It has been nearly six years since the tragic Charlie Hebdo attacks, but France is still struggling to create a freedom of speech that can unite – and respect – all its citizens. Rather than pander to a smug Gallic pseudo-intellectual bigotry, President Macron must lead his nation in providing Muslims with the same safeguards it extends to other communities.
Any other course of action will continue to weaken French society, and undermine the “Republican values” the nation holds so sacred. This is to say nothing of the growing global economic boycott of France in the Muslim world.
One man’s cultural criticism is another man’s racism. All too often, Muslims are on the receiving end of racial and religious hatred that is propagated under the cover of satire or free speech. This point was made by prime minister Imran Khan at the UN General Assembly last year in his 50-minute speech.
Those truly committed to freedom of speech should remember that it comes with conditions to ensure its survival. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees freedom of expression, but this right is always a qualified, not an unbridled one, in law. In France, as in much of Europe, illicit remarks against minorities are criminal offences.
Although on paper, European and Muslim-majority societies have very different versions of freedom of speech, the reality is that the limits and protections in both cases are very similar – although what exactly is limited and who precisely is protected may differ.
What Muslims need are not new limits on freedom of speech in Europe – Muslim culture is as committed to free expression as Europe’s.
What Muslims do need is for Europe’s political and intellectual elites to understand that the protections and safeguards that exist to ensure continuity of free expression apply to those things Muslims find most sacred and provocative.
Those safeguards are plentiful – if they are applied fairly to Muslim issues. First, incitement to violence. Targeting and provoking a community which is already marginalised (economically and culturally) and manipulated by extremists of various stripes, is likely to indirectly lead to violence. That violence may be against that community or by that community.
Second, violence is not just physical. France has had criminal laws against psychological violence for a decade, with a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. The law is most commonly applied to cases of domestic violence but perhaps could be just as relevant to domestic politics.
Third, there are already specific exemptions in some European states to free expression when it comes to religious sensitivities. Austria has a law against “disparaging religious doctrines,” the basis of which is that to insult a religion is to undermine one of the tenets of civil society and endanger peaceful coexistence – something to which all of us have a right.
I know a secular European mind may struggle with this. If religious leaders are just historical figures, surely they should be subject to the same historical analysis as their counterparts in politics or any other field? Coincidentally this is the exact defence used by some found guilty of violating the Austrian law previously referenced.
Even if we were to look at religion through a purely historical lens and neglect that Prophet Muhammad is for Muslims so much more than Napoleon could ever be to the French or Winston Churchill to the British (or even what Jesus is to many Christians), there is already protection in place against false reporting of history where it is likely to endanger a community or faith.
Holocaust denial is illegal in sixteen European countries. This includes France, which passed the Gayssot Law in 1990. I have never seen history professors march along the Champs Élysée in protest against this law. I am not aware of history teachers telling pupils that 5.9 million Jews perished in the Holocaust just to make a point about freedom of speech.
And rightly so. Holocaust deniers are not driven by historical inquiry; they are anti-Semites using history as cover for Jew-hatred.
Similarly, with cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, we are generally not talking about neutral stick figures or illustrious watercolours. Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoon perpetuated the worst (and false) caricature of our Prophet. By extension, the billions of Muslims who believe in and love him were portrayed, in the popular imagination, as being just as bad.
These representations of the Prophet are not satire, art, or freedom of speech. They are glaringly similar in their dehumanisation to the blood libel which has been used by anti-Semites for centuries.
Muslims’ request to European leaders is simple: apply your own laws fairly, and give us the same protection you give to others, like the Jewish community, from abuses of freedom of speech. For that particular community, the red line – and the line along which some seek to divide our societies through slurs and provocations – is their unparalleled historical suffering.
Our red line is what we love and cherish the most. In fact, no word in the English language can capture the indescribable attachment and loyalty we feel towards our noble Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him.
- Syed Zulfi Bukhari is Special Advisor to Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan and Minister of State for Overseas Pakistanis
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