By S P Seth
February 04, 2015
Terrorism also targets Muslims for sectarian and all sorts of other reasons. In that sense, there is a lot of common ground among Muslims and non-Muslims alike to oppose and thwart terrorist violence
There has been a lot of soul searching about the separate terrorist attacks on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher (Jewish) grocery store in Paris, reportedly killing 12 and four people respectively. The police, in turn, killed the terrorists. Whether or not the two were coordinated is not quite clear, though the gunman involved in the kosher market attack reportedly claimed the connection and said that he was acting for the Islamic State (IS). However, the two gunmen responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack claimed to be acting for the al Qaeda in Yemen. Whatever the connection or non-connection between the two attacks, the fact is that France’s own jihadists sought to avenge the caricaturing of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by Charlie Hebdo, and the attack on the Jewish supermarket is apparently part of random attacks on Jews related to the ongoing Palestinian dispute and the recent killings of 2,200 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip following Israeli invasion.
The Charlie Hebdo attack has been seen as an assault on freedom of speech, creating a groundswell of popular support, not only in France but also elsewhere in Europe, to send a clear message that the terrorists will not silence Europe’s free media of which Charlie Hebdo has become an iconic symbol. And to reinforce this message, the new edition of the satirical magazine carried another image of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that might look like he was saddened by the attack with tears in his eyes. This has caused popular demonstrations in a number of Muslim countries where Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) visual representation in any shape and form is considered against their religion. This is further sharpening the divide between the people and rulers of the Muslim countries that joined the Paris march against terrorism. In other words, it might have the effect of blurring the distinction between terrorism that many Muslims oppose and abhor, and Charlie Hebdo satire they see as needless and gratuitous provocation designed to hurt their religious sensibilities.
In France, for instance, where Muslims are said to constitute about 10 percent of the population to number five million people, there is a strong divide between many youthful French Muslims and the country’s mainstream population. A recent Washington Post dispatch by reporter Anthony Faiola captures this vividly. A 17-year-old high school senior, according to this report, who was outraged by the Charlie Hebdo attack, was also disgusted by the magazine’s provocative cartoons using Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as a subject of satire and continuing to do so in its new issue. According to another French-Muslim citizen in the predominantly Muslim suburb of Gennevilliers, Charlie Hebdo’s satirical portrayal of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) symbolises everyday humiliation of Muslims in France. According to Mohamed Binakdan, 32, a transit worker in Paris (quoted in the report), “You go to a night club and they do not let you in. You go to a party, they look at your beard, and say, ‘Oh, when are you going to Syria to join the jihad?’ Charlie Hebdo is part of that too.” This means: “Those who are stronger than us are mocking us. We have high unemployment, high poverty. Religion is all we have left. This is sacred to us. And yes, we have a hard time laughing about it.”
How much of this sense of frustration and helplessness described by Binakdan is truly representative of Muslims in France and elsewhere in Europe, and, in a more generalised way, in Muslim countries is not the issue here. The issue is that many Muslims sense it and some of them find in terrorism a way to assert their new sense of power, which is to strike terror and fear among those who appear to be ‘mocking’ them and insulting their religion.
It is important that Islam does not get equated with terrorism. Terrorism also targets Muslims for sectarian and all sorts of other reasons. In that sense, there is a lot of common ground among Muslims and non-Muslims alike to oppose and thwart terrorist violence. However, it does not have to be by positing free speech versus terrorist violence from some Islamic quarters. There is certainly a case for responsible exercise of free speech when it tends to offend the religious and cultural sensitivities of many people, like the Muslims, by caricaturing their prophet. Indeed, there are laws in different countries against spreading and inciting hate against minorities. For instance, in Germany, one is likely to end up in prison for denying the Holocaust, perpetrated on the Jews by Nazi Germany. In Australia, a prominent columnist was recently forced to resign from the Sydney Morning Herald for his strong commentary against the Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip that killed nearly 2,200 Palestinians, even though a different spin was put on it.
Many Muslims see these instances and the likes as western double standards, if not downright hypocrisy. In an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, Tom Switzer and Nicole Hemmer make this point: “Yet for all the talk of free speech as a non-negotiable right, many Charlie Hebdo supporters are rank hypocrites.” Because: “Far from bearing strong attachments to free speech, many support restrictions on free expression in their own countries.”
Though there is an entrenched bias in the west where Muslims are concerned, it is all the more important that we try to approach these issues with an understanding of people’s religious, cultural and racial sensibilities so that they feel inclusive and not ridiculed and insulted. Pope Francis dealt with this issue with great understanding during his trip to the Philippines. He said bluntly that, “You cannot make fun of other people’s faith. There is a limit.” He seemed to equate insult to religion with insulting one’s mother. Gesturing towards his aide, Alberto Gesparri, he said, “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch on the nose.” Throwing a pretend punch, the pope said, “It is normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others.” Pope Francis strongly defended freedom of speech but favoured its exercise with responsibility and with an understanding of its limits.
Pope Francis aside, you do come across some thoughtful commentary on these issues in the western media. In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, Allan Patience wrote, “In the liberal west there is an increasing tendency to cross the fine line between satire and insult. This is evidence of cultural arrogance. Witty caricatures of powers-that-be are one thing. Sneering at, or contempt for other people’s cherished values and profound beliefs is entirely another.” He added, “Western liberalism is not the ultimate repository of all human wisdom. It is time to draw breath and ask whether Charlie Hebdo is as liberally innocent as its understandably outraged western defenders would have us believe.”
But we can all agree on one thing: the terrorist mayhem visited on Charlie Hebdo staff and others, including the innocent shoppers at the Jewish supermarket, is totally unacceptable.
S P Seth is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia.