have been the most egregious incidents. But they were not the only ones. Various Islamophobic reports full of many similar insults, desecrations and attacks against Islam and Muslims failed to grab public attention. Justifying the maligning of Islam through a defence of the freedom of speech statute is a sophistry that has been adopted by many politicians and a clear majority in the media these days. It is interesting that when it comes to insulting Islam, the only Western value that is advocated fervently is the concept of freedom of speech. But what about other important values such as tolerance and diversity, that have ostensibly been helping to cement multicultural societies in the West? Why doesn't anyone remember these values to contain the anti-Islam frenzy that has turned the lives of Muslims residing in the West into a very bitter experience?
These insults harm the universal human values and the ethical principles of all societies. Muslim countries and organisations like the OIC should therefore not only expose and condemn these instances of hate speech, but should also act decisively to pursue a relentless campaign to promote respect for the sacred values of all religions. At the grassroots levels, the correct response is not violence. However, when Islam has become an inseparable part of their identity, it is unrealistic to expect Muslims to remain silent. In fact, they should not. It is thus imperative for them to be part of well-orchestrated initiatives both to thwart these anti-Islamic conspiracies, and also to raise awareness about the exemplary personality of the beloved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) whose birth falls in this blessed month of Rabi-ul Awwal.
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