As the terrorist drama in Paris unfolded, some friends in Pakistan tweeted, #JeSuisCharlie. Most were usual suspects from amo-ng the liberals. The rest probably didn’t even realise what was happening in France, as the media was too busy covering cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s wedding. Indeed, the terrorist incident wasn’t even at the top of the breaking news. Perhaps the wedding was a good distraction and an excuse not to confront an issue that stares Muslim societies in the face — how to react to a case of blasphemy.
Of course, there was no single standard reaction from across the Muslim world. One of the biggest pro-Charlie Hebdo demonstrations was in Istanbul. It would also be unfair to say that there was one consolidated response to the cartoons. As Olivier Roy points out, there are more Muslims in France who work for the state than there are radicals. Not to forget that the policeman who died defending Charlie Hebdo was a Muslim, Ahmed Merabet. He performed his duty for the state, even though he may have had reservations about the treatment of the Prophet of Islam by the magazine. Merabet stands in stark comparison to someone like Mumtaz Qadri, the police guard who shot dead the man he was supposed to protect, then Punjab governor Salman Taseer. The governor did not even ridicule the Prophet but was guilty of defending and seeking justice for a Christian woman accused of committing blasphemy.
The attacks in Paris, in which 17 people died, are indeed a great test for the French, as well as Europeans and Muslims in general. It will be interesting to see how all sides recover from the shock and whether the French are able to stand up as much for multiculturalism as for freedom of speech. After all, you cannot separate the two.
But this is not just a French problem. It is a also Muslim problem, which affects the everyday life of Muslims in a lot of countries around the world, including many Islamic states. It is a fact that Muslims are generally sensitive about the depiction and discussion of Prophet Muhammad, who himself discouraged drawings, so that people wouldn’t start worshipping them. One of the stories from Muhammad’s life that most Muslims have grown up with speaks of a woman who would throw garbage at him every time he passed by her house in Mecca.
Until one day, when she fell ill and couldn’t perform her favourite task. The Prophet of Islam was concerned and knocked at her door to inquire if she was all right. This is generally cited as an example of his forgiveness and an indication that death to the blasphemer is not the only way to deal with the issue of respect or disrespect to the Prophet.
However, Muslims tend to get militant about the issue of respect for the Prophet and his family, including his wives, as well as for the four early caliphs of Islam. They cite examples from early history where people were severely punished for challenging the Prophet. The animus towards Jews is also part of Muslim history. The Jews did not vouch for Muhammad’s prophethood, though they were the only community who could do so, and then engaged in endless battles with the Muslims. This hostility has endured through history. While there are religious scholars who challenge both the popular Muslim position on the treatment of Jews and blasphemy, a lot of Muslims consider these two issues to be as important as the five basic tenets of Islam. Unlike Christianity, Islam grew as a more militant religion, driven by a belief that it has to win over all other ideologies.
That is partly why an internal conversation to deal with the evolving times and situations has not happened. There is not even a defining line on blasphemy. Not too long ago, a Pakistani pop star-turned-religious preacher, Junaid Jamshed, had to flee the country and take refuge in the UK when accused of blaspheming the Prophet’s favourite wife, Aisha. Since the blasphemy law was passed in 1987 by the military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, over 1,400 people have been booked under it. A conviction results in a death sentence. Interestingly, most of the affected people are Muslims themselves. Despite this, there is resistance to re-evaluating the law or defining principles for applying it, such as fine-tuning the process for evidence collection to ensure that innocent people are not targeted.
Muslim societies need to review the blasphemy law, but the overall reaction to the Charlie Hebdo incident does not seem to acknowledge this. Many fall into the trap of viewing the incident as a conspiracy. A rightwing Pakistani television anchor, Moeed Pirzada, tweeted: “Charlie Hebdo and Mossad link: Israel venting fury for France’s Palestinian recognition”. Others see the incident through the prism of the West’s war in Iraq or as an issue of class and religion in France. The famous British-Pakistani author, Tariq Ali, for example, pointed out how Charlie Hebdo’s concept of free speech was only aimed at Islam. Since the majority of Muslims in France come from its former colonies and are socio-economically disempowered, religion becomes part of an expression of resistance for some of them. Racism is an emerging problem in France and Europe in general. But this does not minimise the need for Muslim societies to think about how their religious ideology is used to settle other scores in a manner that does not benefit either Islam or Muslims. The killing of 17 innocent people has created more pressures for Muslims in Europe and the rest of the world. There is a need for a dialogue with other cultures to explain the sensitivities of Muslims. Especially since the European historical experience and learning about religion is totally different. Why can’t others understand what Ahmed Merabet did, that uncomfortable conversations do not necessarily mean that you take recourse to violence? And that even when there is disagreement, it is necessary to stand up for freedom of speech to protect your faith.
The writer is an independent strategic analyst based in Islamabad