"One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith," Pope Francis said today. He condemned killing in the name of religion and said religious liberty and liberty of expression were "fundamental human rights." But he added: "There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity."
I agree – people need to be aware of the sensibilities of others, including of their religious beliefs. Informed critical discourse is one thing but outright ridicule and vulgarity is another.
It is easy to see the attacks in Paris as terrorist Muslims killing non-Muslims in the name of Islam, or Muslims acting violently to curtail freedom of speech. But many European Muslims are asking: why is such unabated “freedom” allowed to contribute to their demonisation?
Two European Parliament resolutions stress that freedom of expression must be exercised within the limits of the law, and should coexist with personal responsibility and respect for human rights, religious feelings and beliefs.
If cartoons or stories that failed to do this were made about Jews, blacks or homosexuals, they would never be tolerated. The French comedian Dieudonné is facing trial for comments on Facebook appearing to sympathise with one of the attackers. A Charlie Hebdo cartoonist, Siné, was fired in 2008 after he was accused of anti-Semitism. Limits on freedom of speech are routinely drawn, even in France.
The issue for many Muslims goes beyond tolerating criticism – it is about vulgar depictions of their prophet. Isn’t satire supposed to attack the powerful and hold them to account? Who benefits if the powerful mock the beliefs of minorities? While Muslim leaders condemned the Charlie Hebdo murders, they also see that the magazine’s content is inflammatory.
At times like these, imams come under pressure to condemn terrorist acts and do what they can to prevent Muslims, especially youth, from turning towards violent extremism. They often cite three problems that increase the lure of radical ideology: Islamophobia in the West, foreign wars in Muslim countries (most notably the Iraq War) and unfettered support for Israel.
Unjust policies or a failure to address these issues makes the work of imams and mainstream Muslim organisations more difficult, and makes it easier for radical groups to find recruits. Mainstream imams continue to promote legal, diplomatic and other non-violent means to tackle these issues. So the UK Government voting against the recent UN resolution to end the Israeli occupation effectively gave a boost to the extremists’ slogan that violence is the only answer and peaceful diplomatic means are fruitless.
While most Muslims feel angry about these issues, only a tiny minority will carry out violence or join extremist groups.
However, Muslim anger has another dimension in France. Many French Muslims feel alienated and disenfranchised, and complain of institutional racism. France’s aggressive secularism (laïcité) that seeks to relegate religion to its most private level, rankles with those who see religion as their most important identity. A shared narrative that incorporates and values the diversity and identity of all of France’s inhabitants is clearly missing.
In addition, there’s the question of context: French colonialism in North Africa, especially Algeria – where two of the gunmen’s family was from – and the Algerian war of independence, in which 1.5 million Arab Muslims were killed. I would also argue for journalists better to trace and explain the different doctrinal strands in Islam that might motivate such violence, and the personal background of individuals. The dots are seldom joined.
Neither is it often articulated that incomparably more Muslims have been killed than non-Muslims by Islamist groups, a fact that challenges those who see terrorism as a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West, a theory perpetuated by constant negativity and “othering” of Muslims by the media.
The Paris attacks will further contribute to a stereotype of Muslims as violent and threatening. Anti-Muslim reprisals and protests have already begun, and right-wing groups and political parties have turned up anti-Muslim rhetoric (and it is unlikely that these attacks will make the headlines). Politicians and the media need to be mindful of the potential consequences of the language they use. An “us versus them” narrative is driven by both extremist Muslim fringes and malicious media reporting.
The point is that there are major concerns for all: for Muslims, Jews and rest of the European population, and indeed the wider world. Hence these common issues require collective solutions.
Dr Mustafa Baig is a research fellow on the Islamic Reformulations programme at Exeter University’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, and co-chair of the International Abrahamic Forum