Recent events have proven to be an obstacle towards dialogue centered on coexistence; only helping to marginalize the marginalized even further. The beginning of this year (2015), January 7th, once again not only showcased the position of dialogue and its power within civilization, but also how different the Western world approaches the concept compared to the majority of Muslims. Most importantly, the tragedy that occurred, which claimed the lives of 17 people by a small group of deranged young men shouting “Allahu Akbar” – as though to justify their delusions through religious mandate and their supposed offense of the Prophet Muhammad (salAllahu alayhi wasallam) having been depicted – was the worse tragedy of all. This event shocked and humiliated not only French society, but the world. All that could possibly follow from this was intense anger and sadness of which has not been seen in the West for some time. Protests sprung up across the globe, both on streets and social media, brandishing placards proclaiming, “Je Suis Charlie” (I Am Charlie) in solidarity with those massacred at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Despite the murderers having been brought to justice in a long gun fight that resulted in them being killed, the severity of the backlash was not softened in the least. Shortly thereafter, millions came to the newspaper’s aid in the form of hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds and world leaders making emergency visits to Paris to march alongside already enraged protesters. Not only this, but the newspaper ended up printing nearly up to three million copies of its newest issue – commemorating those who had died from these attacks – all the while drawing yet another Prophet Muhammad (sallAllahu alayhi wasallam) cartoon, smack in the middle of the cover, holding a placard declaring “Je Suis Charlie”, while saying “All is forgiven.”
A troubling irony has occurred in that what the murderers were trying to stop they had in fact helped to produce more of ten-fold – not only in the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad (sallAllahu alayhi wasallam), but also in disrespect of him and the religion of Islam and its followers.
As someone who cherishes the Prophet Muhammad (sallAllahu alayhi wasallam) and wishes to honor him, I can say with certainty two things: 1) That his depiction does not justify these horrendous attacks, and that 2) These attacks do not justify his depiction. For what we have seen is an act of barbarism on both sides; one in the form of physical violence, and the other in the form of violence in speech. Neither should be held to a higher position than the other, for in fact both reveal a crisis in the contemporary age.
While free speech may reign as a supreme notion in the West, it is a known fact that it is not absolute in its prescription of free speech and often plays on double standards to suit particular agendas – sometimes racists in their very core.
France, along with many other places in Europe, make unlawful the depiction (or statements) in support of or promoting anti-Semitism. This is a fact. Anyone who has studied how France has dealt with speech against the Jewish population should know very well what happens. I only need give but one example: the magazine that came under attack from these extremists – Charlie Hebdo – had fired one of its own cartoonists only a few years prior after they had targeted a politician who protested against the magazine for having depicted him as a typical negative Jewish stereotype. Under threat from possible legal repercussions, the lead editor of the magazine made the choice to sack one of their own.
So, what the French are essentially saying to the world is that it is okay to offend the entire Muslim population by attacking their very identity – the Prophet Muhammad (sallAllahu alayhi wasallam) — all the while claiming it is not okay to offend the entire Jewish population.
Would it be too presumptuous to claim that cries against anti-Semitism would erupt across Europe and the United States if Charlie Hebdo had depicted the Prophet Musa (Moses, alayhi sallam) in a negative fashion? I don’t think so, and I’m very certain that any reasonable person would not find my conclusion untenable.
We all know what the Holocaust means for Jews worldwide and we are also familiar with the history prior to that horrible genocide: the negative portrayal of Jews in the form of cartoons, “satirizing” them, which was little more than hate speech suited for a racists population looking for a scapegoat. What is different between that and how Muslims are depicted today? Absolutely nothing, yet many Westerners are proud to say “I am Charlie” while throwing anti-Semites into prison. They understand the violence of speech against the Jewish population, but don’t see it against the Muslim population. Are not the terrible conditions in which Muslim immigrants living in France – mostly Algerian –due to the undeniable colonial past of French governance over Muslim majority populations? Are not these conditions still perpetuated today in French ghettos? Is it really satire to negatively depict an already marginalized minority which is desperately trying to fit in to a society that despises them? Was not satire’s main target the powerful, and those it defended the powerless who could not speak for themselves? As the famous American journalist and humourist, Molly Ivins, once said:
Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.
So not only do we have a marginalized community, but one for which satire is applicable while others are not – a clear double standard which can be felt across the Muslim world at large. So while the West wishes to triumph free speech and respect for human rights, it simultaneously is telling the Muslim world that this triumph and these rights are not meant for them; it is telling them that their voices are not only insignificant, but so are they as human beings.
How can we hope to counter violence and extremism if we continue to cultivate an environment where it can easily breed? Under oppression and hypocrisy, extremists are bound to rise up out of frustration. How can dialogue be the solution for coexistence when only one side of the table is allowed to speak and be recognized to its fullest capacity?
This is not to justify what happened in Paris, but it is a necessary point that needs to be made to understand the problems and the required solutions. While this may seem controversial, we cannot just blame the murderers for murdering; we have to understand their rationale and see if their grievances were legitimate. It is one thing to kill unjustly for irrational reasons, like greed or lust, but it’s another thing to unjustly kill for rational reasons, such as fighting against tyranny. While both cases of murder are unjust by definition, the motivations are never always the case – and an unjust killing for a just cause always indicates something very often missed: that the responsibility of injustice is not simply shared by the murderers, but the societies in which they live.
And is this really a controversial thing to say? Let us be honest: if a white supremacist were to walk into a predominantly black neighbourhood and start shouting the “N” word for the sake of his “free speech”, would we be surprised or even sympathetic to the fact that he would probably be beaten, or at worse, killed? I highly doubt it – and neither would I think mass protests would be erupting across the globe in solidarity with the individual, brandishing placards declaring his name as a universal symbol of free speech and expression.
