February Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 3 years ago

The bodies of the cartoonists slain in the Charlie Hebdo massacre were barely cold before the backlash began, accusing the satirical weekly’s leading lights of pandering to secular fundamentalism, racism, xenophobia – and, yes, Islamophobia.

Not everyone who criticised the magazine intended to imply that its employees had it coming, so to speak. In some cases the implication was simply that the provocation was gratuitous, notwithstanding the fact that the magazine had long been renowned as an anti-clerical redoubt, determined to tackle all religions in a manner that would have been considered unacceptably crude among several of its neighbours.

In the immediate aftermath, many French Muslims felt unable to to align themselves with the ‘Je suis Charlie’ wave, because they felt it would be tantamount to endorsing the devoutly scurrilous periodical’s sacrilegious depictions of the Prophet of Islam. Charlie Hebdo, though, was by all indications a fairly equal opportunity offender – unlike Jyllands-Posten, the conservative Danish publication that published crude caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) back in 2006 but declared that Jesus and Moses were off-limits.

Almost 10 years ago, Charlie Hebdo attracted attention by reprinting the Jyllands-Posten caricatures, and it had since then maintained a tradition by sporadically impugning the Prophet of Islam alongside other confessional figureheads, and it could be argued that it focused on Islam because of its topicality, while also keeping an eye out for French racists and Islamophobes.

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Back in 2011, when Charlie Hebdo was firebombed, its editor, Stephane Charbonnier – aka Charb – categorically denied that Muslims in general were responsible for the atrocity, appropriately choosing to blame extremists. The pair of fanatics who attacked Charlie Hebdo’s office on January 7 sought Charb out as a victim.

Any number of European politicians, from the centre to the far right, have since declared that Muslims in general are not an issue, nor is Islam as such, but that extremism or the ‘Islamisation of Europe’ is a concern. This includes the National Front in France as well as the German movement known as Pegida – whose founding leader, Lutz Bachmann, felt obliged to resign after a picture of him posing as Adolf Hitler went viral last month on social media.

Bachmann said it was a joke. A great many Germans, though, are unlikely to consider their past as a laughing matter, and it is no doubt gratifying that Pegida’s mobilisations have frequently been countered by opponents in much larger numbers, with mainstream politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, making clear where they stand.

It does not necessarily follow, though, that Islamophobia is a fringe obsession. It’s fairly widespread across Europe, and rapidly gaining adherents – not all of whom agree, mind you, on their motives or objectives. There are those who would like to see most Muslims cast out of Europe. Others are more selective.

Inevitably, echoes have been perceived of the anti-Semitism that preceded the Holocaust, even though there is little risk of a repetition. It’s a complication, nonetheless, that Islamists are among the foremost proponents of anti-Semitism, and that some of those who would once have considered Jews beyond the pale are perfectly happy to share the Israeli government’s ideology as long as it entails demonising Muslims.

Anti-Semitism is, of course, a convenient trope for the Netanyahu regime that is frequently cited to counter criticism of Israeli excesses. It does not follow, of course, that anti-Semitism is an illusion. That mindset clearly does exist in Europe, and expands eastwards.

Much the same could be said about Islamophobia. It exists, and unpleasantly manifests itself across the continent. That does not make it an adequate excuse for shutting down debate over Islam, however. There can be little question that the way in which the religion is generally perceived depends a great deal on its extremities. The disinclination of most Muslims to take up violence as a means of proselytising their faith is a given that even xenophobic organisations are inclined to accept, at least rhetorically.

At the same time, they point, not without reason, to Muslims as the primary perpetrators of ideologically-guided violence. A particular breed of Muslim commentators, meanwhile, declare that the radical Islamists associated with Islamic State or Al Qaeda don’t really represent the faith, which is in fact a religion of peace.

That sounds good, but doesn’t conform too closely to Islamic history, especially the earliest years that fundamentalists tend to cite as a golden period. Although Islam is, in significant ways, a derivative faith, several of whose tenets are based on preceding monotheistic schools of thought such as Judaism and Christianity, its spiritual aspect was always wedded to political dominance, beginning with the state set up in Medina. It is therefore not entirely surprising that Muslims particularly attached to that period, and seemingly unmoved by human society’s evolution in the intervening 15 centuries, fail to grasp the concept of separation between mosque and state.

Which is not to suggest, as some political forces on the continent imply, that too many of the Muslims settled in Europe are intellectually incapable of engaging with established western norms. There’s little evidence to support that contention, although there can be little doubt of a shift towards religiosity in the past couple of decades, notably manifested in extremist tendencies among second-generation immigrants of Muslim origin – the generation one would have expected to be better integrated in host societies than their parents.

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What went wrong? To pinpoint causes for this tendency is not to apportion blame exclusively in one direction or another. It would be absurd, though, to overlook the consequences of racial discrimination, ghettoisation and, more recently, the waging of wars against Muslim countries, which has involved resort not just to mass murder from way up in the air but to unconscionable forms of torture. Noam Chomsky has lately been pilloried for pointing out the simple – and one would think indisputable – fact that the abominable acts of terrorism recently witnessed in France, and reportedly averted in Belgium, somewhat pale in comparison with the violence perpetrated by American drones. Does the latter not qualify as terrorism simply because the most powerful state in the world is proudly behind it?

The terrorism that Europe in particular has witnessed in the past decade, from Madrid and London to last month’s attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris, were appalling atrocities, quite possibly intended not just to claim lives but to exacerbate the divide between Muslims and everyone else. If so, it certainly worked. It is certainly pertinent to wonder, though, whether these dastardly attacks would have been organised in the first place had the countries concerned not involved themselves in the Middle Eastern and Afghan conflicts.

At the same time, it is hardly surprising that instances of terrorism – and a steady stream of reports about young men, and sometimes women, making a beeline for Syria or Iraq – would provoke unease in European societies about Muslims in their midst. Notwithstanding assurances from a reasonably wide range of politicians that only a small proportion of Muslims harbour extremist tendencies, an increase in Islamophobia isn’t an unexpected consequence.

There are other related factors too – not least the impression, largely well-founded, that religious minorities generally face persecution in Muslim-majority states. That’s no cause, obviously, to reciprocate, but it’s inevitably intriguing to many that Muslims who tend to complain about being deprived of their rights in western societies pay little or no attention to the state of human rights in Islamic nations.

The extent to which Islamophobic tendencies continue to manifest themselves will depend on instances of extremist outrages, as well as on political guidance and media coverage. Of course, Islamophobia – much like Islamist extremism itself – tends to be spurred by ignorance.

Without drawing too close a parallel, it is worth noting that European anti-Semitism did not end with one of the gravest crimes against humanity, namely the horrendous Judeocide of the 1930s and 40s. And it obviously isn’t just Muslims who are responsible for its recent resurgence – which has inevitably led Israel to encourage immigration. Although the European far right, much like the American variant, has developed a tendency to make common cause with Israel, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia often flow from the same source.

It was unspeakably appalling, meanwhile, to come across a recent image of a protest in Lahore, ostensibly against Charlie Hebdo, in which the most prominent placard read: “The world need another hollow (sic) cost. Hitlor (sic) you were right. They have no right to live.”

One needn’t spell out the levels of ignorance and spite that went into that slogan. It patently does not bode well, though. And it offers a prime example of the banality that encourages Islamophobia to thrive.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2015 issue.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.