As if COVID-19 and the economic recession were not enough, the world today has to bear with a wrangle between France and the Islamic world, sparked by controversy over President Emmanuel Macron’s recent statements about Islam. Macron made his comments after the gruesome beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown a cartoon of Prophet Muhammad to his students as part of a class discussion.
To be sure, Muslims do not condone indeed they condemn the killing of the teacher. What angered Muslims was President Macron’s statement that “we will not give up caricatures and drawings, even if others back away”. In response, Muslims around the world in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey, Africa and the Middle East took to streets. It has also led to diplomatic tension between France and several governments that have condemned Macron’s statement, as well as calls to boycott French products.
This Macron controversy, which has calmed down a little, is yet another episode in a long-standing squabble between the West and the Islamic world regarding a caricature of Prophet Muhammad.
This “cartoon debate” is not likely to be settled anytime soon because each side sees it from a totally different perspective. The West sees it strictly from the viewpoint of freedom of speech, while Muslims sees it as an assault on their religion.
I am a Muslim who studied at a madrasah (Islamic boarding school) in Indonesia and then spent half of my life studying and working in the West. I have yet to meet a Westerner who genuinely understands why Muslims are outraged by the cartoon issue. From their biased viewpoint, the mockery of the cartoon is a trivial matter.
But in Islam, Prophet Muhammad is sacrosanct. He is the last in a long line of Prophets, and Allah addressed humanity through his spoken words, which are recorded in the Holy Quran. When one becomes a Muslim, he/she only needs to recite shahadat (attestation) that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger. Five times a day, as they pray, they repeat this testimony.
In Muslim gatherings, including Friday prayer, every time the imam mentions the Prophet’s name, the whole congregation repeats it and says “peace be upon you”. When millions of Muslims perform the pilgrimage in Mecca, they stop by in Medina to pay their respects at the tomb of the Prophet, where, overcome with emotion, they weep. To a Muslim, Prophet Muhammad’s life, his thoughts, words, actions to the smallest detail, form a guidance in life. That is why Muhammad is the most common name in the world.
Thus, in Islamic teaching, it is prohibited to disrespect Prophet Muhammad in any way. It is also a sacrilege to represent the Prophet as a physical person. In Islamic books, the Prophet is portrayed not by a picture but his name written in Arabic.
Hence, mocking and caricaturing the Prophet is regarded a direct assault on Islam and an enormous offense to Muslims. This would offend the radicals, the fundamentalists as well as the moderates. Indeed, many peaceful moderates who have nothing to do with terrorists would bristle with fury at the sight of the cartoon.
To Westerners, however, the act of mocking God is commonplace. When I first moved to the United States in the 1970s, I was astounded to see how comedians, routinely made fun of Jesus.
So, when President Macron, in defense of freedom of speech, says “we will not give up caricatures and drawings, even if others back away”, what the Islamic world hears is, “We will continue to abuse your religion, no matter what you feel about it”. It’s probably not what he meant, but that’s how Muslims interpret it.
Can something be done about this cartoon crisis? There are two options. The first is for the West to tell the Islamic world to learn to live with it. This is tantamount to asking 2 billion Muslims to surrender their identity. Not going to happen. There is a more realistic option: Western governments should begin to understand and accept that it is morally, politically, religiously wrong to mock Prophet Muhammad because it is offensive to Muslims. In the complex political environment in Europe, where conservative right-wing groups and demagogues are gaining ground, this may be a tricky message to convey, but it is the right thing to do.
Impossible? Actually, this form of social restraint is not totally alien to the West. A number of western countries have passed laws against hate speech, demonstrating that freedom of speech is not unlimited.
In the US, decades ago it was normal for white Americans to use the N word in referring to black people. However, over time society evolved and they gradually realized this was hurtful to African Americans and wrong. Today, while still embracing freedom of speech, it has become taboo for anyone to utter that racist slur.
In Europe, without compromising freedom of speech, 16 countries have introduced laws against holocaust denial and some of them criminalizing such denial. In all these cases, governments or society preserved freedom of speech and also showed sensitivity and respect for minority groups. Hence, the simple demand of Muslims that Westerners show sensitivity and respect for their religious beliefs is not unreasonable.
As to President Macron, while he has been firm in defending freedom of speech, he has shown neither sympathy nor compassion to many Muslims worldwide who feel offended and violated by the cartoons. Because of this, President Macron’s core message on fighting terrorism gets nowhere. President Macron would be well advised to emulate Pope Francis, who, when asked to comment after the funeral of those killed in 2015 Paris attacks, said that freedom of speech is important, but “you cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit.” This is a wisdom that the Islamic world would agree with.