By The Economist
Feb 25th 2015
WE ARE certainly not Charlie, but most of us (not all) can relate to Ahmed. That would be one way of summarising the results of a survey of British Muslim opinion that was publishedtoday by the BBC.
You'll remember that in the immediate aftermath of last month's terrorist outrages in Paris (the killing of 12 people at Charlie Hebdo magazine, and then an attack on a kosher supermarket, where four people died) many different slogans popped up. "Je suis Ahmed" was a popular alternative (or complement) to the near-ubiquitous "Je suis Charlie". Ahmed Merabet was a French Muslim police officer who was killed in the Charlie attack, and his cause was adopted in a popular tweet: "I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so."
How, then, did respondents to the BBC poll signal their identification with Ahmed? Some 95% of respondents said they felt loyal to Britain, and 93% said that Muslims should always obey British laws. However 78% agreed with the statement that it was "deeply offensive" to publish images of the prophet Muhammad, and worryingly, 11% assented to the proposition that organisations which publish such images "deserve to be attacked".
Some 68% agreed that "acts of violence" against those who publish images of the prophet "can never be justified" while 24% could not concur with that statement. Indeed more than 27% were willing to express "some sympathy for the motives" behind the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
How do all these findings fit together? The proportion of Muslims declaring strong loyalty to Britain was in line with many previous polls, showing that Muslims profess to be patriotic and law-abiding in slightly higher percentages than other Britons do. It may be worth recalling that many British Muslim communities originate from, and still identify with, deeply conservative places in south Asia (rural Kashmir or Bangladesh, for example) where loyalty to established authority is a widely acknowledged virtue. Islam itself, in the form that is taught in many British mosques and madrassas, regards obedience to authority (and the avoidance of fitna or anarchy) as something self-evidently desirable.
That does not mean, though, that Muslims in Britain (or, I suspect, most other Western countries) have bought into secularist libertarianism, which regards the "right to ridicule" as an important entitlement. A majority are deeply unamused by anti-religious cartoons; but of those, most, but not all, are willing to react stoically, even if they can understand those whose stoicism fails.
The vast and inspiring demonstrations, in Paris and elsewhere, that followed the terrorist attacks might have given many people the impression of a near-universal consensus on the sanctity of freedom of speech, including outrageous speech. That, if it were completely true, would be an encouraging starting-point for a drive to oppose the "tiny" minority who do not entirely share that view.
Unfortunately the minority is not tiny. But it is probably still the case that most citizens, including most Muslim citizens, are willing on balance to accept the bargain of "freedom of speech under the law" in which the pain of hearing and seeing deeply unpleasant things is worth enduring in exchange for the liberty to say things which challenge or upset others. That is the real starting-point.