That would be absurd.
So blasphemy is abhorred in all cultures and societies across the world; but what is considered sacred varies between them all. As Pope Francis echoed in a recent statement on the issue:
You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity.
As such, what is clear here is that many Westerners do not understand that religion is not only something dear to Muslims across the world, it is their very identity and what is sacred to them. And this is not to say that Muslims are against criticism, but they are against being openly provoked and insulted; for there is absolutely zero criticism in provocative images, such as those drawn by Charlie Hebdo, or the Danish cartoons prior.
And when the Western world decides to understand this, then maybe we can open the table for dialogue on coexistence, maybe then we can start being allowed to speak for ourselves instead of being spoken for. For if Westerners and secular societies still insists on making what is sacred for Muslims the butt of their jokes and ridicule, then they are in turn denying our identity and our significance in said dialogue – they are saying we are not worthy to sit down and talk to or make claims for ourselves. Is it not hypocritical to expect coexistence and dialogue when you attempt to impose standards and values on to others that they do not share? How is ‘coexistence’ even possible when we are all the same? Doesn’t the word itself imply unity in diversity? And what is free speech and expression if Muslims are not allowed to have an opinion on its limits while Westerners openly opine that only they are the measurer of those limits?
This discussion is not even possible until such Eurocentricism is firmly disposed of in the minds of all across the globe. At the very minimum, at least a Turkish magazine – CafCaf – has responded in defiance towards the new Charlie Hebdo cover with a cover of their own: a cartoon of the victims of Western intervention across the world all shouting “Non, rien n’est pardonne!” or “No, nothing has been forgiven!”
A statement from the magazine editors sums up this response quite well:
Arrogance has become a habit of the European culture, who have placed themselves above others in a position where they are free and unquestionable and in turn, have elicited a significant response from the entire world.
What is more disturbing, aside from the blatant double standards at play here and the inability of Muslims to speak on a fair platform, are many Westerner’s the obvious lack of concern or value for Muslim lives. I say this not to offend, but it must be said if we are going to move forward. If I were to simply say positive things, we would get nowhere – we would be stuck in the same situation we are in right now, talking passed one another. I do not say the things I say just to provoke or to claim some sort of superiority over anyone, rather I say these things because I care – because I want things to change. And this is not to say that my civilization and my people don’t have their own problems; this is just to say that its impossible for us to solve our problems when the finger is always being pointed in our direction and there is a lack of introspection from the other side.
Muslims all over the world are already aware of the problems within their own societies, but it is difficult to resolve these issues when the other side that is helping to create or perpetuate these problems insists that they themselves don’t have a problem!
You cannot have a healthy relationship – in any context – unless both parties are willing to admit they have flaws and need to work together. If only one party is shouldering the burden, then the results will always be uneven and unproductive.
It is with this in mind that I say the things that I say, and it is with this in mind that I need to deliver one last criticism in regards to the obstacles in our way towards coexistence.
When the majority of Westerners are more concerned with things like the Charlie Hebdo massacre – and are willing to protest and march and give all their time and energy to these issues – while turning a blind eye to the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, suffering and dead across the world because of their own government’s policies, then this is reveals a very serious problem. It reveals that not only are there double standards at play, but that there is an obvious apathy towards the lives of those who are “other” than European or American. Where is the same amount of time being spent on showing outrage for the victims of drone strikes, torture programs, and illegal occupation?
For the Muslim world, we are constantly barraged about how “uncivilized” and “barbaric” we are because of a couple of lunatics; yet not a word about our own suffering, which is one hundred times more than any Westerner has to ever experience in their lifetime.
I believe Noam Chomsky, a philosopher of linguistics and political commentator, is correct regarding the recent events in France and the nature of the discourse we are having today. I will allow him to sum up the state in which we are in. He says:
The scene in Paris was described vividly in the New York Times by veteran Europe correspondent Steven Erlanger: “a day of sirens, helicopters in the air, frantic news bulletins; of police cordons and anxious crowds; of young children led away from schools to safety. It was a day, like the previous two, of blood and horror in and around Paris.”
Erlanger also quoted a surviving journalist who said that “Everything crashed. There was no way out. There was smoke everywhere. It was terrible. People were screaming. It was like a nightmare.” Another reported a “huge detonation, and everything went completely dark.” The scene, Erlanger reported, “was an increasingly familiar one of smashed glass, broken walls, twisted timbers, scorched paint and emotional devastation.”
These last quotes, however — as independent journalist David Peterson reminds us — are not from January 2015. Rather, they are from a report by Erlanger on April 24 1999, which received far less attention. Erlanger was reporting on the NATO “missile attack on Serbian state television headquarters” that “knocked Radio Television Serbia off the air,” killing 16 journalists.
“NATO and American officials defended the attack,” Erlanger reported, “as an effort to undermine the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia.” Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon told a briefing in Washington that “Serb TV is as much a part of Milosevic’s murder machine as his military is,” hence a legitimate target of attack.
There were no demonstrations or cries of outrage, no chants of “We are RTV,” no inquiries into the roots of the attack in Christian culture and history. On the contrary, the attack on the press was lauded. The highly regarded U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, then envoy to Yugoslavia, described the successful attack on RTV as “an enormously important and, I think, positive development,” a sentiment echoed by others.
So, if we are going to utilize dialogue for the sake of civilizational coexistence we need to first create a setting in which such dialogue is possible, by first removing arrogant assumptions of “the other” – and I say this not only to remind those practicing this deeply imbedded Eurocentricism, but for everyone, including myself; we must be open to accepting difference before we can work together, and we must only be intolerant regarding those who wish to impose a hegemony on to the rest of us.