About two years ago, European Court of Human Rights ruled to uphold an Austrian court’s decision that “defaming Prophet Muhammad exceeds the permissible limits of freedom of expression”. A cursory look at the global media, however, reveals that showing cartoons denigrating the Prophet of Islam (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) to school children and republishing the insulting cartoons were seen as acceptable or defiant gestures in defence of free expression. In comparison, the immense hurt caused to the feelings of more than two billion Muslims, including those who have lived in Europe and France for a long time, was barely highlighted with the emphasis it deserved. The French may defend such insults to religious beliefs as the essence of laïcité — the French word for the secularism that separates religion and state in the country — and see freedom of expression as absolute. However, to France’s large Muslim community as well as their brethren worldwide, laïcité has meant a lack of respect towards the beliefs of this community.
Interestingly, the claim that freedom of expression is absolute is false, as France and other European countries have laws against anti-Semitic hate speech. On one hand, the republic prides itself as the nation of Voltaire, with a tradition of trenchant social satire to which Charlie Hebdo clearly sees itself as heir. On the other hand, France has restrictive privacy laws, some of the toughest hate speech laws in the European Union, and a ban on Holocaust denial. This combination of Voltairean bravado and restrictive measures has created a deeply contradictory attitude toward free speech. France’s attitude to free speech is thus fraught. On many occasions, their hypocrisy that freedom of speech can be trashed if it does not suit their purpose has also been exposed. The problem seems to be France’s inability to recognise Islamophobia and anti-Arab xenophobia as hate speech at all.
This is hypocritical. France has been jostling between freedom of expression and Islamophobia over the Charlie Hebdo caricatures ever since the magazine printed them in 2006. Interestingly, to the French, the so-called freedom of expression does not appear to apply when the French flag is desecrated or when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apparently questioned President Emmanuel Macron’s mental state, prompting the recall of the French ambassador in Turkey.
Adding insult to injury, Macron is exploiting the murder of the school teacher for political ends by pushing new legislation strengthening the 1905 act on laïcité, thereby allowing for closer scrutiny of schools and associations exclusively serving religious communities. French police have now started raiding mosques and Islamist groups across the country. Much to the chagrin of the Muslim world, Macron also bellowed that “Islam is a religion in crisis all over the world today, we don’t see it only in our country”, prompting Muslim leaders like Erdoğan and Imran Khan to condemn these insulting and Islamophobic remarks. A boycott of French goods within Muslim countries is also underway.
Islamophobia is nothing new in Europe. Closer home in the UK, Islamophobia has become the new normal. Islamophobia in France, however, is older than these recent events. The European New Right, a movement that repackaged racism as blood and soil ethno-nationalism, originated in France in the 1960s. In recent times, France has been home to some of the most well-known Islamophobic and racist writers. These include Macron’s political opponent, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front (now known as the National Rally), and Renaud Camus, whose theory of Great Replacement inspired the Christchurch mosque killer who slaughtered 50 Muslims in cold blood.
In 2004, France banned the Islamic headscarf in public institutions. A year after the 2015 attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, France also banned the burkini. Even Macron called the 132-year colonisation of Algeria as involving “crimes and acts of barbarism” that would today be acknowledged as “crimes against humanity”. Has France ever apologised for this atrocity, let alone pay compensation? A suggestion made to this effect in 2017 drew a sharp rebuke from Macron’s rivals on the political right. France has always wanted those not ethnically ‘French’ to reject their past, including their culture and beliefs, and become secular in the truest sense possible so as to integrate with ‘mainstream’ society. For some, however, this only represents a new form of intolerance.
Insulting the dignity and personality of the beloved Prophet of Islam (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) is part of the well-oiled global Islamophobia campaign; it is nothing new. During the time of the Prophet, the Meccans called him a poet, a magician, and a madman, among other names. Today, he is insulted with other labels. Modern critiques of some of the undertakings of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) are meant to question the civility of Islam in the ongoing manufactured clash of civilisations that fuels both Islamophobes and extremists. Michael Bonner notes, “Many of these modern arguments over historiography, and over the rise of Islam and the origins of jihad more generally, began in the nineteenth and the earlier twentieth centuries among European academic specialists in the study of the East, often referred to as the orientalists”. Bonner highlights that the motivation of these arguments cannot be disconnected from “their involvement in the colonial project”.
Islamophobes always invoke the ‘freedom of speech’ argument to peddle their racist ideology. Even before the Charlie Hebdo saga, there was the Danish cartoons row, the Innocence of Muslims film, and the Qur’ān burning frenzy. Yet these were not the only incidents. Various Islamophobic reports full of many similar insults, desecrations, and attacks against Islam and Muslims have failed to grab public attention. Justifying the maligning of Islam through a defence of the ‘freedom of speech’ statute is a sophistry that has been adopted by many politicians and is a clear majority in the media these days. It is interesting that when it comes to insulting Islam, the only Western value that is advocated fervently is the concept of freedom of speech. What about other important values such as tolerance and diversity that have ostensibly been helping to cement multicultural societies in the West? Why doesn’t anyone remember these values to contain the anti-Islam frenzy that has turned the lives of Muslims who reside in the West into a very bitter experience?
These insults harm the universal human values and the high ethical principles of all societies. Muslim countries and organisations like the OIC should not only expose and condemn these instances of hate speech, but also act decisively to pursue a relentless campaign to promote respect for the sacred values of all religions. At the grassroots level, the correct response is not violence. However, when Islam has become an inseparable part of their identity, it is unrealistic to expect the Muslims to remain silent. In fact, they should not. It is therefore imperative for them to be part of well-orchestrated initiatives both to thwart anti-Islamic conspiracies and to raise awareness about the exemplary personality of the beloved Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam).