Well, a lot to think about on the events a few weeks back. 17 people killed and many more injured; three Muslim fanatics killed in stand-off sieges fighting against an insult to the prophet Mohamed, protests condemning the attacks and even a trend on twitter ‘#Killallmuslims’. Where to begin. When I normally defend Islam, against those damning it for its barbaric ways and extreme followers I merely point out that Christianity is in many ways no better. I’ve had many a Facebook thread arguing with someone as they insult Islam to try to bring some prospective to the situation. I am not religious and find Islam and Christianity equally fallacious and dangerous, two hands on different parts of the elephant as they say. Many Christians are blind to the vices of their faith, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, countless abortion bombings and abortion doctor murders, deaths from attempted faith healing, there are many more examples of extreme Christianity. But none have gone as far as yesterday. Yesterday was different. A direct terror attack in the heart of Paris in a clear attempt to silence those who had insulted the faith of Islam.
What is true however is that Islam thinks itself is above humour. There have been too many times where jokes are made about Islam that have had real world consequences such as riots and unrest. Islam is not free from criticism. There is no right to freedom from insult. It is immature to complain that you feel insulted when someone takes a pop at a religion that in the form of Sharia law is extremely discriminatory to women, the LGTBI community and many others, Harsher punishments and stricter laws. These need to be challenged. The vast number of human rights infringements need to be confronted. We need to confront fundamental Islam where it is prevalent, we do not need Christian patrols, invasion of Mosques and handing out bibles to Muslims who are perfectly comfortable worshipping their God. It’s Ironic how Britain First hand out bibles when the bible has more violent and nefarious passages than the Qur’an but there you go.
How do we respond to this? Of course many people have immediately begun to demonize Islam, the BNP and Britain First of course; they never resist an opportunity to be borderline racist. The very fact that #Killallmuslims was trending is very frightening. One group who I do feel for though are the French Muslims who are going about their day in humble prayer. Just as after 911 and the Lee Rigby Murder, Muslims all around the country were targeted, Mosques were attacked. As if British Muslims had anything to do with the killers of Lee Rigby. It is generalisation to a dangerous extreme. Getting a brush and painting all Muslims with the same paint is extremely nefarious. There is a growing amount of Islamophobia in France and Germany (just look at the protests in German cities) and the Muslim population in many countries are becoming increasingly targeted for the deeds done by people they don’t know, don’t relate to, and have no religious connection to other than a religious book they share that is wildly misinterpreted by fanatics.
We need to look at the example of the Sydney cafe incident. People were quick to make sure that Muslims in general were not abused online for the actions of so few. We are quick to judge Muslims for the actions of terrorists but we do not look at the Westboro Baptist Church and think that all Christians are like that. I’ve heard some responses to this such as ‘Christians are never as this violent’. True but this does not change the fact that making generalizations a foolish and immature thing to do.
Medhi Hasan in the NewStatesman adds a very interesting angle on the situation. He calls the liberal press hypocrites for making the case valiantly for freedom of speech and forgetting to address many issues in western society that infringe freedom of speech and expression. In 2011 a poll showed that 82% of voters backed prosecution of people who set fire to poppies. Is this the western world fighting for freedom of expression? Clearly not. If it has come to the point where one can be prosecuted for showing dissent towards a particular idea or image then we do not live in a free society. Angela Merkel was at the Paris freedom march. In Germany and some other European countries those who publicly deny the holocaust can face up to 5 years in jail. This is not the freedom of expression that the west advocates and subscribes to. Regardless of how disgusting we think holocaust deniers are, regardless of how wrong we think their position is, the state should not have the right to remove citizens’ rights and freedoms because of what they believe. The line to draw is inciting violence. If a holocaust denier says publicly ‘I don’t think the holocaust happened. I ask all of you to go out and try to kill as many Jews as you can, heil Hitler!’ or words to that extent, this is an incitement of violence and is a criminal offence. Their words are in direct relation with an action that is against the law. If a holocaust denier says publicly ‘I don’t think the holocaust happened, or at least didn’t happen to the extent people think it did’ there is no possible legal step that can and should be taken. We cannot begin to incriminate people for thinking certain things; the state should not have the power of thought policing.
Since 2010 it has become illegal in France to wear a Burka. Does this law protect freedom of expression? No. It is a direct violation of freedom of expression. The French government has deemed it law that no Muslim women should wear the Burka. In banning the Burka France is not liberating women from oppression, it is counter to the spirit of the Enlightenment. The enlightenment occurred because of the belief that minority religions should be protected from state intervention that would oppress and censor a belief or religion. John Locke’s great work ‘A letter concerning toleration’ argues that civil authorities should not be able to censor and oppress one in their civil enjoyments for the mere fact that he is of another religion. If a woman believes that it is wrong to go outside without being covered up is potentially imprisoned in her home. The state has no right to tell an individual what to wear, it is the religion of the woman involved and if she makes a choice about her dress, it is her choice and she is very welcome to it. The point is that many western countries profess and parade around their ideals of freedom of expression and speech but at the same time are censoring those very freedoms and not batting an eyelid. In 2013 a woman was arrested in France for wearing a burka in public. She was fined and given ‘citizen classes’. This is dangerous. This law assumes that female Muslims who wear burkas are somehow not proper citizens of France; a certain religious practise prevents citizenship. This is dangerous. Often Muslims are talked about as a ‘community’. This again is a subconscious distinction to say ‘us and them’. There is a Muslim population in France, not a community. Muslims do actually interact with society and other people not of the same faith, to deny so is to reveal the problem of Islamophobia to the world. In relation to the topic at hand, we find it very easy to caricature Muslims and laugh at them without seeing the real cultural problems that are happening as a result to the Muslim populations in many countries.
The political and journalistic aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings has been to decry the attempts to silence freedom of expression but really we are not the saints we think we are. If, in the experiment offered by Brian Klug, Oxford philosophy professor, I went to the unite rally holding a sign saying ‘je suis Cherif’, the first name of one of the gunmen, I would be mobbed, beaten up and probably killed. Would the crowd have seen me as ‘a hero, standing up for liberty and freedom of speech? Or would they have been profoundly offended?’ Clearly it is the latter and herein lies the hypocrisy of the situation.