Last weekend 17 people were murdered on the streets of Paris. This act stunned Paris and wider Europe, it was met with mass marches and other public shows of unity.
The terrorist act was in response to provocative cartoons published of the Prophet Muhammad in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and the whole debate around freedom of expression has been reopened as a result.
Modern Europe is by no means the bastion of Christendom that it once was. Today, as a result of migration, its capitals are ethnic, religious, and cultural melting pots. Within these societies a degree of cohabitation has developed whereby different faiths can be practiced and basic human rights are respected. From time to time, violent incidents occur, rattling the delicate balance.
Mutual respect for other religions is crucial for these mixed societies to thrive. In the same way that Holocaust denial and racially charged language is societally unacceptable, the same red line should extend to satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
For multicultural Europe to work, certain issues must be highlighted as having the potential to be interpreted as hate crimes for the greater good of keeping the peace.
There is a huge difference in how Islamophobic press is dealt with in comparison to anti-Semitism. Using the French example, in 2005, the newspaper Le Monde was found guilty of “racist defamation” against the Jewish people. In 2008 a cartoonist at the aforementioned Charlie Hebdo, was fired after refusing to apologise for making antisemitic comments in the magazine.
Looking more broadly, two years before the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, it rejected ones on the resurrection of Christ in case they provoked outcry.
This situation whereby some issues are deemed to be racist and hateful, whereas in parallel satire around the rophet Muhammad is considered acceptable under the freedom of expression, cannot continue.
This is not an infringement of the right to the freedom of expression. Every country, including France, has limits on freedom of speech.
Even Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines the freedom of expression as a basic human right, notes that this right has “special duties and responsibilities” and is therefore not a carte blanche to disseminate racist thought and ideology.
Just as importantly, Muslim communities present in Europe must take up civil means as a means of redress. At its very essence, Islam urges Muslims to act as responsible custodians of thei environment.
In this regard it is crucial that Europe’s Muslims act within the parameters of the societies in which they have been given sanctuary and have chosen to live.
There are clear guidelines in Islam of respecting the law and customs in foreign lands. Herein, lies the challenge. Muslims must learn to respect the societies in which they live and should seek to become integral members of it. Until they foster the political and legal talent to lobby for a defence of their basic rights, their peaceful cause will continue to be hijacked by extremists with louder voices.
There is no doubt that a transition to societies based on a concept of mutual respect should take place. However, the one element missing from this analysis is the nature of immigrant communities in France.
If any historian were to have predicted the rise of fascism in any European country in the early 20th century, they would have selected France. Following the Dreyfus anti-Semitic scandal of 1906, for decades elements of the French establishment have shown themselves to exhibit an especially heinous brand of racism. This has highlighted itself institutionally, in the media and political culture.
Successive French governments have failed to integrate generations of immigrant youths, causing vast groups of French society to feel alienated and dejected. There is a chasm of difference in how the U.K. and Germany have successfully integrated newcomers to become active and progressive members of society and the French experience of the ghettoization of immigrant communities in the suburbs.
Today, the lawyer for Charlie Hebdo stated that the magazine will be republishing the controversial cartoons next week. This provocative act is indicative of why the case for societies based on mutual respect is so important.
Hate has no place in civil society.
Zaid M. Belbagi is a government communications expert with experience in providing strategic advice in the Gulf. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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