By Shada Islam
Nov. 5, 2011
SO far, so predictable. The fire-bombing of the offices of a French satirical weekly after it printed a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) has, once again, led to dire warnings that European Muslims are determined to destroy western civilisation, curb the fundamental right to free speech and impose the Sharia across the continent.
French politicians have been unanimous in defending freedom of speech and said perpetrators of the crime will be punished. French Muslims have been equally vocal in denouncing the attack — but also clearly angry at what they view as yet another attempt to insult Islam and Muslims.
The head of the Paris Mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, told a news conference on Thursday: “I am extremely attached to freedom of the press, even if the press is not always tender with Muslims, Islam or the Paris Mosque.”
“French Muslims have nothing to do with political Islam,” he said.
The weekly Charlie Hebdo has defended “the freedom to poke fun” and despite the attack, its four-page supplement has gone on sale, wrapped around copies of the left-wing French daily, Liberation. The incident has unpleasant echoes of the controversy triggered by the publication of caricatures of the Prophet in a Danish newspaper in 2005.
Despite the euro zone crisis, expect the Charlie Hebdo incident to remain on the French landscape for some months to come.
With French elections set to be held next summer, politicians, especially from the increasingly popular far-right parties, will probably keep stoking the fires of xenophobic sentiment. Mainstream politicians, seeking to win over votes from the extremists, are likely to follow on the heels of French President Nicolas Sarkozy by maintaining a steady flow of criticism of multiculturalism.
And France’s six to seven million Muslims — the largest number of Muslims in a European country — will have to deal with a constant barrage of accusations that they are inherently ‘un-European and un-French’ and will never become trusted and true French citizens.
Is it possible to break this predictable, toxic and tedious cycle of recrimination and counter-recrimination, accusation and counter-accusation? At first glance, the answer appears to be negative. After all, Muslims are already in the dock in France and many other European countries for their apparent failure to integrate. Late last month, a French court nullified the construction permit for a mosque in the southern city of Marseille, home to the largest Muslim community in France.
The Administrative Tribunal of Marseille ruled on Oct 27 that the mosque project would have to be cancelled because of failures to meet urban planning requirements. France, along with Belgium, has banned the burqa although the garment is worn by a very small minority of Muslim women. French — and European — concerns about Muslims in their midst have been aggravated by the success of the Islamist party in the recent Tunisian elections, the rising popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Islamic trends within the new Libyan government.
Charlie Hebdo, known for its irreverent, harsh satire and mocking treatment of establishment and religious figures, published the special edition in the wake of the victory of the Islamists in Tunisia. “For many French Muslims, religion has become a cultural identity, a refuge in a troubled society where they don’t feel accepted,” French journalist Pierre Haski wrote in the Guardian. “And when a satirical magazine makes fun of Islam the way it would make fun of any other issue, French Muslims don’t laugh. Most of them are silently angry or indifferent, but a minority feels empowered to resort to violence. A disturbing reminder of the underground tensions in society,” Haski said.
It is important to note, however, that so far, no one has claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack. Luz, the cartoonist who drew the cover cartoon at the centre of the controversy, has said it is still unclear just who was behind the fire-bombing.
“Let’s be cautious. There’s every reason to believe it’s the work of fundamentalists but it could just as well be the work of two drunks,” he warned.
Are European Muslims condemned to live their lives on the defensive, their loyalty and citizenship in constant doubt because of the criminal acts of a small minority who dominate the national conversation about Islam? Or can Europe and its Muslims develop a fresh narrative of acceptance, integration and inclusion? In fact, the true story of Europe’s Muslims is much more heartening and upbeat than either side in the debate is ready to admit.
Attacks such as the one on Charlie Hebdo may make the headlines, stirring trouble for the silent and law-abiding majority of Muslims who are happy to call Europe home. But fortunately such incidents are not the norm. European Muslims are making headway in politics, business and culture. They are breaking stereotypes and clichés — and emerging as full-fledged European citizens, ready to demand their rights but also fulfil their duties and obligations.
It is true that efforts to ensure a better integration of European Muslims are complicated by Europe’s own uncertainty about what it means to be ‘European’, the struggle between religion and secular beliefs and Europe’s unease about its economic future, including fears about the impact of globalisation on European jobs.
In such an environment, there is suspicion and unease about ‘foreigners’ — Muslims, yes, but also Chinese, Indians and Russians. Europe needs the talent and abilities of all its citizens and of immigrants to climb out of the current economic downturn. And ordinary European Muslims just want to get on with their daily lives without being held to account for the lunatic and criminal acts of a small minority — or perhaps of just one man.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.
Source: The Dawn, Karachi