The recent beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty by an 18-year-old man from Chechenya was a horrific terror crime that deserves the utmost condemnation. It was the depraved act of an individual, not of "Islam" or of Muslims collectively.
Yet, sadly, the French government took it as an opportunity to launch a campaign of incitement and repression targeting millions of its own Muslim citizens. It moved to close down civil rights groups and charities and harassed and arrested people who had nothing to do with that crime.
It is as if France learned all the wrong lessons of the American response after 9/11 and decided to repeat them.
No religion should be blamed for a crime or an act of terror committed by one of its followers, even if the perpetrator claims to have committed the crime in the name of his religion.
But we continue to see Muslims uniquely singled out for this kind of collective guilt and punishment, with very negative effects. There have been countless horrific massacres in the United States, targeting schools, synagogues and Black churches. There were the mosque massacres in Quebec City and Christchurch. Most were committed by white, Christian men, often professing white supremacist, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim ideologies.
Yet, at no time did governments or large segements of the population or media collectively blame or punish white Christians for those acts, and nor should they.
There are of course Muslim criminals but that applies to all the religions and all other nations. Sadly violence seems to be part of human nature. It is hard to take stock of the complex factors that prompt violent behavior in individuals, throughout history.
Islam, like other religions, opposes all kinds of violence, aggression, injustice, cruelty or unkind treatment of others even when the others belong to a different faith. Islam is known to be a religion of peace, compassion, mercy, tolerance, respect for human life and justice.
As such, Islam does not tolerate any crimes or acts of terror committed by any of its followers, let alone when such crimes are claimed in Islam’s name.
The principles of the faith are clearly defined in the Holy texts, The Quran and the Prophets sayings. Therefore, it is not exactly right to talk about "moderate Islam", and an "extremist Islam”, a “radical Islam” or "political Islam", because there is no such things. There is one clearly defined Islam and it is right and moderate. But there are extremist Muslims, and there are those who attach a political label to Islam by manipulating the religion for their political purposes.
That, too, is no different from any other religion. Christianity, for example, has been misused to justify every possible atrocity from the genocidal conquest of the Americas to slavery. Judaism too has been twisted and misused to justify Zionism, a racist ideology of ethnic cleansing and colonialism against Palestinians.
All through history, religions have been subject to all kinds of abuse, distortion, manipulation, material greed, personal desires and even crimes and unlawful wars. And on an Earth inhabited by billions of people it will never be possible to account for every individual who may carry out depraved acts citing this or that ideology or belief.
That does not make us powerless, however. With respect to the heinous murder of the teacher in France, this crime was widely and strongly condemned, perhaps more by Muslims than by others. But that has been the case all along vis a vis any similar crime.
It is also true of the crimes of Daesh, which were often collectively blamed on Muslims, when Daesh was really a phenomenon that resulted not from "Islam" but from the US-led invasion of Iraq and the chaos it unleashed all over the region. Remember that Islamic Jihad was formerly mobilised by the US to fight against Soviet presence in Afghanistan. That was an extremely dangerous precedent with chronic consequences.
In France, tensions have been building up since the murders at Charlie Hebdo magazine in 2015. The attack was widely condemned especially by French Muslims as well as Muslim leaders around the world. King Abdullah of Jordan and other Muslim leaders travelled to Paris to offer condolences, show support and to participate in the condemnation demonstration in the center of the French capital.
Why Charlie Hebdo? Because the magazine had published derisive caricatures of Prophet Mohammad (May God’s peace and blessings be upon him), unmindful of how offensive such an act could be to more than 6 million Muslims in France and a billion and half more worldwide.
The terrorist attack was claimed to be the revenge. But Neither Islam nor Muslims accepted that kind of revenge regardless of how strongly they also rejected the French magazine's caricatures.
The Holy Quran says: "(prophet) Call the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly and kind exhortation, and argue with them in the most pleasant and best manner. Surely your Lord knows very well who has gone astray from His path, and he knows very well the guided ones to the right path.” (Soura Al Nahl, 125).
It is often problematic to try to explain any act of violence, even if for the sake of objective diagnosis that may help prevent recurrence, as that could be construed as justification of the crime, even if that follows condemnation.
But it is more problematic to ignore factors that contribute to any unruly human behaviour, violence specifically, that threatens peace and normal life anywhere.
No meaningful investigation of any crime can be complete without digging into the root causes that once identified provide great help to prevent repetition.
Rather than acknowledging the scale of the offence done to Muslims by the caricatures, rather than assessing the tragic consequences and the resulting cost in blood and public peace, the French insisted that the publication of the caricatures was justified as "freedom of expression" and should even continue.
The French history teacher who was brutally murdered was addressing the freedom of expression issue by displaying those caricatures.
Freedom of expression is a principle that deserves to be respected and protected. But whether freedom of expression justifies and provides cover for totally unnecessary and spiteful attacks, insults, contempt and even disrespectful mockery of other people’s beliefs and religious symbols is a matter that needs to be better examined.
Many observers ask why France seems uniquely to insist that mocking and dehumanising Muslims is "free speech," while it criminalises other forms of speech including Holocaust denial and calling for boycotts of goods from Israel. If free speech is really an absolute value, then why does France not allow these kinds of speech as well?
That leads many to feel that hostility to Islam and Muslims is a major factor.
To add insult to injury, the French president’s statements, that preceded the French teacher's murder by few weeks, describing Islam as a religion in crisis, and insisting that "no concessions" would be made in a new drive to eradicate what he claims are extremist teachings in schools and mosques, caused outrage in the Muslim world. Such incendiary remarks can only heighten already existing tensions and provoke dangerous reaction.
If the Holy Quran instructs Muslims to debate such problems with “wisdom and kind exhortation” and that they should always do, what about the fanatics, those who react violently and irrationally to any provocation? Careful consideration of such fanatic violent retaliations, however irrational, criminal and wrong, should not be seen as submission to intimidation, or as compromising the freedom of expression right. It can also be prudent and wise. It would have been prudent, wise and even courageous to learn the lesson of the caricatures and to ban their publication not as a reward to the murderers but as signal of respect for those Muslims who were deeply exasperated by the deliberate recklessness; and as an official responsible action to extinguish the rising flames of hatred and social fragmentation.
Every religion has its fanatics and some may be people who for personal reasons are suffering from mental illnesses that may or may not manifest in violent ways. The insistence on the continued publication of the caricatures plays into the hands of the extremists and the fanatics, while at the same time it antagonises all moderates by blaming them for wrongs they never did. It shuts down the space for genuine dialogue and understanding.
French authorities' endorsement and encouragement of the abrasive cartoons is generating a new round of sharp criticism in the Muslim world and needless tension in a world where we have more than enough problems.
In Jordan, the Senate president, the Foreign minister and the Grand Mufti condemned the caricatures as incitement for hatred, religious tensions, social discord and exclusion. Similar condemnation and even calls for boycotting French goods are coming from many other Muslim countries. All that could have been wisely avoided. Let us at least hope it does not lead to more violence.
Hasan Abu Nimah is a columnist in The Jordan Times.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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