(By Mass L. Usuf)
The beheading of Samuel Paty on 16 October 2020, was a shocker. He was a French middle-school teacher, in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a suburb of Paris. The teacher had shown the controversial Charlie Hebdo caricatures of Prophet Muhammed in class despite objections, during a lesson on freedom of speech on 5th October. In France this battle between freedom of expression and respect to religions and religious sentiments was at its peak following the attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.
It is well known that the killing was an act of an individual. No one in his right mind is going to applause this crime. As has been repeatedly stated and it is reiterated that Islam as a religion does not approve of such actions. Naturally, therefore, the Muslims who follow Islam would never condone such a gruesome act.
Wiping The Backside
This same freedom of expression does not apply if it directly relates to the sentiments of the French.Why was there so much outrage, protest and overwhelming criticism over a photo of a man wiping his derriere (a person’s buttocks) with the French flag in April 2010. ‘I want the person who committed this outrage to be punished, and possibly those who published it too.’ Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie said ‘criminal proceedings should be launched against this unacceptable act’. Eric Ciotti, an MP from the ruling UMP party, said: ‘The image is utterly offensive and should be removed. ‘Insulting’ the French flag is punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of £7,000.
Wait a minute. What happened to the ‘so called’ freedom of expression? Well, as for freedom of expression, this is how Arundhati Roy opines on the issue of the national flag; “Flags are bits of coloured cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.” Despite this selected condemnation by the French authorities only when it suits them, the Liberalists would call this the freedom of political expression.
Over the dead body
What is of interest here is the French President Emmanuel Macron trying to score brownie points over the dead body of Samuel Paty. As a President of a developed nation many did not expect him to stoop down to such a low level. He lost no time in capitalising on this issue in order to galvanise support not only from his distanced supporters but also to take a free ride in the wave of the right wingers. The reason for this is in the statistics. In June 2020 an opinion poll conducted by the Research Department of Statista polled 60% of the French people as clearly disapproving of Macron’s actions as President. The attack on the teacher and the uproar triggered by the biased French media could not have come at a better time to boost his plummeting ratings.
In this political background, Macron vividly exposed his intentions by speaking with a forked tongue. He was using one part of it to champion ‘freedom’. In an emotional talk, Macron added that Paty was slain for representing the secular, democratic values of the European country. With the other part of his forked tongue, he was smothering the very freedom he was championing.
Macron had embarked on a disproportionate series of undemocratic crackdowns which are absolutely unacceptable. May be to impress his opponent, the right-wing Marine La Pen, who he defeated in the 2017 election. She has led the charge against Macron for not cracking down hard enough against Islamism. Further, to ascribe by implication, the act of an individual as representing an entire people smacks of desperation than wise reasoning. More than one billion Muslims are being targeted by Macron and not resting at that he has the audacity to state that Islam is in a crisis. His puerile behaviour brings nothing but shame to the idea of Laïcité, a French concept of secularism which discourages religious involvement in government affairs. By using Islam and Muslims as the platform for his election purposes, he is just doing the opposite of the notion of Laïcité.
Poverty In France
Macron delivering a speech on separatism called “radical Islam” the biggest threat to French society. He also claimed, “Islam was in crisis around the world”. Not only Macron’s hypocrisy but the duplicity of the French principles of Liberté, égalité, fraternité French for “liberty, equality, fraternity”, was explicitly demonstrated by his admission that French governments had to take the blame for ghettoising Muslim communities across the country and creating conditions for radicalisation.
What Macron deliberately omitted to talk about was disgusting. The most shocking news was revealed by a survey carried out by the Secours Populaire (French Popular Relief) in 2018 — a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting poverty and discrimination. It revealed the shocking figures of One in five French people cannot afford three meals a day.
Is it not an act of grave provocation to have the blasphemous cartoons of Prophet Muhammed, published by the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, to be displayed on town hall buildings in Montpellier and Toulouse for several hours? First the conditions for radicalisation is created. Having succeeded in nurturing radicals, the government outlines proposals for a new anti-separatism law aimed at improving integration and combatting religious divisions in the country.
Ali Saad a French sociologist in a piece to Al Jazeera Website on 28.10.2020 wrote, “If anything, it appears that it is the State rather than the Muslim citizens that is “separating” itself from a segment of society and is insisting on treating them as outsiders. It clearly does not want to acknowledge that multiculturalism is an integral part of French society and should be embraced as such.”
Buddha And Muhammed
When an issue does not directly relate to someone, the issue is looked at independently but if the same issue relates to Muslims it is viewed prejudicially. Approximately 8,000 kilometres away from Paris, here in Sri Lanka, one questions, what the hell is all this brouhaha about caricatures of Prophet Muhammed.
Macron was probably right when he said, ‘radical Islam’. What is wrong with freedom of expression? We are living in the civilised world. Why bother about cartoons and caricature of Prophet Muhammed? When Macron said France would “not give up cartoons, drawings, even if others back down” he was probably representing the voice of the free world, developed world and the enlightened world.
Let us see it from a Sri Lankan point of view. When it applies to this paradise island, the much bandied and hailed freedom of expression would be given a different interpretation. In the same vein, President Macron’s highly acclaimed freedom of expression of the free, developed and the enlightened world would take a special shade of meaning.
The BBC News had this headline in August 2012, “French tourists guilty in Sri Lanka over Buddha photos”. “A Sri Lankan court has given suspended jail terms to three French tourists for wounding the religious feelings of Buddhists by taking pictures deemed insulting. They were convicted under a section of the Penal Code which outlaws deeds intended to wound or insult “the religious feelings of any class of persons”.
In April 2014 insult to Buddhism again reigned the headline of BBC news. This time, “Sri Lanka to deport Buddha tattoo British woman”. Naomi Coleman was arrested as she arrived at the airport in the capital Colombo after authorities spotted the tattoo on her right arm. She said she told police in a statement that she practised Buddhism and had attended meditation retreats and workshops in Thailand, India, Cambodia and Nepal.
Ms Coleman said she had to spend Monday night in prison in Negombo, near the airport, after appearing in court. The 37-year-old from Coventry was arrested for “hurting others’ religious feelings”. A magistrate ordered her deportation.
An Indian girl’s story hit the headlines of The Hindu newspaper in July 2017. The lines read, “Indian girl held in Sri Lanka for Buddha image on dress”. “Wearing such a print is an offence according to the penal code. It is not just about the Buddha, wearing prints of deities of any religion is considered offensive,” police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara told The Hindu. However, senior lawyer J.C. Weliamuna said: “Only defaming a religion is a criminal offence in Sri Lanka, wearing a normal print of the Buddha does not amount to that. This is ridiculous.” The Police said the family was let off with a warning.
Lessons To Learn
These people were not wearing or depicting caricatures of Buddha but a decent and respectful reproduction of his image. On the contrary, imagine a disgraceful cartoon or ugly caricature of a personality like Prophet Muhammed, who is revered by billions of Muslims. On top of that to have the blasphemous cartoons to be displayed on town hall buildings in Montpellier and Toulouse for several hours on the instruction of the authorities is contemptibly obnoxious.
This probably brings some perspective as to why the Muslims are deeply hurt and reacting by way of condemning such deplorable depictions of Prophet Muhammed by the French, who are themselves confused of the notion of freedom of expression. Islamophobic approach to the French Muslim community will not help address radicalisation. There are lessons to learn for us too – for the Muslims as a community, for everyone as citizens and for the policy makers.