For the past two days my news feed, inevitably, is full of the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
Before I pursue the nuanced view, a couple of fact checks from the coverage. There have been reams of excellent analysis already written but at the same time there are some rather awful misrepresentations that I can’t help but let bother me. Some are just irritating, such as the NYT Article that starts off in Paris but is actually an article about Egypt (helpfully headlined as about “Islam” overall – NYT you know better!), but others have rather more worrying implications.
This is utterly misleading.
Nathaniel Zelinsky writes in Foreign Affairs that the gesture is a reference to tawhid, “the belief in the oneness of God and a key component of the Muslim religion.”
So far so good.
However this gesture is not one ‘adopted’ specifically by ISIS and other groups, but in fact is a known and common gesture by Muslims to reference this belief in the keystone of faith – that there is no god but God (Allah) – it can be, and is, used in multiple contexts. This includes lifting a single finger during prayer as a reminder. Zelinsky goes on to point to the gesture as referencing a particular interpretation of tawhid which rejects other schools of thought or interpretations in Islam. I haven’t asked any ISIS fighters whether this is so myself, but considering how widespread and understood this reference is, and the apparently poor state of religious knowledge amongst such groups, I can’t help but doubt it. Such headlines risk stigmatising a gesture as common to Muslims as the V-for peace is to the English.
Farange, ever detailed and nuanced in his analysis, blames the gross policy of multiculturalism and draws explicit comparisons with the UK approach to multiculturalism. Only the problem is that the French approach to multiculturalism is not the same as ours. In fact it is totally different, as is the cultural context immigrants move into, the countries their immigrant population is primarily from, and the rights and position of ethnic minorities in the country. Blame the approach to multiculturalism if you can argue it (that was certainly part of the analysis around the riots there in 2005) but don’t conflate the UK and Gallic systems unless you know what you are talking about.
What were they criticising anyway?
So starting into avoidance of the simplistic analysis, I have noticed that defense of Charlie Hebdo, for some, means defence of the right to criticise religion, but this screams to me that this is missing. There is a difference between exercising freedom of speech and ‘criticising religion’.
Raised on a diet of comedy that stretched from Monty Python to The Rev, satire of religious figures is practically part of my DNA. But was Charlie Hebdo actually criticising Islam? As far as I can tell from everything I have seen the cartoons ranged from criticising “extremists” to insulting depictions of ethnic minorities. Some of them are funny I’m sure – not having been a Charlie Hebdo reader it is difficult for me to judge – but I do not see explicit critique of the religion in this. Exercising freedom of speech with representations of figures associated with a particular faith is not the same as criticising religion. Drawing the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) is also not in itself an ‘act of critique’ either seeing as there isn’t consistent agreement on whether this is allowed from a theological perspective.
If we are honest with ourselves, we are all like the #CharlieHebdo magazine – at some point or another in our lives we are judgemental, rude, laugh at others, don’t appreciate the position of those in a weaker position… all the criticisms rightly levelled at that publication we can turn against ourselves too. Saying #JesuisCharlie is in fact an accurate statement for reasons not based on why it is ‘trending’. But very, very few of us can say that we are like the police officer, Ahmed Merabet, who died trying to protect people who actively looked to ridicule his faith and culture. I want to be more #JesuisAhmed.
Rather than offering yet another #muslimapology, there really is only one appropriate response, and that is to recall the example of the Prophet, recorded from a time when there were young men sporting fists not guns itching to ‘defend’ his honour:
‘Umar ibn al-Khattab suggested that the following punishment should be applied to Suhayl ibn Amr for making speeches against the Holy Prophet:
“O Prophet of God let me pull out Suhayl’s front teeth so that he would never be able to exercise his oratory against you.”
The Holy Prophet replied without hesitation: “Certainly not. I will not mutilate anyone, for God would mutilate me even though I am His Prophet… Perhaps one day he [Suhayl ibn Amr] will say something which will make you happy.“