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Best way to confront Islamophobia is through dialogue

Muslims take part in a protest after Friday prayer in Dhaka, Bangladesh, October 30, 2020. Photo: Reuters 

On his way home from work on a Friday afternoon in a quiet suburban town north-west of Paris, an attacker, later identified as an 18-year-old of Chechen origin who came to France as a refugee, cornered Samuel Paty, a middle-school history and civics teacher and stabbed him repeatedly.

Witnesses say that the killer shouted, “Allahu Akhbar.” “I have executed one of the dogs from hell who dared to put Muhammad down,” he wrote in a message briefly posted on Twitter, with a photo showing Paty’s severed head. Within minutes, the police tracked down the killer and shot him dead.

For Muslims, any depiction of the Prophet of Islam (PBUH), leave alone making fun of him, is a sacrilege. This is assiduously fanned by radical clerics. The real mystery is how come a middle-school history and civics teacher, supposedly a learned man in a ‘civilized’ and ‘enlightened’ country like France, who over the years has known and taught Muslim students, could not comprehend that making fun of Islam and its revered personalities will create trouble. With a university education specializing in history, one can only dread to think what must have been the content of that education. How come educated and civilized Europeans who have been allowing and even pushing denigration of Islam and the Prophet (PBUH) for decades cannot comprehend this? Starting from 1988 when Salman Rushdie published his ‘Satanic Verses’ it is known that these sensibilities exist.

The problem that has existed not only for the last thirty years but much longer is that maligning of Islam and Islamic personalities is legitimated by the “freedom of speech or expression” ideology. Any idiot has the constitutional right to say aloud and propagate whatever comes to his or her stupid mind. In Europe, one can make fun about Christ and Mary and God because in a secular society their existence is doubted at best and denied at most, so making fun doesn’t hurt. The statement by the Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto is very revealing: "I don't understand anything anymore: when we make fun of black people we call it racism; and when we mock Jews we call it anti-Semitism; and when we mock women we call it sexism; and when we mock Muslims we call it freedom of speech"

Muslims all over the world are upset. These include the almost six million Muslims in France. There is a good chance that more violence will follow when young people are made to believe by radical clerics that they will go straight to heaven when they kill a blasphemer. On the other hand, the hater of Islam will have a new push to propagate his anti-Islamic message. Geert Wilders, Charly Hebdo and the like will feast on the opportunity.

By no stretch of imagination or belief beheading or any other means of violence is the right answer. The right answer would be to show the roots of the European fear of Islam or their deeply-engrained racism that rejects Islam as a wrong, untrue, funny -- you name it – religion and the Muslims as uninformed, uneducated or even uncivilized folk.

But is Europe ready to face its own shadow? Fear of Islam or Islamophobia is an age-old disease in Europe and the West. Europe had traumatic experiences with Islam and Muslims starting from the Crusades and all through till Muslim rule in Spain knocked at the doors of France in the 8th century and later when Ottoman rule threatened European countries in the 14th to the 16th centuries.

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Protesters in Islamabad, Pakistan: Anti-France protests draw tens of thousands across Muslim world. Photo: EPA

To stem the Muslim tide, influential church reformers like the German Martin Luther took up the arguments of the crusaders saying that Muslims were uncivilized savages and that Islam was teaching them to kill, brutalize women. Christians have to put up with Muslims as God’s punishment for not properly following the Christian dogma. He created the fear of Islam among Christians so that they would remain under church influence.

European ideas about Democracy and Liberty and the usefulness of colonies as sources of cheap natural resources and as markets for European products are strongly influenced by the British. John Stuart Mill, who served in the East India Company until it lost its charter in 1858, throughout his life, defended British colonialism and was of the opinion that colonial people are uncivilized and therefore, unable to rule themselves and need to be ruled by Europeans. He expressed this in his essay on liberty published in 1859. This idea applied to Muslims as well as most of them lived under colonial rule. This White supremacist idea that is straight forward racist has never been done away with. One remembers the announcement outside British clubs in British India “Indians and dogs are not allowed”.

