Militant Secularity and the Perils of Islamophobia

Hindus, who explode in anger when images of their Gods are abused in other cultures, should be able to understand that Muslims are devastated by cartoons of their Prophet, and enraged that those who drew them are lionised for it.

THEY BETTER NOT MAKE FUN OF US: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Francois Hollande, Paris, April 2015. PTI photo.

THEY BETTER NOT MAKE FUN OF US: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Francois Hollande, Paris, April 2015. PTI photo.

The section on security in the joint statement issued after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to France began by recalling that he had “reiterated India’s strong condemnation of the heinous terrorist attack in France in January 2015.”  That, of course, was the massacre at the offices of the the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, an outrage condemned all over the world, which also accepted by and large the emotional non sequitur that because the killings were contemptible, what set them off, the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, were not.   By claiming that they were speaking and killing in the name of the ummah, the terrorists shamed into silence the millions of Muslims in France and elsewhere who were unable to voice the hurt the cartoons had caused them.

However, the governments of France and India see this problem from entirely opposed perspectives: secularism is sacred there, here it is now anathema. In France, though, a debate is at last stirring, with the education minister, a woman of Moroccan origin, warning that what she called “militant secularity” was becoming counter-productive. “How can a child adhere to school and the notion of secularity”, she asked, “when they see their mother rejected from a school outing, stigmatised, left on the sidelines, just because she has a scarf on her head?” In India, the report of the Sachar Committee, which analysed the fears of Indian Muslims, and the consequences of letting them fester, lies unread. Which is why what happened in France in January and its aftermath are too important to be just a smug line in a communique.

The Charlie Hebdo affair was projected as a struggle between the right to freedom of expression, championed in secular France, and thought control, demanded by obscurantist Islam. For French Muslims, who live in ghettos, a poor and disaffected minority, with the highest rates of unemployment and the jobs others do not want, that is ironical, because the state refuses them the freedom of expression if it takes forms that orthodox France dislikes, like the hijab, which was banned in 2010. A Muslim Frenchwoman challenged this in the European Court of Human Rights, where her government argued that “the face expresses the existence of the individual as a unique person, and reflects one’s shared humanity with the interlocutor, at the same time as one’s otherness. The effect of concealing one’s face in public places is to break the social tie and to manifest a refusal of the principle of ‘living together’.”  [And where does the French tradition of the masked ball fit into that?]

Laïcité run wild

In his despairing attempts in the 1950s to make Algeria and France live together, and head off consequences which he forecast would be dreadful, Albert Camus pleaded for a federation that would acknowledge in its laws and practices the Islamic heritage of its Arab citizens. “Contrary to all our practices, contrary above all to the deep-rooted prejudices inherited from the French Revolution,” he wrote, “we should thus have sanctioned within the republic two equal but distinct categories of citizens… this would mark a sort of revolution against the regime of centralisation and abstract individualism resulting from 1789…” For Camus, the two Frenchmen of Algerian origin who carried out the massacre at Charlie Hebdo would have been a prophecy proved in nightmare.

Laïcité now is as much a sacred cow in France as the Church was before the law of 1905. The government’s arguments against the hijab were “abstract individualism” run wild and militant, but the European Court accepted them, refusing Muslims relief. Therefore, if on a beach in the south of France, where women go topless in égalité with men, a Muslim bared her breasts, she would commit a crime if she hid her face. In more whimsical tyranny, a French Muslim teenager was sent back from school in April because her skirt was too long and “conspicuously showed religious affiliation”. So the leg too is a secular totem, and must be shown on demand to agents of the state, like an ID card.   A community so put upon, which cannot get judicial redress for what it believes are the biases of state and society, should surely not be hounded with cartoons as well.

But when Charlie Hebdo rose from the ashes, it cocked a phoenix snook at those who tried to snuff it out, with another cartoon of Prophet Mohammed on the cover of its “survivors’ issue”. Its refusal to be silenced was admirable, what it had to say was not. So it was not surprising that when PEN announced that its Freedom of Expression Courage Award would go this year to Charlie Hebdo, six distinguished writers, including Michael Ondaatje and Peter Carey, demurred. As unsurprisingly, Salman Rushdie, the primordial survivor, became the most strident champion of the award, dismissing the dissidents as “Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character”, forgetting perhaps that in Pirandello’s play, where reality and art clash, death is the outcome, and the characters ask if silence is not a right as much as the freedom to broadcast a shared experience.

