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Anatomy of an Attack

The inconvenient truth lurking beneath the reverent faces of all the self-proclaimed, civilized dispensations throughout history is the selective adaptation of the value system to suit whatever is deemed fit within the historio-evolutionary juncture a society finds itself. Though there is hardly anyone who could be spared of such hypocrisy, it is those who so loudly espouse to hold that venerable higher ground, those self-appointed guardians of the civilized values, who are the worst offenders.

The ensuing debate in the West after the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris, which cost twelve lives, has cracked a jar the Pandora box of clash-of-civilizations style deep seated prejudices. The proclamations hurled from the West towards the East in the wake of the attacks have come wrapped in a heavy dose of arrogant condescension and seemed to be spoken in front of a gagged audience on the other side, as if being hurled in a deep void.

Murder cannot be justified. We Muslims again find ourselves guilt-ridden over the brutal and senseless murder of 17 Western lives. The attack has been widely condemned in the Islamic world.  Jamia Al-Azhar, the august institution of Islamic learning, condemned the “criminal attack,” saying that “Islam denounces any violence”. Even Hamas has condemned the attack saying that the “differences of opinion and thought cannot justify murder”.

Yet there is a lot more than meets the eye. The astounding fact about the whole affair is the misapprehension and disregard in the Western world of the issues surrounding the attack. It is wrongly assumed that the depiction of Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), as it is prohibited in Islam, was the sole reason for the attack. In fact up till fifteenth century there had been various examples of illustrations of Holy Prophet done by various Muslim artists. These were great works of art glorifying and narrating Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) life and times. The most famous illustrations perhaps were in the Shahnama, the epic work of poetry by the great 10th century Persian poet Firdousi.

The depiction of Holy Prophet (PBUH) per se would probably not have caused such a deadly backlash. It is what the Charlie Hebdo (and previously Jyllands-Posten) cartoons imply, crudely and prejudicially wrongfully so, that enrages Muslims, liberal or conservative alike. It is what these cartoons say about Islam, our way of life, it is the ancient prejudices they perpetuate, the hate-filled rants, the disgustingly crude nature of the caricatures, the downright racist stereo types they use to describe Islam. In a society where seemingly unintentional remarks which could imply racist or discriminatory views are clamped down hard, there seems to be open season against Islam and Muslims. It seems you can just about say anything about Islam and not only get away with it but also be defended and protected by the laws of freedom of expression.

Like the American TV talk show host Bill Maher who in the wake of the attacks said that “hundreds of millions of them (Muslims) support an attack like this” or Rupert Murdoch, of dead children phone hacking fame, who held the entire Muslim population responsible for attacks like Charlie Hebdo. Apparently they were allowed to make such horrific generalizations about Muslims, something which the Western world has become quite sensitive to since the persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazis and the segregation-era legacy in the US.

These double standards were on full display in France also, which clamped down hard on hate speech after the attacks. A large number of people, including four minors, have been arrested for ‘defending terrorism’, though none of them were accused with planning terrorism or were suspected of having links with the attacks in Paris. The case of the comedian Dieudonné, in particular, has gained wide spread attention, who has been arrested by the French authorities for making remarks expressing solidarity with one of the attackers Amedy Coulibaly. Charlie Hebdo itself has not been impervious to such double standards. In 2009 it fired one of its senior cartoonists Maurice Sinet for a making the mildest of anti-Semitic remarks.

Comedians and satirists often get their message across by making generalizations. But is it appropriate to peddle utter lies and make statements based on false premises. Nobody knows more about the dangers of Hate Speech than the Europeans. That’s why all the Europeans countries have stringent laws against hate speech, especially against Anti-Semitism. So where should the lines be drawn?

The problem lies with the selective and opportunistic use of both the principle of freedom of expression and of the hate speech laws. No country in the world thinks that the freedom of speech should be absolute. It is when we cloud our judgment by letting our prejudices to guide us, rather than objective application of the universally accepted principles, that the differences occur.

Somehow a satirist’s right to caricature and ridicule, based on whatever false prejudices, takes primacy over anything else. The freedom of expression does not mean freedom to lie and manipulate. Hiding behind funny caricatures does not mean that these caricatures are of merely comic value. In fact they make serious political and cultural arguments. Isn’t the idea that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is the one most responsible and somehow the inspiration behind all the terrorism done in the name of Islam, utterly and factually false? Hasn’t it been discussed enough in the Western media already? Given the sick nature and magnitude of terrorism happening around the world, was it responsible journalism by Charlie Hebdo to keep perpetuating these dangerous stereo-types? Should in the 21st century we continue to peddle the hate filled biases of centuries past?

Let’s not forget the wider political context surrounding the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Since 9/11 the Western World, especially Europe, has experienced a wave of, often vile, Islamophobia. The Far-Right, languishing on the fringes of political spectrum, suddenly had its calling and quickly fashioned itself as the guardian against the impending “Islamisation of Europe”. Islam bashing became good politics. The economic hardships resulting from the post 2008 Great Recession era Austerity policies have made the Far-Right’s vitriolic populism sound more and more reasonable to a growing number of Europeans.

From Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV), the fourth –largest party in Dutch parliament, to Germany’s Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA) to UK’s BNP to France’s National Front, whose leader Marie Le Pen secured third highest number of votes in 2012 Presidential elections. These parties, though still in the minority, have nonetheless gained centre stage prominence and influence in their countries, unthinkable in post-WWII Europe. Islam bashing and scaremongering have become their most effective tools. A poll in France conducted by Le Monde in 2012 found that 42 per cent of French citizens believed that presence of Muslims in their country was a “threat to their national identity”.

A number of respected commentators have drawn startling similarities between the pre-WWII anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda and Islamophobia. The same lies which were fabricated to create an atmosphere of persecution about the Jews are being used by the Far-Right to create fear mongering about Islam and Muslims in Europe.

So here is a question for the Voltaires of Charlie Hebdo: Aren’t you being played right into the hands of the frightful Far-Right? Is this the kind of Europe you want in the 21st century?

The 2006 Football World Cup final between France and Italy, a game remembered more by that infamous Zidane affair than the twists and turns of the game itself. In the depths of the extra time one of the greatest protagonists of the beautiful game, otherwise grace personified, French Captain Zinedine Zidane, while walking back after another failed attempt to breach the un-breachable Italian defence, suddenly turned and head butted an Italian defender, Marco Materazzi, leaving the 260 million watching the game utterly stunned. The rest, as they say, is history. Zidane was shown the red card and Italy won the World Cup. Fury is a small word what the French felt towards Zidane at that moment; why did he do it? Apparently Materazzi had hurled a venomous insult about Zidane’s sister which made the legend lost his mind.

Speech matters. It should not be used as an excuse to start massacring people, that’s why it is important to understand why it does.

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