Globalization, which is one form of which is colonialism, has swept millions of Muslims into Europe and the US in search of jobs and refuge. Europe and the West were unprepared for it then and is unprepared to deal with the problem of Islam and Muslims today. France is only one example. 

Now, where do we go from here? Given the fact that violence does not solve problems but only creates more violence, we have to find another way. That way can only be peaceful. Pakistan’s Parliament has passed a resolution to boycott French goods. Boycotting French goods is not a good idea. Boycotts and sanctions have never worked. What happened to the Danish boycott a couple of years ago? Danish butter and cheese are in the market and find their buyers. And after all, what French goods do we use? May be our Armed Forces could avoid buying sophisticated weapons and submarines, what good will this do for the common Muslim?

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday wrote a letter to the leaders of the Muslim states, asking them to make collective efforts to confront the growing Islamophobia. That might help but only in the long run. Muslim solidarity has its difficulties. Given that the wrong attitude towards Islam is centuries-old one cannot ask for quick relief. What each and every one of us can do is study the history of Islamophobia and be ready to bring forward sensible arguments against it. We have to reason with them on their own turf, confronting them with their own weaknesses and misunderstandings. Compromises can only happen through dialogue. Only with reason and logic, facts will overcome fiction.

Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ is based on the thesis that people's cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world and that wars would be fought not between countries, but between cultures in the post-cold-war era. With this idea he closely follows the German historian Oswald Spengler’s theory that rejects the Eurocentric view of history, especially the division of history into the linear "ancient-medieval-modern" rubric that suggests that all humanity would have to pass along the same path prescribed by the West. According to Spengler, the Western world is ending and we are witnessing the last season. Spengler asserts that a characteristic of this last phase of downfall is that democracy is simply the political weapon of money, and the media are the means through which money operates a democratic political system. 

Closely upon the heels of Spengler, Huntington believed that while the age of ideology (liberalism, conservativism, socialism et al) had ended, and the world had reverted to a normal state of affairs characterized by cultural conflicts. Huntington himself voiced that he was not advocating the desirability of conflicts between civilizations. He forgot, though, to add that his scenario should be used to balance out and avoid such a development. 

A critic of Huntington, the former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, introduced the idea of ‘Dialogue among Civilizations’ as an alternative to Huntington’s clash. But the reality of today’s world politics shows that a spent civilization doesn’t go down silently, but tries --even if in vain – to stop and reverse its fall.

One of the reservations even among Muslims against the creation of Pakistan was that while the Muslim majority Provinces would get their independence from Hindu rule, many more Muslims than in the constituent units making Pakistan would remain in India. In a sense, their continued safety and comfort has stayed our hand in dealing with Hindu extremism in the language they understand – and have understood for over 1000 years. The way the Hindu radical BJP extremists are dealing with Muslims in India (who make up 16% of the population) is really testing our patience.  It also underscores why the creation of Pakistan was insisted upon by the Quaid as a must.  The BJP treatment of Kashmiris only highlights their blatant sadism and cruelty.  The upper caste Hindus are actually a minority when compared to the majority Indian population consisting of Dalits, Muslims, Christians and tribals, etc. In the same manner we have to be sensitive to the fact that there are many millions of Muslims living in Europe and USA. Do we want to condemn them to isolation and ostracism by shunning dialogue and indulging in confrontation that could lead to further violence? 

What happened in France was wrong, the beheading was brutal and despicable. In the circumstances the reaction of the French President was emotional but it was also wrong. However, we must engage France (and the French President) in dialogue, not get engage in overlapping emotions that could lead to more violence.  Over the years France has been a good friend, not adhering to draconian arms sanctions against us when they could easily have done so and were under constant pressure to do so. While we must strongly condemn any blasphemy, particularly targeting our beloved Prophet (PBUH), we must immediately engage in dialogue to avoid confrontation. The politics of dialogue and not the politics of boycott is the answer.


The writer is a defence and security analyst.