Special Edition : Déjà vu in France: Change attitudes

Déjà vu in France: Change attitudes
Chandra Muzaffar*

 As events unfold in France centring on Islamaphobia, there is a feeling of déjà vu. We have witnessed a few times before this sequence of events.  There is some provocation or other targeting the Prophet Muhammad initiated by a non-Muslim group or institution. Predictably, Muslims react.  In the midst of demonstrations and rallies, an act of violence occurs perpetrated by an offended Muslim and/or his co-religionists. The violent act leads to further demonization of Muslims in the media which by this time is in frenzy.  Feeling targeted, some Muslim groups escalate their emotional response, sometimes causing more deaths to occur of both Muslims and non-Muslims even in countries far away from the place where the provocation first occurred. One also hears of calls to boycott goods produced in the country where it all started.

On this occasion too it was French president Emmanuel Macron’s vigorous assertion that cartoons of the Prophet produced by the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, in January 2015 and republished since represented freedom of speech that angered a lot of Muslims in France and elsewhere, though some other remarks he had made recently about ‘Islam being in crisis’ and ‘Islamic separatism’ had also annoyed some people. However, it was the beheading of a French schoolteacher who had shown the cartoons in a class discussion on freedom of speech by a Muslim youth of Chechen origin that provoked not only Macron but also other leaders and a huge segment of French society to react with hostility towards Muslims and even Islam. It should be emphasised that almost all major Muslim leaders and organisations in France also condemned the beheading.  So did many Muslims in other parts of the world.

It is not enough just to denounce an ugly, insane murder of this sort. Not many Muslim theologians have argued publicly that resorting to mindless violence to express one’s anger over a caricature of the Prophet is an affront to the blessed memory of God’s Messenger. For even when he was physically abused in both Mecca and Medina, Prophet Muhammad did not retaliate with violence against his adversaries. He continued with his mission of preaching justice and mercy with kindness and dignity. It is such an attitude that should be nurtured and nourished in the Muslim world today especially by those who command religious authority and political influence among the masses. 

If a change in approach is necessary among some Muslims, French society as a whole should also re-appraise its understanding of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech should never ever glorify the freedom to insult, to mock, to humiliate another person or community or civilisation. Respect for the feelings and sentiments of the religious other should be integral to one’s belief system, whether it is secular or not. Just because the French State and much of French society have marginalised religion, it does not follow that it should also show utter contempt for a Muslim’s love and reverence for his/her Prophet especially when 6 million French citizens profess the Islamic faith.

Indeed, respecting and understanding the sentiments and values that constitute faith and belief has become crucial in a globalised world where at least 80 % of its inhabitants are linked in one way or another to some religion or other.  We cannot claim to be champions of democracy and yet ignore, or worse, denigrate what is precious to the majority of the human family. This does not mean that we should slavishly accept mass attitudes towards a particular faith. Reforms should continue to be pursued within each religious tradition but it should not undermine respect for the foundations of that faith.

French leaders and elites who regard freedom of speech or expression as the defining attribute of their national identity, should also concede that there have been a lot of inconsistencies in their stances.  A French comedian, Dieudenne, has been convicted in Court eight times for allegedly upsetting “Jewish sentiment” and is prohibited from performing in many venues. A cartoonist with Charlie Hebdo was fired for alleged “ anti-Semitism.”  There is also the case of a writer, Robert Faurisson in the sixties who was fined in Court and lost his job for questioning the conventional holocaust narrative. Many years later, the French intellectual Roger Garaudy was also convicted for attempting to re-interpret certain aspects of the holocaust. 

The hypocrisy of the French State goes beyond convictions in Court. While officials are rightfully aghast at the violence committed by individuals, France has a long history of perpetrating brutal massacres and genocides against Muslims and others. The millions of Algerians, Tunisians and Moroccans who died in the course of the French colonisation of these countries bear tragic testimony to this truth. Vietnam and the rest of Indo-China reinforce this cruel and callous record.  Even in contemporary times, the French State has had no qualms about embarking upon military operations from Afghanistan and Cote d’ Ivore  to Libya and North  Mali  which serve its own interests of dominance and control rather than the needs of the people in these lands.

Honest reflections upon its own misdeeds past and present are what we expect of the French state and society in 2020. There is no need to pontificate to others. This is what we would like to see all colonial powers of yesteryear do —- partly because neo-colonialism is very much alive today.

*Dr Chandra Muzaffar is the president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) Petaling Jaya, Malaysia.


