Is France’s fight against extremism criminalising Islam as a whole?

If there is a saying that serves as a snapshot for the times we live in, it’s Ibn Khaldun’s remark that “the past resembles the future more than one drop of water resembles another”. The sense of being hopeless spectators to the relentless spectre of terrorism for a long time is a grim probability. 

France has witnessed two terror attacks in the last few weeks in which civilians have been beheaded. Samuel Paty was a teacher who was murdered after showing his students a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. Then, following uproar from several Muslim-majority states, history repeated itself far quicker than most might have expected, when a woman was decapitated inside a church.

The right to criticise religion has never been a simple issue and it’s not surprising that it provokes such emotive responses. For those who wrap themselves in religious identity and live their life according to the sayings of that faith, it’s not surprising to see some regard criticism and mockery of faith as a personal attack. In fact, criticism within the frameworks of serious debates is one thing, but mockery and satire tends to invite a different scale of emotional response.

In the wake of the heinous murders, the debate refusing to acknowledge the place religion holds in the heart of many brings to mind Karl Marx’s referral to faith as the ‘opium of the masses’. Clearly, there are people today who see Islam and all religions as drugs for fools, and therefore don’t always understand.

Religions are a powerful counterweight to materialistic nihilism, loneliness and social fragmentation. Churches and mosques are often embedded within community organising around helping the most vulnerable, in asserting the importance of dignity in resistance against injustice. 

But those who are now demanding this respect from Charlie Hebdo and France are sorely missing the point and misunderstanding a very crucial point. Respect for religion is not mandatory but a choice. It cannot be demanded and it can always be withdrawn. More importantly, individuals should not refrain from criticising religion from a place of fear or sense of forcibly obeying social norms that demand a degree of politeness towards theism.

This is not secularism but theocracy where the risk of criticising religion is death. Secularists who criticised the religion in Bangladesh were hacked to death by religious fanatics. This is the danger of entertaining such notions that sacred things should not be questioned. It gives more power to those who demand a puritanical observation of faith with a penalty of death for deviation or dishonour.

“It’s about having the fundamental right to criticise without being murdered” says Liam Duffy, a researcher in counter-extremism and terrorism. “There’s a narrative that defending Charlie Hebdo means you support being deliberately provocative, but that’s not the case at all and it seems to add to the tension of the situation. People who are offended take the outspoken support for Charlie Hebdo as outspoken support for being deliberately offensive. But for most people it comes down to supporting their right not to be killed for being deliberately provocative.”

Division sought by religious fanatics and the far-right will only further deepen the social fissures and increase the likelihood of such atrocities. The losers in this are the French Muslims themselves. On the same day as the murder inside the church, a member of Generation Identity stabbed a civilian. The GI are a far-right organisation that believes in organising societies on the basis of ethnicities, and construct a threat facing Europe from immigration, refugees and Muslims. Their ideology inspired the Christchurch terrorist and also includes expelling ethnic minorities in so-called western societies.

In India, Hindutva nationalists frequently use atrocities caused by Muslim fundamentalists to justify their own intolerant narratives regarding Muslims, exposing their own fundamentalist evils, and are once again embracing the attacks in France as proof of Muslims being a threat to civilised societies. 

It is important that this narrative of Islam versus the West’ isn’t allowed to grow. Making Europe inhospitable for Muslims is precisely the aim of extremists who want nothing more than to see a Europe ran by far-right populists. It means resisting the fear of a permanent conflict, and recognising that the first, and often many, victims of these extremists are other Muslims themselves.

What has happened in Europe recently, happens with terrible regularity in countries such as Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is a tendency for commentators, in their attempt to reaffirm European values of Enlightenment and pontificate about an intellectual reformation of Islam, to forget the lives lost to extremism across the world.

It is certainly correct that in the days since the heinous crimes, there have been essays that blamed militant secularism for what has happened. This is a reductionist view that ignores the existence of this streak of intolerance within a strand of Islam that predates the Charlie Hebdo situation. One only needs to remember the uproar that greeted Salman Rushdie to acknowledge that this intolerance does exist.

But it is a legitimate point that the French society has an uneasy relationship with its Muslim population for many years to the point where the Muslim identity feels juxtaposed with French values. A ban on religious symbols was mostly punishing to Muslim women despite claims by some that it would be applied to all.

There is, very little in the way of comparison, between a Christian being asked to hide their religious cross and a Muslim woman being forced to take off a religious outfit on a beach in front of others. Quite simply, it is a humiliating ordeal. More recently, the French state’s battle against what it regards as Islamic separatism within France has now apparently included criminalising requesting same-sex doctors, showing further disdain for the lifestyle choices of Muslim women.

The French government responded to the murder of Samuel Paty by threatening various French Muslim organisations, including the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) which records anti-Muslim hate crime, as “enemies of the republic”. A minister questioned the need for halal and kosher meat while several mosques have been shut down.

How, it should be asked, does banning religious clothing or scrutinising the need for halal consumption defend secularism? Citizens should not be accused of lacking sympathy for the French by questioning how much it has allowed its Muslim population to freely practice its faith. Has the result been a country that is unified in its French identity?

Those penning essays have blamed French racism as the reason behind what has happened. Once again, there is a whiff of victim-blaming here that must be carefully avoided. Where the majority of French Muslims do not respond to racism and marginalisation with terrorism, the violent fringe should not simply be allowed to use that as a factor.

A more honest reflection is that racism can make individuals disenchanted with the society they are living in, and sometimes more susceptible to toxic religious fundamentalists if they decide that a positive social change is impossible. Ultimately, a well-integrated individual is very unlikely to want to bring harm to the civilians of the society he or she share.

Myriam-Francois Cerrah, a research associate at Centre of Islamic Studies at SOAS pointed out: “there’s been an attempt to Islamize poverty in France by the far-right which had bled into mainstream politics and media, making people see crime in suburbs as a Muslim problem, rather than a socio-economic problem.”

Perhaps though, we should stop seeing solidarity in such binary terms. One should express sympathy and support with the French society whilst imploring it to pursue a different path with its Muslim demographic regarding expressions of faith. Most importantly, we should always hold the line that religions are always fair game when it comes to ridicule and scrutiny. Only a theocrat would have us believe otherwise.

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