On October 16th, French teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded on the street in a Parisian suburb after sparking local controversy by using caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in one of his lessons. President Emmanuel Macron voiced his outrage and condemned this abhorrent act of violence, referring to it not only as a national tragedy but as an attack on French values of secularism and freedom of speech. Just a few weeks later, on October 29th, three people were killed at a Catholic church in Nice by a Tunisian national who was reported to have proclaimed “God is great” in Arabic before committing the murders. In light of these two attacks, the French government has increased security in key sites and Macron has all but declared war on “radical Islam.” Many members of the international Muslim community and leaders of Muslim majority states have responded angrily to Macron’s stance and have accused him of inciting violence against Muslims and as being disrespectful towards Islamic religious values.
This dissonance between French national laws and Muslim religious and cultural principles is not a new phenomenon: in 2015, the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, a left-wing and notoriously inflammatory publication, was attacked by gunmen and 12 people were killed. This attack came after Charlie Hebdo published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a potentially insensitive and Islamophobic manner. More recently, in September, Charlie Hebdo announced that they would republish these cartoons just as the trial of the perpetrators of the 2015 attacks was starting. Unfortunately, what happened at Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters was not an isolated incident: many other terrorist attacks have occurred in France in the last decade, such as the devastating November 2015 Paris attacks and the attacks in Nice when a truck was driven into crowds gathered to celebrate Bastille Day. International actors like al-Qaeda or Daesh (ISIS) have claimed responsibility for many attacks, however many incidents have also been committed by individuals either claiming affiliation with such extremist organizations or with their own personal, religiously-informed vendettas. Thus, the issue of terrorism has remained prominent on the French political agenda, however the specific issue of terrorism in relation to freedom of expression is growing as a major problem to be addressed by media or through policy.
Is depicting the Prophet Muhammad inherently offensive?
Many scholars of Islamic law and religious practices, like Reza Aslan, note that within the Quran there is no explicit statement prohibiting the depiction or illustration of the Prophet. Like any religious text, the Quran is subject to interpretation: Islamic jurists, or muftis, are responsible for interpreting the text and then can issue statements, or fatwa, outlining what they personally understand to be proper behavior in line with Islamic values. Thus, it is from numerous fatwa that this understanding of illustrations of the Prophet as prohibited or taboo has been drawn from. While the ethics surrounding depiction of the Prophet are subjective, Khaled Abou El Fadl notes that all Muslims objectively revere and respect the Prophet Muhammad. He is understood to be the last messenger of God, thus his statements made during his lifetime, known as the hadith, are central to informing Islamic religious and legal practices and are treated with the same respect as the Quran itself.
It is in this sense that certain Muslims in France and around the world took issue with the actions of Charlie Hebdo and Samuel Paty: it is not so much the simple depiction of the Prophet, it is the way in which he was depicted. The illustrations published by Charlie Hebdo were seemingly used to mock the Prophet (whether in a purely satirical way or in a malicious way is up for interpretation). In the case of Paty, some feel as though it was disrespectful for him to show such caricatures to his students as the images could be understood as promoting Islamophobia by portraying Islam as inherently linked to terrorism. Similarly, Macron’s comments were understood as being divisive and as promoting an unfavorable image of the Prophet. While this reaction is valid, the insult of blasphemy cannot be equated to murder. Many Muslims have noted their feelings of fear in light of increased Islamophobic rhetoric, however they remind us that warfare and violence have no place in Islam. According to El Fadl’s reading of the Quran, Islam inherently rejects violence since it can be understood as corrupting God’s ultimate creations, the earth and human kind. What’s more, in the face of oppression of persecution, the Prophet preached to Muslims in Mecca that they should not resort to violence.
Secularism or discrimination?
Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are widely understood as being fundamental and extremely important rights in most societies, however reconciling the two of them is quite difficult. At times, they seem in direct opposition of each other: many religions call for adherence to certain customs or norms of behavior, while freedom of speech inherently implies that “anything goes.” In 1905, France adopted a law separating church and state which relegated the practice of religion to the private sphere and emphasized secularism, or laicite, in the public arena. More recently, in 2004, the French government went ahead with a law banning any “signs and dress that conspicuously show the religious affiliation of students.” Many people felt that this law disproportionately targeted Muslim women who wear the hijab and was not about ensuring laicite, but was about suppressing religious diversity. It is not only through French laws that Muslims feel discriminated against: many acts of Islamophobia and outright acts of violence have been recorded by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF). In 2015, they reported 55 acts of physical violence against French Muslims, in comparison to 22 in 2014. This jump in violence is most likely due to the increased anti-Islamic rhetoric employed in the aftermath of the Nice and Paris attacks of that same year.
Backlash against Macron and the future of Muslims in France
Today in 2020, the issue has been further complicated and questions are being asked about the future of Muslims in France: is the French government under Macron simply trying to uphold secular values and protect freedom of expression or is it actively subscribing to an Islamophobic narrative? To many Muslims, it is the latter which is true: protests have been held in countries including Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia, individuals and companies in the MENA region have called for a boycott of French goods, and prominent leaders in the Muslim world like Turkey’s Erdogan have criticized Macron. Some within France believe that Macron’s increasing use of potentially Islamophobic rhetoric is a calculated political move and that he is adopting far-right talking points to attract a different voter base in preparation for the upcoming election.
It is inevitable that people around the world will have different opinions on this issue, and naturally have the right to choose to either condemn or support France’s statements and position. However, it would irresponsible not to address the fact that the murder of Samuel Paty and the many other attacks which have happened over the years are undeniably wrong and reprehensible. Murder is never the solution and violence will only beget further violence. It would similarly be negligent to not acknowledge that these instances of violence should never be used as justification to vilify and target the entire Muslim community. Understanding the entire Muslim community as a monolith, and as being complicit and in support of these terrible acts is dangerous and this rhetoric could potentially be used to incite violence against the Muslim community in France and elsewhere in the world. If France fully adopts a more aggressive national security strategy to fight “radical Islam,” it will only serve to exacerbate the conflict and provoke further violence, and it will similarly alienate the Muslim community and fuel extremist movements.
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