Muslim intellectuals, activists condemn Paris beheading; demand abolition of apostasy and blasphemy law
At a webinar organised by the Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy on Sunday, they condemned the beheading of a school teacher by an 18-year-old Muslim fanatic

Muslim intellectuals and activists, speaking at a webinar on Sunday, condemned the Paris beheading of a school teacher, Samuel Paty, by an 18-year-old Muslim fanatic, Abdullakh Anzorov. The webinar was organised by the Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy (IMSD). Moderated by its convener, Javed Anand, all four panellists are office bearers and prominent members of IMSD. In his introductory remarks, Anand stated: “We are here to condemn in unequivocal terms, no ifs and buts, not only the man responsible for this barbaric act but all those who had any role in the instigation of the crime as also all those who seek to justify it. We are here not just to condemn the slaying of Mr Paty, but also to demand the abolishing of apostasy and banishing of blasphemy anywhere and everywhere across the world”.

Mumbai-based Islamic scholar Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali argued that killing people for blasphemy or apostasy is not permissible in Islam. The Qur’an never mentioned such punishments. The Qur’an has stood for peace and justice in a non-violent way. It will be very fruitful if scholars and ulema scrutinised and sifted through Hadith literature which has been pending over the years. The confirmation of a Hadith has to be in consonance with the verses of the Qur’an, she said. “Respectfully, the Paris beheading is a wake-up call to the ulema and leaders of the Muslim world. It is time for both the clergy and the parents to instruct children that such acts of violence are not only detested and abhorred by Islam but are in total contradiction to Islam’s reverence for peace, explicit recognition of tolerance, compassion, social equality, high moral order and spiritual depth,” Ali added.

Delhi-based columnist at New Age Islam, Arshad Alam, in his presentation, contextualised the Islamist beheading of the teacher. Pointing out that it was planned and pre-meditated, he argued the prime objective of such acts of terror is to silence any critique of Islam. Alam added that Charlie Hebdo cartoons must be seen within a European tradition which has for long satirised religious traditions, particularly Christianity. Since Islam is also now a European religion, the same yardstick must be applied to this religion also. Those who want to retain blasphemy laws on the statute are basically the same forces which are opposed to the liberal secular tradition and therefore should be rightly understood as indulging in right wing politics, he said.

Alam argued that it is incumbent on Muslims to raise their voice against the laws of blasphemy and apostasy as worldwide they are the worst victims of such laws. Moreover, these laws serve to control and intimidate the minds of Muslims and till the time they are not abrogated, Muslims and others will not have the freedom to discuss, debate and critique, something which is cardinal in order to develop a free and open society.

Chennai-based advocate and mediator A. T. Jawad spoke about the similarities between blasphemy and sedition as weapons of power and control used by theocracies and autocracies to suppress dissent and to whip up mob frenzy. He said that religion and nationalism are excuses used to charge up emotions. The anti-blasphemy laws and anti-sedition laws are used to attack detractors and dissenters by theocratic and autocratic (far right) rulers. He pointed out how in the 11th century AD, Sunni scholars of law and theology, called the “ulema,” began working closely with political rulers to challenge what they considered to be the sacrilegious influence of Muslim philosophers on society.

The most prominent in consolidating Sunni orthodoxy, said Jawad, was the brilliant and highly regarded Islamic scholar Ghazali, who died in the year 1111. In several influential books still widely read today, Ghazali declared two long-dead leading Muslim philosophers, Farabi and Ibn Sina, apostates for their unorthodox views on God’s power and the nature of resurrection. Their followers, Ghazali wrote, could be punished with death. Ghazali’s declaration provided justification to Muslim sultans from the 12th century onward who wished to persecute – even execute – thinkers seen as threats to conservative religious rule. The trend continues today, said Jawad.

Mumbai-based activist and writer Feroze Mithiborwala said essentially the basic argument against the cartoon controversy is that they “mock” and “offend my religious sensibilities” and thus should be banned. The cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, which undoubtedly hurt the feelings of ordinary Muslims, actually required a non-violent response, which would have been far more effective. On one hand, we have a murder committed by a religious fanatic in the name of blasphemy. On the other hand, there is a secular French tradition of absolute freedom of expression, which includes the right to offend all religions, Mithiborwala added.

He said it’s high time religious people realised one basic truth: every religious text and tradition is ‘offensive, blasphemous and heretical’ to the followers of other sects and religions. The very concepts of blasphemy and heresy are essentially anti-people and anti-democratic, as their agenda is to stymie any theological and intellectual debate and discussion on the issue of religious oppression and violence, both ideological and structural. Therefore concepts such as blasphemy and heresy have no place in any conscientious civilised society and must go, Mithiborwala concluded.