Voices of reason amidst a spate of attacks on Muslims in Europe

Print edition : December 04, 2020

Supporters of the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation display defaced portraits of President Emmanuel Macron during a protest against the republication of the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad and Macron's comments, in Kolkata on November 4. Photo: RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI/REUTERS

The spate of attacks across Europe revive the debate on issues concerning faith and the freedom of expression.

WHILE many in the Muslim as well as secular world tip-toed around the killing of Samuel Paty, a middle-school teacher,in Paris on October 16, Hassen Chalghoumi, who leads prayers at a mosque in a Paris suburb, said: “This is not Islam, sorry, it’s not religion, it’s Islamism, it’s the poison of Islam.” He described Samuel Paty as “a martyr for the freedom of expression and a wise man who has taught tolerance, civilisation and respect for others”.

The Chechnyan youth who killed the teacher for showing the reprinted Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in the classroom, was allegedly in contact with Syrian jehadis.

However, President Emmanuel Macron’s statement that the French way of life was under threat from Islamists escalated the crisis. “Islamists want to take our future. They will never have it,” he said.

Also read: Charlie Hebdo Attack: Shocking in Paris

Several Arab countries condemned the French incitement against Islam and the Prophet, warning that such repeated insults would fuel hatred. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries described Macron’s statement as “irresponsible”.

A few days after the killing of Paty, two female assailants stabbed two Muslim women near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The spate of attacks across Europe revived important questions about fundamentalism, Islamophobia, militancy, notions of faith and freedom of expression. While it put Muslims on the spot, the question as to what was the crisis in the secular world that pushed young boys into the folds of militant Islam begged for an answer.

The attacks compelled Indian Muslims to unequivocally denounce violence in the name of their faith. Many prominent voices such as Salman Khurshid, Asaduddin Owaisi, Naseeruddin Shah and Javed Akhtar signed a statement condemning the incidents. At the same time, Islamophobia got new impetus in India where Hindu nationalists found fresh ammunition against Muslims who are facing persecution under a majoritarian rule. Many fear that it might lead to further marginalisation and alienation of the minority population that is battling an unjust citizenship law.

In the span of a month, three successive lone wolf attacks rocked Europe. Political observers called them well-coordinated strikes. On the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in October, a Tunisian suspect killed three people inside the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice, France.

Also read: In France, isolated terror attacks lead to the scapegoating of Islam

On November 2, a 20-year-old youth shot four persons in central Vienna’s night life area called Bermuda Triangle. The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack. Austria reacted with a crackdown on Muslim homes and establishments with 60 raids and 30 arrests. Whether they had any connection with the terror attack was not clear. The authorities said in a statement that they had acted on suspicion of money laundering, financing terrorism and criminal organisation.

Irfan Engineer, Director of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, said: “There are intolerant, extremists, fundamentalists and violent people in every religious community. The Muslim community also has its share. However, in the case of non-Muslims, the entire community is not blamed for the act of extremist individuals. Any act by a Muslim extremist, which should rightly be condemned, attracts global coverage in the media holding the entire community responsible for the offence subtly through the prominence accorded to it, length of coverage, choice of words and headlines. In India, we have our share of extremists—the cow vigilantes who lynch innocent Muslims to death if they are transporting animals, and often force them to proclaim victory to Lord Ram against the teaching of their faith. The Chechen youth, the jihadis and the cow vigilantes are not only against the freedom of expression and democracy, but act against the teachings and values of their own religion. Let us come together and condemn all such inhuman, brutal and violent actions irrespective of to which religion the offender belongs.”

Around the same time when European cities witnessed a series of attacks, a car bomb went off in Kandahar, Afghanistan, killing four people and injuring 24 policemen and civilians. A suicide bomber blew himself up on Kabul University campus killing 22 people and injuring an equal number. This was the second time in two weeks that an educational institution was targeted in Kabul. Outside Baghdad, Iraq, 11 people were killed in an attack mounted by the IS.

