By Dyab Abou Jahjah
"Samuel Paty's cause is my cause, and should be the cause of any citizen who loves freedom. Paty was not Islamophobic, he taught his students important values of tolerance and proportionality. The fact that some people cannot see him as a victim is also a reflection of the rise of dogmatic sectarianism and tribalism."
When the debate over the Mohamed cartoons exploded in Europe in 2006, I was president of the Arab-European League and determined to defend my community and my "people" at all costs. And although I was never really a very religious person and I was always an advocate of absolute freedom of speech, I was offended by Kurt Westergaard's drawings in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. I was not offended by the cartoons themselves, but by moralizing towards Muslims who felt offended by them. I thought people have the right to be insulted and to decide for themselves what they perceive as offensive.
And while I supported everyone's right to offend, no matter how gross that was, I thought Europe was hypocritical to claim that only Muslims can be so angry and offended, Europe also has its taboos. To prove this, the AEL launched a cartoon campaign that was vile and offensive to other groups in society: women, gays, Jews, ... The Center for Information and Documentation Israel (CIDI) in the Netherlands sued us for anti-Semitism despite the disclaimer that we placed under all cartoons which stated that they "do not reflect our opinion, but should be seen as an exercise in free speech." And despite that disclaimer, we were eventually convicted. "We rest our case", we thought.
Yesterday, someone on Twitter recalled this story as the debate has started again following the beheading of Samuel Paty. I don't think both stories have anything to do with each other. Anyone who wants to compare them in this context neglects the fact that a lot has happened since then. The murder of Theo van Gogh, the attack on Charlie Hebdo and this latest atrocity in Paris last week should make it clear to everyone that the debate is no longer about freedom of expression. It has come to the point where we are no longer debating whether an individual has the right to offend and another the right to be offended, we are now faced with a threat to the most basic human right, the right to life. The discussion is now not purely intellectual but also existential.
Western societies struggled with religious oppression for centuries before they managed to resolve the religious question through the principle of secularism. Christianity has had to accept secularism and learn to live with it. People who think this was an automatic evolution in Christian theology are wrong. Christian theology had to evolve in this direction because it no longer had a choice. Society was secularised and the church had to adapt or disappear. If the choice had been left to popes and bishops, secularism would never have been a reality. This process of secularization also enabled the West to build its scientific and technological supremacy over the rest of the world. The western mind was free to think outside the boundaries of superstition and dogma, and that made all the difference on all levels. The West abandoned old-fashioned conservative Christianity and made huge leaps forward, armed with its liberated reason and science. The Muslim world, which at one point outperformed the west intellectually and culturally, because Islam was more tolerant of reason and science than old-fashioned conservative Christianity, lagged behind.
Since then, Islamic theology has largely lagged behind social evolutions. This is one of the greatest problems facing the Muslim world today in its quest for development. For Muslims in Europe, this is a fundamental problem that contributes seriously to the conflict dynamics that we have witnessed for decades.
When Islamic theology meets the Western secularized context, an impasse is the very likely outcome. European Muslim scholars sometimes tried to solve this by developing so-called minority theology. Some Islamic thinkers tried to go one step further and develop what they called a "European Islam," but it was all very limited, very exceptional and not fundamental. And above all, it could not compete with the influence of traditionalist Islam imported from its countries of origin, and certainly not with Wahabi Saudi Islam, which is financially supported by petrodollars.
This created friction between Western Muslims and their Western societies. This friction was manageable in some countries where Muslims were doing well socio-economically and where secularism was interpreted in the Anglo-Saxon way. But things also got out of hand where Muslims were marginalized socio-economically and where secularism was radical and militant, as in the French context.
The rise of jihadism in the 1990s and its campaign of violence in Europe, which began after 2001 but escalated in 2012, sharpened the incompatibility between Islamic theology and a secularised society. The ongoing friction became an element in geopolitics and is still instrumentalized today by the jihadists on the one hand and the far-right in the west on the other.
In this way, we got two dominant narratives that clashed and largely hijacked the debate.
On the one hand, there is the pro-Muslim narrative of victimhood and the absolute innocence and goodness of Islam and, on the other, the story of the far right that defines Islam as essentially evil and dangerous and Muslims as plotting to dominate the West. Both stories are caricatures of reality.
Of course, Islam is not essentially bad. Like any religion, Islam does not exist outside of the minds of its believers. It is a collection of ancient sacred texts that are given shape and interpretation by people. The Islam of a shepherd on a mountain in Northern Lebanon is not the same as the Islam of a piano teacher in Beirut. Like any religion, Islam can be anything that its believers and its scholars make of it.
For the same reason, Islam is not essentially good either. Nor is it the religion of peace as some would have us believe. There are no religions of peace, and even the Dalai Lama would have to admit that even Buddhism can be a religion of hatred, violence and genocide. Those who do not believe that, only have to study the situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and the sermons of some famous monks there.
Without falling into simplistic essentialism, we can say that the theological work of Muslims in Europe has not yet brought about a reconciliation of Islam and secularism. The conflicting context and the growing influence of the far right narrative certainly did not help. I experienced that firsthand, and was caught between two fires for decades. On the one hand, there were the extremists and fanatics in our own communities, and on the other, there was an increasing intolerance and hatred of Muslims in society.
As an activist, I have always chosen to fight Islamophobia and keep the fight against Islamic fundamentalism internal. Now that I see myself as an independent thinker, my role is to address both.
Yet after such a gruesome murder, I think the priority should be to focus on the victim's story. To talk about his struggle and why he died. And to leave the plight of the European Muslim aside. First, out of respect and decency. Secondly, because unfortunately there will certainly be other times when we will have to put the fate of Muslims again at the center of the debate. But mainly because the case of Samuel Paty is fundamental to this society in which I live and where my children grow up. The West is free and must remain free. It is unacceptable that a right acquired centuries ago would now be called into question in order to accommodate the sensitivity of some. Let alone a religious community that follows a theology rooted in the Middle Ages.
We can of course always have a legitimate debate about what form of secularism we want in our society (I myself am in favor of the Anglo-Saxon variant), but the essence of secularism cannot be called into question. Freedom of expression is non-negotiable, including the freedom to offend. And make no mistake, some of the cartoons that are suddenly back in the spotlight are indeed very offensive, and some even reflect racial stereotypes, but those who feel offended can use their own freedom of speech to protest or replicate or just rise above it all. Curtailing the freedom of another, let alone killing another, those must be the real taboos.
Samuel Paty's cause is my cause, and should be the cause of any citizen who loves freedom. Paty was not Islamophobic, he taught his students important values of tolerance and proportionality. The fact that some people cannot see him as a victim is also a reflection of the rise of dogmatic sectarianism and tribalism. A white heterosexual man can only be a perpetrator for some people, even if he is slaughtered. It is the aberration of a “woke” morality that sees in every white heterosexual male a bearer of centuries of white supremacy and oppression. When mixed with Islamist tribalism, the product is a kind of Islamic wokeism that only symbolically condemns violence, but indirectly condones it.
This society should not give in and apply self-censorship. Muslims have to progress theologically but also culturally, as the Christians in this continent once also had to. This is getting more difficult now, because this attack justifies the repression of the state, and that repression will make the debate even more difficult and the evolution even more painful. Perhaps this is the only way forward. Because just as the popes and bishops were reluctant to comply with secularism, most imams and Muslim theologians will not take the necessary steps on their own. And that while living together in peace should be much more than a noncommittal choice.