Earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled the deployment of a series of hard-line measures to defend France’s secular values against what he termed as Islamic "radicalism.” Saying, “Islam is in crisis all over the world,” he prompted backlash from Muslims worldwide.
Two weeks later, a middle-school teacher named Samuel Paty in the town of Conflans Sainte-Honorine in France, was decapitated by an 18-year-old Chechen teenager, who was later shot dead by French security forces. The gruesome murder came after Paty had shown insulting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed in class. The portrayal of Prophet Muhammed is strictly barred for Muslims.
Defending the right to publish religious caricatures, Macron has chosen to show his teeth to French Muslims, the population of which is at least 5 million in the country, failing to strike a balance between the fight against terrorism and the collective punishment of Muslim citizens in his country, and invoked the ire of Muslims all around the world. The offensive cartoons were projected onto government buildings in France. He has been warned that an aggressive, indiscriminate approach would only play into the hands of radicals, but he ignores all the alarm bells.
While his hostile political rhetoric against Islam has increased polarization in France, two Muslim women wearing headscarves were repeatedly stabbed in a park under the Eiffel Tower. The attackers were shouting racist slurs such as “dirty Arabs," while sticking their knives in the victims’ bodies. The French police did not record the attack as a hate crime. Macron did not even talk about it. More than 1,000 Islamophobic incidents took place in France only in 2019, including 70 physical attacks; however, the French government continued to overlook these crimes.
Now it is like 2015 again. We find ourselves again in a hot debate on the fight against terrorism, the rise of fear and hatred, Islamophobia, xenophobia and the definition of freedom of expression. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quick to criticize Macron’s way of handling the issue, but the French government could not tolerate being contradicted and recalled the ambassador to Turkey over Erdoğan’s comments.
Meanwhile, Macron’s anti-Islam remarks have led to calls for boycotting French brands among Muslims. But, ironically, France urged Middle Eastern states to stop these boycotts. The Foreign Ministry of France said in a statement, “These calls for boycott are baseless and should stop immediately, as well as all attacks against our country, which are being pushed by a radical minority.” France could not even stand being protested.
This week, I came across a video of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech to the Bundestag, German’s national parliament, during a budget debate in 2019. In an emotional speech, Merkel talked of free speech in a way that should be heard by all European leaders. She said, “We have freedom of expression in our country. For all those who claim they can no longer express their opinion, I say this to them: If you express a pronounced opinion, you must live with the fact that you will be contradicted. Expressing an opinion does not come at zero cost. But freedom of expression has its limits. Those limits begin when hatred is spread. They begin when the dignity of other people is violated. This house will and must oppose extreme speech. Otherwise, our society will no longer be the free society that it was.”
If only the French president listened to these words, I said to myself. A commitment to free speech, is, of course, a fundamental principle of all democracies. However, almost all Western countries have laws limiting certain kinds of speech, especially hate speech or extreme speech, except in the U.S. In the U.S., even the most extreme expressions of racist ideology are protected by the Supreme Court. However, the Americans also contradict themselves as the content of freedom of religious speech has frequently been criminalized under the cover of anti-terrorism, revealing the double standards of the leading country of the free world.
On the other hand, European countries restrict racism and some other types of extreme speech. In France, for instance, one can be sentenced to prison for denying the Holocaust. Furthermore, homophobic hate speech is increasingly prohibited, and even anti-abortion speech is frequently ruled out. But, oddly enough, anti-Islam speech has become almost the core of free speech in Europe. Although Western democracies advocate that minorities have to be protected from extreme speech, it is not only far-right groups that set the tone of extreme or hate speech toward Muslims. Anti-Muslim racism, hatred and discrimination toward Muslims in Europe have been increasing among the leftist and centrist circles, which justifies their tendency with the claim of protecting Western values and defending secularism. In that way, they think that they won’t leave their fingerprints and they can hide their Islamophobic bias.
Blasphemy was abolished in many European countries, where their ancestors suffered from the harsh punishments of the majesty of the church for ages. It is understandable why they don’t like the word itself. Still, it has to be seen that Prophet Muhammed is not only sacred but very precious to all Muslims. Many Muslims embrace secularism unlike the extremists, and yet the prophet is valuable to them. They are just asking for their values to be tolerated just like they are expected to tolerate Western values.
Insulting Muslims, offending their religious feelings and vilifying Islam is not just words; they also trigger emotions of extreme dislike, detestation, abhorrence and hatred, which eventually lead to hate crimes. As Merkel said, “freedom of expression has its limits. Those limits begin where hatred is spread.” If only European leaders listened to themselves...
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