Brutal murder again by young Muslim fanatics in several European cities. Are these further cases of a “clash of civilisations?” Of western freedom of speech versus reactionary religious views? Or not?
The spectacle of bloody “executions” over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in France and Austria is horrifying. Nor is it the first time. There is zero justification for the murder of anyone and especially over ideology or religion. Period.
Citizens issue ringing statements upholding free speech–a value that is familiar, affirmative, and comforting. Yet looking at it more closely some discomfiting issues emerge that make it harder to simply reduce it all to simple “freedom of speech” as if that were the end of the story.
We seem to have here a clash of absolutes–absolute freedom of speech versus absolute respect for the sanctity of religion. But are they actually “absolutes”?
In western secular societies I have the right to ridicule the Prophet Muhammad. But in the exercise of my rights, is there no place for the values of prudence and wisdom? How wise is it to demand absolute exercise of this right at all times and places? We all know we have no right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded cinema. But beyond that, how sensitive and thoughtful is it to insist on exercising a blanket “right” of mockery when it is potentially upsetting to hundreds of millions of people? Especially when we live in multicultural societies where at least minimum respect for the feelings and psychological security of others is called for.
Let’s look at a few other potential cases. I have the legal right, say, to walk in the Black neighborhoods of Harlem in New York City, or Atlanta Georgia, and shout insults against Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X and to invoke the “N” word about Black society. King, after all, apart from being an iconic figure of the twentieth century, was also known to be a womaniser. Suppose I carried posters with crude drawings of King fondling nude women? What sort of reaction would I get? Any sensible person, regardless of views, would realise such an act was insensitive, hurtful, stupid, and potentially even dangerous to me in stirring up angry reaction. But it is still my “right,” is it not? Yet how many liberals would defend my right to mock and demean MLK and call him an “uppity N”?
Or take the Latino barrios in El Paso Texas or Los Angeles where groups of youth often sport T-shirts bearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe–a mythical but potent symbol of Mexican culture, beliefs, identity and even nationalism. Suppose I were to walk around there wearing a T-shirt portraying The Virgin of Guadalupe in the act of performing sex. Common sense would tell me to be fearful of emotional reactions–even violent–against me. I would be both incredibly insensitive–and a fool–to do it. But do I have that right in the US? Yes. Would liberals defend me for such mocking disrespect of the ethnic/cultural/ religious sensitivities of a minority that is struggling for equality?
I might not be actually killed for any of these public acts I mentioned above, but quite likely beaten up, or jailed and even prosecuted for it, depending on where.
I have the right to march down the street in the Netherlands or Germany with a poster showing Hitler holding a giant swastika beating a well-fed Jew surrounded by bags of money. But wait–actually I do not legally have that right there. It is also banned in several East European countries and Russia as well.
I may claim the right to publicly claim the Holocaust never happened, that it was all a hoax. Maybe show a few cartoons to illustrate the “Holocaust scam.” But actually I don’t have that right in sixteen European countries including in Germany or France where it is a punishable offence. But yet I do have the right to mock the Prophet Muhammad.
In Rwanda it was “free speech”broadcasts from the so-called “Free Radio and Television of the Thousand Hills” that with interviews, music, supposed news, jokes, and other programs mocked the Tutsi population that ultimately resulting in the genocidal operations in which over half a million Tutsis were butchered in 1997.
Here many people will say we have now moved over into the realm of “Hate Speech.” But what is the boundary between Free Speech and Hate Speech?
Not all of these cases are precisely comparable to the French and Austrian murders. Murder is the ultimate outrage. But In multicultural societies –ideally in all societies–a modicum of wisdom, cultural sensitivity, ethnic and political awareness and plain street smarts hopefully discourage anyone from inciting emotionally sensitive and volatile social situations–even if they are legally entitled to do so.
The case of Muslim populations of Europe also present emotional issues. Muslim citizens of Europe are very much in the process of integration into European society in multiple respects. But deep tensions still exist; most European states were never traditionally consciously designed to be multicultural. Furthermore nearly every single Muslim country in the world was subjected to centuries of European colonial rule–mainly British and French–leaving often quite negative colonial memories.
The Prophet Muhammad is not only an actual historical religious and political leader: he also represents a core sense of identity to Muslim communities worldwide, and especially those living as minorities. Yet many Muslims still feel that they are treated as second class citizens in the West–or India or Myanmar. Meanwhile French secularism is militant: hijabs are banned–even Muslim women in cover-all “burkinis” on the beach are forbidden. And this rigid and militant secularism has ended up producing greater anti-Muslim tensions than anywhere else in Europe. Islamophobia in the West is a reality. just as is anti-Black racism.
Clashes between Christians and Muslims go back at least to 11th century Christian Crusader armies invading and occupying Muslim states in the Middle East. In recent decades numerous Middle Eastern countries have been on the receiving end of American-led wars and military operations that have cost over a million Muslim lives, broadly disrupted and destroyed states, political orders, economies, societies and infrastructures. In the West we believe we are simply reacting in righteous indignation against the outrage of the attacks of 9/11. But remember, history did not begin with 9/11. There are decades–centuries–of precedents of usually dominant western power over Muslim populations globally.
Here it is worth noting that the murderer of the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty was an 18 year-old from Chechnya–a Muslim country that has been the target of a brutal war conducted by Russia against Chechen independence; the Chechen capital Grozny was obliterated in the process. Chechens have witnessed over a century of horrific violence against them. How does such brutalisation not affect them?
None of this, I repeat, none of this in any way remotely justifies or excuses this young Chechen’s barbarous act. But it at least provides some slight degree of insight as to how it could have happened.
The Middle East lies in the immediate crossroads over which centuries of Western imperial power has moved east. Christianity has traditionally viewed Islam as a “heresy.” Jews, for that matter, have traditionally viewed both Christianity and Islam as heresies in Jewish terms. The upshot is that It is going to take some time for emotions to gradually cool on both sides, as Muslims continue the broader process of integration into western societies. Most Muslims in the West are horrified at these murderous events. Yet when the President of France then chooses to characterize Islam as somehow representing a failed culture in the world it is not surprising that most Muslims rise in defense of their faith, their culture, and their identity–against such sweeping attack.
It is to smug and self-congratulatory for us in the West to believe that in mocking Islam we after all are simply defending a “god-given right of freedom of speech.” Would that it were that simple. We might indeed wonder how many of those people who bait Muslims–or for that matter bait Blacks or any other suppressed minority– are really acting out of pure idealism in “defense of free speech.” Sadly many of them may simply enjoy the racism of baiting minorities–and all the better if you can self-righteously do so in the name of “freedom of speech.”
Freedom of speech has never been absolute anywhere ever. In realistic terms it is always measured against existing circumstances. As for Europe, now is the time to “cool it” and think about how best to bring about processes of social integration and not exclusion. Let psychic wounds settle. This idea applies to all human relations at all times. Wrapping oneself self-righteously in absolute rights, especially when one is in the majority, when it is felt hurtful to others, is never smart or constructive. Recognising what may be truly at work in some of these “free speech”agendas is the first step towards averting further such terrible tragedies.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his first novel is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan”; his second one is BEAR—a novel of eco-violence. (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
Graham E. Fuller