By Dr. Reza Pankhurst
The deliberate provocation goes on. Charlie Hebdo published cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammad in what will be considered by Muslims worldwide as a further gratuitous affront to Islam. The magazine has previous form in incitement, when last year it printed offensive cartoons ridiculing Islam while then announcing that its edition would be guest-edited by the Prophet Mohammad, leading to its office being firebombed in November 2011.
In this instance, the French government has responded quickly, understanding that in the context of ongoing protests against foreign embassies across the World French interests abroad could be threatened. A number of French embassies across the Middle East have been closed, and the French Prime Minister has already expressed his “disapproval of any excess”, while also stating that “the freedom of speech makes up one of the fundamental principles of [the French] republic”. This response echoes the position of American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she expressed her personal disapproval of the anti-Islam film that has caused the initial wave of protests, while confirming the right for it to be made, published and promoted in the United States.
These events cannot be taken out of the political context of the last ten years, where Muslims across the World have been subjected to the so-called “war on terror”, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan where the killing of innocent civilians by NATO troops is still a regular occurrence, the illegal imprisonment and torture of thousands in facilities such as Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and the extra-judicial killings carried out in several Muslim countries by CIA Predator drones. At the same time Western governments like the United States, France and Britain gave political support and sometimes collaborated in illegal rendition and torture with an assortment of dictators across the Middle-East and beyond, such as Moammar al-Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak while they were in place, a fact conveniently forgotten by Western politicians and certain media outlets in their collective amnesia of the last week. People in the region feel vulnerable, and along with being the victims of political violence they have also witnessed news of Quran burnings whether by the American military or right wing pastors, the denigration of the Quran at Guantanamo bay, along with a growing amount of media production in terms of films and cartoons deliberating insulting the sanctified elements of their religion.
In France specifically, baiting Islam and Muslims is something of a national pastime for politicians, with their banning of the Niqab (face-covering) the most prominent example of the restriction of their proclaimed freedoms when it applies to Islam. This came after the banning of the wearing of Islamic head-coverings in French schools, forcing Muslim students in France to either compromise their education or Islamic principles.
It is far-fetched for French media like Charlie Hebdo to claim it is a bastion of absolute free speech when it previously condemned one of its own cartoonists, Maurice Sinet, for writing a biting article about Nicholas Sarkozy’s son which appeared to denigrate him for marrying a Jewish heiress for money. Sinet was subsequently sacked for refusing to apologise. So much for principles when domestic political sensitivities are involved – and yet showing sensitivity to a billion or so Muslims around the World is apparently an affront to their secularism.
It is the French government that has the most to answer for in creating this climate of hypocrisy and hatred, where Islam and Muslims appear to be regularly targeted under the banner of an illusionary “freedom”. When the French Prime Minister states that the magazine’s cartoons are “expressed within the confines of the law and under the control of the courts”, it can be pointed out that the French senate passed a bill earlier this year which bans denial of genocide recognised by French law, a clear indication of the willingness to restrict expression for political reasons. Ironically, the political target in this case is the Turkish government, and the event referred to is the killing of Armenians in 1915-16 during the final few years of the Ottoman State, the last formal representation of the Islamic political model of the Caliphate.
French interaction with the Ottoman State and the freedom to insult Islamic sensibilities has its own peculiar history. Towards the end of the 19th century, the French government banned the dramatization of a play entitled “Mahomet” in deference to the representations made by the Ambassador of the Ottoman Caliphate. Fearful of pushing the Ottoman Caliphate further into the arms of the German empire, France’s continental neighbor and competitor, principles quickly gave way to realpolitik. And in this event, one of the reasons behind the frustrations of Muslims who have taken to the streets can be understood. If today there was such a political entity which represented the Islamic viewpoint regarding these issues, Muslims worldwide could look to it to take firm stances in their interests, and it can be dealt with at a state level as history attests. In the absence of such a government, people take to the streets to express their anger, a sight that is likely to become more visible in the new Middle East without the same Western backed dictators such as Hosni Mubarak around anymore to keep them in check.
Dr. Reza Pankhurst is a political scientist and historian, specialising in the Middle East and Islamic movements. He received his doctorate from the London School of Economics. He was a political prisoner of the previous Mubarak regime in Egypt, spending almost 4 years in jail between 2002 and 2006. His forthcoming book is entitled “The Inevitable Caliphate?” (Hurst/ Columbia University Press 2012) and is available at Amazon and other retailers. He can be contacted at [email protected]