On freedom of speech and ‘Islamist separatism’
The decision of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo to reprint the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in September incited another wave of violence in France, a repetition of what happened when these images were originally published in 2015. This time, the government responded to the attacks by projecting the cartoons on public buildings, while President Emmanuel Macron declared Islam is “in crisis” and promised to stamp out “Islamist separatism” in France.
Earlier in September, I had argued in an op-ed that it should be possible to condemn Muslims who kill people over the caricatures of the prophet, while also recognising they are meant to display epistemic mastery over Muslims, an already vulnerable minority in France and in Europe. I had also questioned that the insatiable need to keep on recycling such images is indeed an exercise in free speech.
Some critics read my essay as condoning murder by Muslims and condemning or failing to understand the concept of free speech. So, in the following lines, I will address two interrelated issues: How Muslims come to a defence of free speech and Macron’s deceitful reference to “Islamic separatism”.
Free speech is predicated on the principle that people have the right to profess their ideas and beliefs without fear of retribution. However, while the concept of free speech is clearly secular, modern, and Western, this principle itself is not. The Quran also affirms people’s right to believe in and to profess different truths without forcing them on others. It also cautions restraint in the face of abuse, unbelief, and verbal attacks, and forbids scorning another religion’s deity. The Quran comes to these positions because it promotes religious and racial diversity.
The revelation describes diversity as a sign of divine grace. Some verses say that among God’s “wonders is … the diversity of your tongues and colours: for in this, behold, there are messages indeed for all who are possessed of [innate] knowledge” (30:22). Other verses clarify that “to each among [us, God has] prescribed a Law and an open way. If God had so willed [God] would have made you a single people” (5:48). Instead, even though God created us from the same self (nafs), God also made us into different “nations and tribes, so that [we] might come to know one another”. The best among us, the Quran says, is not a specific group but “the one who is most deeply conscious of [God]” (49:13).
Of course, differences can only enable mutual understanding if people are willing to be civil and forbearing in dealing with others. To this end, the Quran repeatedly warns Muslims not to argue with critics other than “in the most kindly manner”, and to respond to attacks “only to the extent of the attack levelled against [us]” and “to bear yourselves with patience is indeed far better” (16:125-128).
It also forbids Muslims to mock other people’s gods lest they retaliate by mocking ours. But, if they do, the Quran does not authorise us to harm them, nor does it proscribe punishments for disbelief, apostasy or blasphemy. In fact, the Arabic word for blasphemy, tajdif, is missing from the Quran. It is important to note here that blasphemy laws in some Muslim countries were imported from Europe during or after colonialism.
If Muslims enter into discussions with “followers of earlier revelation” – Jews and Christians – the Quran advises us to assure them that we believe in what “has been bestowed from on high upon us, as well as that which has been bestowed upon you: for our God and your God is one and the same” (29:46).
And if non-believers pressure or attack us, we could follow the Quran’s advice to the prophet: “Say: ‘O ye that reject faith, I worship not that which ye worship. And, I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship. To you be your Way, and to me mine’” (109: 1-6).
Regrettably, though, such teachings are not in evidence among Muslims and there are many complex reasons for why people read scriptures the way they do. One is that the practice of Islam itself has become politicised. This is especially so in Europe where Muslim minorities feel besieged and where, as a consequence, practising Islam has been reduced to a defensive political and/or military stance against Europeans. Muslims, of course, have been in Europe since they conquered Spain in the eighth century but their conquest never bred this “type of Islam”.
Paradoxically, the biggest casualty of this reduction of the religion to politics of resistance has been Islam itself, in particular, the Quran’s ethics of forbearance, acceptance and mutuality. The historical context for this form of politicisation is European colonialism, which also accounts for the presence of Muslims from Europe’s former colonies in the “home” country these days.
If, for instance, Algerians are in France today, it is because France was once in Algeria. Not just that, but France was/is also responsible for the deaths of more than one million Algerians during its rule. And this is just its record in one former Muslim-majority colony.
However, since the French seems to have buried this sordid and criminal history, one cannot point out that France is continuing to victimise people whom it has already victimised in the past, without being accused of condoning violence by Muslims.
Hatred for Islam in the country does not seem to be just a right-wing phenomenon. It is underwritten by its exceptional and intractably fundamentalist form of secularism, laïcité. Other secular countries provide for the freedom of religious expression by remaining neutral to religion. But, not France, whose brand of secularism is quintessentially ethnonationalistic and hostile to Islam; it even mandates how Muslim women should dress in public, just like some Muslim states do.
This institutionalised bias against Muslims has ghettoised them, which is why, for Muslims, and Black people, France is very much an apartheid colonial state. Thus, when a French Muslim commits a crime, the state treats the individual not as a citizen but as an “Islamist”, an epithet that signifies collective guilt and justifies collective punishment. To be a French Muslim today is, therefore, to bear the “mark of the plural”, to quote Jewish Tunisian intellectual Albert Memmi, who observed the tendency of the French colonisers to view the Tunisians as a faceless and “anonymous collectivity”.
If it is separatism Macron worries about, he could start by dismantling the laïcité/state-created apartheid. Instead, he behaves like the old French colonisers, about whom Memmi wrote: “The eulogizing of oneself and one’s fellows, the repeated, even earnest, affirmation of the excellence of one’s ways and institutions, one’s cultural and technical superiority do not erase the fundamental condemnation which every colonialist carries in his heart.”
If there is one lesson Macron could learn from France’s colonialist past, it is that “if colonization destroys the colonized, it also rots the colonizer.”