Left Foot Forward
8 January, 2015
Tehmina Kazi of British Muslims for Secular Democracy looks at nine mistaken assumptions doing the rounds about the murders that took place at the offices of Charlie Hebdo yesterday.
False Assumption One
‘Charlie Hebdo magazine was needlessly provocative’
Manufacturers of outrage and assorted agitators do not need any kind of ‘provocation’ for their actions. When Jyllands-Posten published the Danish cartoons in September 2005, protests in Muslim-majority countries did not start until four months later.
Mona Eltahawy’s interview with Jytte Klausen, the Danish-born author of the Yale Press’s forthcoming book, Cartoons That Shook the World, recognised that lag. According to Yale Press’s Web site, she argues that Muslim reaction to the cartoons was not spontaneous but, rather, that it was orchestrated “first by those with vested interests in elections in Denmark and Egypt”, and later by “extremists seeking to destabilize governments in Pakistan, Lebanon, Libya, and Nigeria”.
Further, Quilliam Foundation director and Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate Maajid Nawaz re-tweeted a ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoon on 12 January 2014. Most of the people who called for his de-selection – and helped to whip up the resultant furore – conveniently ignored his earlier mention of the cartoons on the BBC’s Big Questions programme. The broadcast itself attracted barely a whisper on social media.
False Assumption Two
‘The Left should defend all expressions of Islam at all costs’
Professor Karima Bennoune said it best in her article, ‘Why Bill Maher and Ben Affleck are both wrong‘:
“We do not need either stereotypical generalizations or minimising responses to fundamentalism, however well-intentioned.
“What we need is a principled, anti-racist critique of Muslim fundamentalism that pulls no punches, but that also distinguishes between Islam (the diverse religious tradition) and Islamism (an extreme right-wing political ideology). We need support, understanding and to have our existence recognised.”
False Assumption Three
‘The French hate Muslims, don’t they?’
From the Pew Global Attitudes survey 2014, which interviewed 7,022 citizens in seven European countries, 72 per cent of French citizens polled said they had a favourable opinion of Muslims in their country. This was higher than Italy, Greece, Poland, Spain, Germany, and even the UK.
False Assumption Four
‘Not in Our Name campaigns are helpful’
As well-intentioned as these undoubtedly are, the ‘Not in my name’ campaigns spearheaded by Muslims send out a problematic subliminal message to non-Muslims: that Muslims are unwilling to sort out the problems in their own back yard.
No-one is expecting us to eradicate all gender segregation in public events overnight, or to change the minds of all homophobic preachers in a few months, or to re-introduce music lessons in all Muslim-majority schools that have cancelled them. No-one is saying that we have to devote several years of our lives and careers doing this (as I have).
However, we are expected to make some effort to condemn obscurantism from all quarters, or as much as we are able to within our own circles of influence. Given that the Qu’ran takes such a strong line on humans challenging injustice wherever we find it, this shouldn’t be too difficult.
False Assumption Five
‘Religious minorities have less to gain from democratic freedoms than the majority’
The same legislation that promotes freedom of expression also protects freedom of religion – and from religion. Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights protects freedom of thought, conscience and religion (unless state interference with these is shown to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim).
In a non-legal context, the culture of rights and freedoms we have in the UK leads to strong civil society projects that monitor anti-Muslim attacks, such as Tell MAMA.
False Assumption Six
‘Condemnation is sufficient’
Sombre press releases and widely-shared Facebook updates are better than nothing, but many of their authors have inadvertently contributed to the problem in the past.
By endorsing blasphemy laws, treating the words of Zakir Naik and Junaid Jamshed as gospel, or turning a blind eye when feminist or progressive Muslim activists (like Sara Khan of Inspire) are viciously attacked for their work on Twitter.
False Assumption Seven
‘It is always someone else’s fault’
Then there are those who won’t even condemn acts of violence and terrorism, but automatically paint the attacks as false-flag operations, with a cast of extras to rival ‘Titanic’. In my experience, attempting to reason with these people is a waste of time and energy. Better to leave them to their echo chambers.
False Assumption Eight
‘Beliefs deserve more protection than people’
Under the Equality Act 2010, beliefs are only protected insofar as they apply to the rights of individuals. For instance, it is unlawful for someone to discriminate against you because of your religion or belief (or because you have no religion or belief):
in any aspect of employment
when providing goods, facilities and services
when providing education
in using or disposing of premises, or
when exercising public functions.
False Assumption Nine
‘The way forward is to treat each event as a passing accident of horror’
Laissez-faire approaches like these have led us to the predicament we are in. These acts are neither passing nor accidental; they are part of one long atrocity continuum, compounded by mainstream society’s cowardice and unwillingness to champion unpopular causes.
Instead, campaigning groups that happily take on the far-right should challenge the Muslim right-wing with equal ferocity, rather than giving their behaviour a free pass.
Tehmina Kazi has been director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy since May 2009, and has worked on a number of human rights and citizenship projects