Friday, 30 September 2016

FRANCE: The Legitimate Limits of Islam's Criticism

A new documentary on the rise of radical Islam in France has sparked controversy among the French public, with viewers’ opinions ranging from praise to outrage. The filmmaker, Bernard de La Villardiere, has been slammed as ‘sensationalist’ and ‘provocateur’ by the head of the town in which part of it was filmed.

The first episode of new show “Dossier Tabou” (Banned Dossier) titled “Islam in France: the failure of the Republic” was aired on Wednesday, September 28 on the French M6 channel. Watched by some 2.4 million viewers, it immediately grabbed public attention, topping of Twitter discussion trends in France.

The documentary revolved around the financing of Islamism by foreign powers, such as Saudi Arabia, its organization and its internal divisions, as well as the training of imams. In a manner of illustration, it showed excerpts from sermons by a confirmed radical cleric named Mohamed Khattabi, who had been under house arrest for nearly three months after the attacks in France in November 2015.

Muslims in France said it was yet another caricature of a religion already stigmatized in the country following recent terror attacks and they accused the channel of fanning hatred against Muslims. But Islam, like any religion, needs effective critiques from believers and non-believers alike.

Now, in modern day France and in countless other countries around the world, the constraints of Muslim doctrine have inspired a very different kind of art – the art of satire. Artists, journalists and everyday people all over the Western world and beyond use the right of free speech to criticize every part of life, and Islam is no exception. But many in the Islamic world as well as many Muslims living in predominantly non-Muslim countries are still adjusting to close proximity with societies where public mockery of religion is not just allowed, but a common norm. Western society too is adjusting to Islam.

As frightening as it can be to point out, Islam, like Christianity, another religion that is no stranger to violence and intolerance, does have certain facets that are not acceptable in a modern society. It is not okay for women to have fewer rights than men. It’s not okay to devalue people based on religion or sexual orientation. These are problems in other religions too, but open critique of these issues from practicing Muslims is both underreported and undersupplied.

There remains a sharp social stigma in Islam that makes open criticism of the religion from both believers and non-believers alike very difficult. Unfortunately, that stigma has frequently manifested in tragic and unnecessary violence such as the attacks on Charlie Hedbo in Paris.The West’s free press, which supposedly is up in arms to defend freedom of expression, is also not without blame. It certainly underreports instances of discrimination that Muslims in the West face for their faith. The Western press also ‘freely’ expresses more depictions of Islam’s extremist side than it does anything else.

Still, as attacks around the world show, this kind of over-depiction doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is often the case that outrage among fundamentalist Muslims in reaction to satirical/caricature religious mockery can hurt Islam’s image more than any cartoon, article, documentary ever could. The most tasteless anti-Islam cartoon/article/documentary is nothing compared to murder. Also, attacks from Islamic terrorists almost always swell the ranks of ultra right groups in Europe. An extreme right party has a far better chance of overwhelming France than terrorists have of eradicating free speech there.

In the same way that gang members killed two New York City cops and recently in Dallas as “revenge” for the police-related deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, French Muslims are now under attack from France’s most intolerant and revenge-seeking citizens. Attacks on Muslims in France have already resulted in fired guns and detonated grenades in French mosques, as well as the miscarriage of one French woman who was severely beaten by two islamaphobic men for wearing a hijab. Conversely, the Israeli bombings of Gaza emboldened anti-Semitic French Muslims of Palestinian descent to attack French Jews and Synagogues. To quote a much smarter person than I on the subject: “Violence has an echo.”

All of this drives the question: Is there a right way to criticize Islam? Extreme satire, caricature, documentary, article almost always risks stereotyping. That alone doesn’t justify killing anyone. Extreme political correctness is equally flawed. Secular classes of people who openly criticize religions like Christianity often won’t do the same with Islam in fear of both violence and appearing racist.

The West still suffers from the misperception of Islam being as much an ethnic identity as it is a religious one. Given that Muslim populations exist everywhere from Morocco to Malaysia, such a concern needs to be overcome. Islam has many moderates and peaceful reformers in many different countries. Though, unless they are Malala, they are not well highlighted.

We need a balance of all of these approaches. If Westerners wish to criticize Islam and truly employ free speech, they have to tell the whole story. If Muslims want to participate in a world where everyone isn’t Muslim, they must accept harsh criticism of Islam and even contribute to it. If that can’t be done, more Muslims and non-Muslims alike will continue to senselessly die.

Prof Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Author
International Affairs Expert

Photo-Credit: Getty Image photo of French Muslims, praying in Paris' Street on Friday