The actions of Islamist gunmen in Paris has received much condemnation from nations around the world, but alongside an international movement in defence of freedom of speech and expression, there is a second drive to praise the work of the killers and celebrate the punishment of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.
In Chechnya on Monday, approximately 800,000 people gathered to voice their support for the Islamist gunmen. They called for action against Charlie Hebdo and its supporters, and said that through Europe’s condemnation of the act and the attackers’ religious convictions, Europe had “united” them.
In Saudi Arabia the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation intends to sue Charlie Hebdo for depicting the Prophet on the front cover. In Pakistan, effigies of the French President were burned. Students in Somalia marched with banners reading, Je suis Muslim et j’aime mon Prophet. Protests in Nigeria have led to the deaths of five people.
In London, there are frequent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations between spin-offs of the English Defence League and fundamentalist Muslims. Anjem Choudary, a preacher based in the United Kingdom, tweeted, “Freedom of expression does not extend to insulting the Prophets of Allah, whatever your views on the events in Paris today!” To him, the events in Paris were an inevitable (and acceptable) result of how Muslims are treated in France. Insulting the Prophet merits capital punishment – “People should be aware [of] this,” he remarked to the American pundit Sean Hannity in an interview.
How should we respond to this growing second movement that criticises freedom of speech and defends the Paris gunmen?
Many people have described the beliefs of the Paris gunmen as fundamentalist, literalist interpretations of the Islamic holy book, held only by minorities in the Islamic world. But with so much aggravation displayed around the world, is that opinion accurate anymore? Scores of people have called for the Charlie Hebdo attack to be celebrated – no one is allowed to depict the Prophet in illustration, and the Westerners who celebrate the freedom of speech are only showing their ignorance of this. To keep the distinction, some commentators say that the Muslims who believe in death for depicting the Prophet are practising an ignorant, uncivilised form of Islam. Who is right? Who is in the absolute position to say, X form of is Islam is the real Islam?
For many years, several leading secularists, atheists and scientists have described Islam as a primitive religion. It is six hundred years younger than Christianity and Judaism, and to these scholars, it shows. Some dare to say that Islam has not yet evolved and accepted the modern way of life like Christianity has done. To some extent this is true – there is rarely a backlash, let alone fundamentalist, when Christianity is mocked by comedians and satirists. But then again, is it really appropriate for non-Muslims to be commenting on what is ‘normal’ and ‘mainstream’ and what is ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘primitive’ in the Islamic world? Furthermore, it is easy to forget that many centuries ago, the Islamic world was the driving force behind developments in medicine, politics and culture – we cannot say that Islam has forever been a “primitive” religion.
If we are proponents of the freedom of speech, then we can only disagree with what is being said and done by the people I have described above – we cannot prohibit the expression of their ideas, no matter how unpleasant. Our response then is to condemn it if we disagree with it, but we cannot censor them, especially not those from outside our communities and nations.