Rushdie eulogised the French satirical tradition, arguing that if freedom, including presumably the freedom to offend, wasn’t absolute, it wasn’t freedom. But the right to satirise is not absolute in France, far from it. In 2008, for instance, a protester who held up a placard asking his President to get lost, using a pungent phrase which Sarkozy had used to a farmer, was arrested, tried and fined. The European Court of Human Rights held that the government had infringed his right of expression, but when the same government allows a magazine to continue to carry cartoons of Mohammed, the message it sends is that in France, being irreverent to a President ridiculed by millions is a crime, ridiculing a prophet revered by millions is not.

Rushdie, however, claims magisterially that “this issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organised, well-funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence”. On whether it does or not, perhaps the minority should speak for itself (if it is allowed to). When millions across the world were chanting Je suis Charlie, (but many Frenchmen, refusing to be dragooned into a solidarity they found distasteful, raised the antiphon Je ne pas suis Charlie) Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a French artiste of Cameroonian extraction, wrote, “I feel I am Charlie Coulibally”, splicing the name of one of the terrorists to the victim.

Unlike the fatuous cartoons on Mohammed, drawn only to annoy, his comment should have provoked thought, because it voiced what was repressed in the wake of the tragedy, that many Frenchmen who were not white or Christian could identify with both the victims and the killers, fearing that there but for the grace of god they could have been. It was an invitation to French society to introspect on what it means to be a beleaguered minority, but the state’s response was to arrest M’bala M’bala for supporting terrorism, and ban his performances as anti-Semitic. There is of course a good reason why France, like other European nations, will not brook anti-Semitism, but blinded by that past, it does not see that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are blood brothers. Instead, all eyes in the West are on a “fanatical Islam” which is immaculately conceived, or at least autochthonous in the ummah, for which it bears no responsibility. And that, of course, is simply untrue.

From impotence, rage

Erich Fromm showed that Fascism and Nazism emerged from conditions that had once produced Protestantism and Calvinism. In periods of rapid political, economic and social flux, the most vulnerable communities lose their sense of personal worth, and to compensate turn to divisive religious ideologies that demand the surrender of freedom as a price for salvation. “Fanatical Islam” has so many followers in the Muslim ghettoes of Europe for the same reason. There will be more the more Muslims are made to feel impotent, there and in India, where the Sachar Committee detailed the discrimination Muslims felt on “identity, security and equity”, as in Europe. That is why the PEN award to Charlie Hebdo was so unfortunate. This was a dragon’s tooth.

Despite what Salman Rushdie claims, vehementer nos in his encyclical in defence of laïcité, cartoons on the Prophet do not just offend, they traumatise the average Muslim, not just the fanatics. Nowhere and never has it been permissible in the ummah to ridicule the prophet in words or pictures. When medieval Muslim artists drew him, which was rarely, it was as hagiography for a royal patron and his courtly circle, never brought into the public domain. And there is a world of difference between an icon, which is sacral, and a caricature, which is mocked.  Though there is great sympathy for Charlie Hebdo in India, and the arguments of its supporters seem beguiling, Hindus, who explode in anger when images of their Gods are misused or abused in other cultures, should be able to understand that Muslims, neither zealots nor murderers, are devastated by cartoons of their Prophet, and enraged that those who drew them are lionised for it.

In 2003, after the Toronto Star carried a picture of an unfinished clay image of Durga, in full frontal nudity, Hindu protests forced it to apologise for presenting the goddess in an “undignified manner”, acknowledging that this had caused anguish. Like Charlie Hebdo, the Star had wanted to titillate and deride, but there were of course two key differences in the aftermath. The paper apologised and never provoked the influential Hindu community again, and the Hindus never used violence to make their point, there or elsewhere in the diaspora. But what would they do if they did not get satisfaction, as they have so far? What if Charlie Hebdo had done a lubricious series on Parvati and Radha and Sita? What then?

Satyabrata Pal is a former Indian diplomat. He served as India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, and as a member of the National Human Rights Commission