The illusion of freedom of speech

The illusion of freedom of speech

MA Niazi

The beheading of a French history teacher in Paris, followed by the beheading of a woman in a Nice cathedral, is not a symbol of Muslim cussedness especially when account is taken of the recent unrest among the French migrant community and of the official reaction to it. French President Emanuel Macron’s reaction, and the response of Turkey and Pakistan, show that there is a misconception that blasphemy against the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) can be treated as a law and order issue. It has also shown that the framework of nation-states may not be adequate for the Muslim world. The whole problem has also highlighted the central role of France in the ideology of the modern world, and its key character in spreading the ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment which is the basis of modern liberalism, both on the right and the left.

When President Macron said that Islam had problems, what he (and millions of others) meant was that Muslims had an insuperable objection to depictions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), and that they shouldn’t object. The objection is not to the beheading, but to any punishment. The objection is not procedural, such as that no properly constituted court had pronounced a death sentence, but to the very act of punishment. This is a very secular attitude. It assumes that toleration needs to prevail among Muslims as well. It assumes that Muslims should be tolerated for depicting some other religion’s Prophet (ignoring the fact that Muslims hold Christian and Jewish prophets in reverence, and indeed sayé that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) is the culmination of that tradition).

Macron is relying on the French tradition that goes back to the Enlightenment, and which led to two major revolutions, the American and the French. It was that Enlightenment which provided the template for the states which followed, which were constitutional republics. The USA has done better, and has even survived a civil war, with its constitution intact. However, France has had two empires and four further republics. The French separation of church and state has been achieved at great cost, because the Church in France was a huge presence. France has long had problems with the Church. At one time, the French King made the Pope live at Avignon, and ensured that he took care of French interests.

If nothing else, the diaspora has been shown that there is a limit to tolerance, that there are choices to be made. If one assumes that freedom of speech extends to the Prophet (PBUH), how can one be a good Muslim? And if one approves of Petty’s beheading, or even adds caveats to one’s condemnation, how can one be a good Frenchman? Or any other Westerner?

It is not easy to grasp the depth of pro- and anti-Catholic feeling in France after the Revolution. It is also not easy to estimate the influence of France. Socialism is essentially a French phenomenon, though hijacked by the Germans Marx and Engels, and the Russian Lenin. The French tradition of laicité is thus hoary. However, one of its concomitants was it saw a special role of education in making citizens conform. Thus the role of the late Samuel Petty, the history teacher whose execution, led not only to Macron’s tigerish defence of French values, but to the attack in Nice, is doubly important. The murder was not just the execution of a blasphemer, but an attack on the method used for transmitting French values, which are essentially education.

Because of the French origin of the Enlightenment, French values are essentially Western values. The USA is generally thought the representative of the West, but it should not be forgotten that the USA is the actualization of Enlightenment ideals; French ideals, in other words. Macron’s refusal to prohibit freedom of speech should not be taken as an extreme view. Freedom of speech is supposed to include that which might be offensive to some. One corollary is that one has to accept offensive speech or depictions, if one is to accord others the freedom to speak.

At the same time, the French government cannot be expected to accept the killing of a citizen. The Saudi government cannot be expected to ignore the attack on the French consulate in Jeddah, which left a guard injured. Perhaps more worrisome for the French government is the incident in Avignon, where the member of a white supremacist group was shot dead by police after he threatened a North African shopkeeper with a gun. It is bad enough for the government that there is the possibility of a civil war raised, but the initial reporting is also disturbing: that a Muslim terrorist was shot dead by police after wielding a handgun and yelling “Allahu Akbar.” That terrorism can only be committed by Muslims is an assumption in the French media that reveals an Islamophobic bias.

France is not the only country to suffer from Islamophobia. It is also not the only country to suffer from racism. However, it combines the two. In the USA, for instance, racism is primarily discrimination against blacks, while in the UK, Islamophobia cannot be directed Asians without including a lot of Hindus. Hoever, in France, the ex-colonies have sent North Africans of mixed Arab and Berber origin, or Black Africans. The former are almost purely Muslim, while the latter include a large number of Muslims. Islam thus becomes a marker of identity for young people in search of an identity, while Islamophobia becomes a vehicle for racism.

Macron is on the French left, though he is not in the kind of straitjacket that the Socialist or Communist Parties provided. Thus he is not precluded from appealing to at least some on the right, which has been taken over by the Front National. The Front does not try all that hard to hide its racism, and is making it to the second round of presidential polls. The left and right have beaten it off with the help of the loser in the last two elections. Emanuel Macron is apparently trying to make himself acceptable to the racist right voter by his display of Islamophobia.

While secularism is not a religion, it has something of its characteristics. One of its tenets is untrammeled freedom of speech, which is like the Muslim prohibition of blasphemy of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Thus we do not have a conflict between a religion and Enlightenment, but between two religions. France, it must not be forgotten, experimented with a secular religion after the Revolution, but it foundered on the problem of Napoleon. He wanted to become a monarch, but for that he needed the support of the Church, and for that he conceded the Concordat to the Church, which even now govern French church-state relations.

Blasphemy is not just about belief. It is about the link between the Muslim and the Holy Prophet (PBUH). It is not a question of believing as he did, but of preserving his personal honour. The tolerance of petty insults and maltreatment in Makkah is not to be repeated, and there is a personal responsibility felt by each Muslim. That is why the approach of the Muslim regimes like Turkey and Pakistan, seeing it as a law and order issue, is flawed, sharing the very Enlightenment concept of the state as is being condemned.

If nothing else, the diaspora has been shown that there is a limit to tolerance, that there are choices to be made. If one assumes that freedom of speech extends to the Prophet (PBUH), how can one be a good Muslim? And if one approves of Petty’s beheading, or even adds caveats to one’s condemnation, how can one be a good Frenchman? Or any other Westerner?

 

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