Muslims as victims

Critics have often pointed out that the biggest victims of Islamist violence are Muslims themselves. But those attacks never receive the global condemnation that attacks in the West get. The worst victims worldwide of blasphemy and apostasy laws are again Muslims. According to Arshad Alam, a columnist with New Age Islam, it was incumbent on Muslims to raise their voices against such laws as they control and intimidate the minds of Muslims. Until they were abrogated, Muslims and others would not have the freedom to discuss, debate and critique, which was cardinal for developing a free and open society, he said.

Moreover, the biggest opposition to militant Islam comes from the Muslim world. While the United States and Russia claim credit for fighting the IS, on the ground, the coalition is led by Kurdish fighters, Shia militias, Syrian Arab fighters, Sunni tribal fighters and Iraqi government troops.

Also read: Death blow to Islamic State

While these acts do not receive enough publicity, controversial statements by adventurists such as the Islamist preacher Zakir Naik become relevant. After the recent terror attacks, he posted a quote from the Koran on Facebook, which fanned communal fires. It said, “Those who abuse the Messenger of Allah will have a painful punishment.”The post was subsequently taken down, but Zakir Naik remained unfazed in his attack on Macron. While Zakir Naik had earlier shared a post that denounced the beheading, his later comments and demands to boycott French products complicated the situation.

Several Arab trade groups boycotted French products and social media campaigns using hashtags #boycottfrance #boycott_French_products #ProphetMuhammad went viral.

Call to boycott French products

The Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, the largest organisation of Muslims in India, backed the boycott calls and condemned Macron for supporting cartoons of the Prophet under the pretext of freedom of expression. Mahmood Madani, the Jamiat general secretary, deplored Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s support to the French President. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had suggested that Macron needed some mental treatment for his attitude towards Muslims in France. The comment resulted in a verbal spat between the two leaders. The Modi government jumped into the fray and released an official statement supporting Macron. It “strongly deplored” the personal attacks on Macron in “unacceptable language”. “The Modi government’s attitude has pained the entire Muslim world, including 20 crore Muslims of India,” said Madani. He, however, added that the Jamiat did not justify or support any act of violence or terrorism.

The Darul Uloom Deoband hit out at Macron for insulting the Prophet while the All India Muslim Personal Law Board tweeted, “Freedom of expression is a right. However, one is not allowed to insult the sentiments of others in the name of freedom. Those who violate others’ fundamental right to be respected must adopt civilised manners. #ProphetMuhammad4All.”

Also read: Yellow fury erupts against the Macron government

In contrast to the conflicting signals given out by Islamic religious organisations in India, which focussed more on Macron than on the acts of violence, the Islamic scholar Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali said that killing people for blasphemy or apostasy was not permissible in Islam. The Koran never mentioned such punishments. It stood for peace and justice in a non-violent way. She added that it might be useful for scholars and ulemas to scrutinise and sift through Hadith literature.

“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,” she said.

Demand to abolish blasphemy laws

In the backdrop of extreme polarisation all around, the Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy (IMSD) condemned the beheading of Paty and demanded the abolition of apostasy and blasphemy laws.

Terming blasphemy and sedition as weapons of power and control by theocracies and autocracies to suppress dissent and whip up mob frenzy, advocate A.J. Jawad said religion and nationalism were merely excuses to charge up emotions.

Providing the historical context for such laws, he said, “In the11th century A.D., 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 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 twelfth century onward who wished to persecute, even execute, thinkers seen as threats to conservative religious rule. The trend continues today.”

Also read: Paris Attacks: The night Paris changed

The basic argument against the Charlie Hebdo cartoon controversy was that they “mock” and “offend my religious sensibilities” and thus should be banned, said activist and writer Feroze Mithiborwala. According to him, the cartoons of the Prophet, which undoubtedly hurt the feelings of ordinary Muslims, actually required a non-violent response, which would have been far more effective.

“On the 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. It is 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,” he said.