Clash Of Civilisation?

Islam, Freedom of Religion and France

Irfan Engineer

It is generally believed that Islam is a backward religion, reinforcing the beliefs of medieval period, if not of the ancient period, it is conservative and even fundamentalist in its outlook, and it motivates its followers to be intolerant and violent. Islam, it is further believed, is incompatible with modern values and political systems, including, secularism, freedom of religion, human rights and democracy. Samuel Huntington suggested that there would be civilisational clash between the west and Islam. The recent spate of violence in France further reinforces this belief. The latest bout of violence began with brutal beheading of Samuel Paty (47), a school teacher, who showed the cartoons caricaturing prophet Mohammad, which were published in Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, to his students in order to explain the value of freedom of expression. Paty was beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen Muslim youth Abdullakh Anzorov who was allegedly in contact with the jihadists in Syria. The brutal and inhuman beheading led to French President Emmanuel Macron defending "the French way of life" wherein freedom of expression was sacred. Macron went much beyond condemning the inhuman beheading of Paty which has been condemned by most Muslims, including the 'French Council of the Muslim Faith' and categorised it as a terrorist attack. "Islamists want to take our future," Macron said, adding, "They will never have it." Macron blamed Islamists and posited the beheading as a threat from Islamists in general to the French way of life. This escalated the conflict to an undesirable level.

On 2nd November 2020, a lone 20 year old heavily armed attacker —Kujtim Fejzulai—shot down 4 persons in central Vienna's nightlife area known as the Bermuda Triangle: Seitenstettengasse and nearby Morzinplatz, Salzgries, Fleischmarkt, Bauernmarkt and Graben. Islamic State (IS) claimed the responsibility for the attack. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz claimed that the attack was "on our way of life." However, he made it clear that, "This is no fight between Christians and Muslims, or between Austrians and migrants. This is a fight between civilization and barbarism." He urged citizens to remember that "our enemy is never all those belonging to a religion, our enemy is never all the people that come from a particular country" but rather "our enemy is extremists and terrorists." (Bennhold, Eddy, & Schuetze, 2020)

Erdogan, the President of Turkey, who is nurturing an ambition to revive the Ottoman Caliphate and become leader of the Muslim world, although with little success due to dipping popular support and growing economic crisis in his country, escalated the conflict further by asking that Macron get his mental health check-up done. Pakistani Prime Minister, who is facing massive demonstrations in his country and charge of being a 'selected PM' by the military rather than elected by the people of Pakistan, also saw an opportunity in posing as a defender of Islam. Former Malaysian PM, Mahathir Bin Mohamad said that Muslims had a right to kill French millions! On 30th October, there was a further attack on Christian worshippers in the French city of Nice killing 3 people allegedly by a Tunisian who had arrived a night before, according to BBC. The terrorists shoot and scoot, while the brunt of their attacks is faced by the ordinary Muslim residents who live in peaceful co-existence with others and practice their faith. However, the retaliatory violence by the state and the non-state actors on the Muslims helps the terrorists as it leads to polarisation and ghetto-isation of the community. The ghettoisation of the Muslim community living with a sense of insecurity is fertile ground on which the jihadists step in with their propaganda and can cut off the community from other sources of information, ideas and knowledge. The murders of Samuel Paty and the three Christians in the city of Nice must be condemned absolutely and without any reservations or pointing to any contributory factors whatsoever, particularly by all the Muslims as the attacks invoked their faith.

Is Islam a violent, intolerant, backward looking, fundamentalist religion as the jihadists represent it to be? Do all Muslims support killing of non-Muslims on grounds of religion whether for blasphemy or any other reason? The answer to all these questions is a big NO. Overwhelming majority of the Muslim world have not supported the beheading. Do Erdogan, Imran Khan and Mahathir Mohamad represent the sentiments of their countrymen? The demonstrations against Imran Khan are continuing, Erdogan has not been able to leverage his popularity and Malaysian opposition which advocates for Islamic law are unpopular. The Arab countries, Iran and Indonesia with largest Muslim population have not come out in support of the attack, and even condemned it. Muslim political leaders and the civil society across the board in India have condemned the attack. A very miniscule minority among Muslims believe that Islam requires the faithful to not only follow the sharia law as propounded by them, but also enforce it upon non-Muslims at gun point. Revenge and retribution, even targeting innocent persons, using violence and terrorism is a legitimate method, and establishment of a caliphate their political objective. They target not only non-Muslims, but also Muslims and strike fear in their hearts. Shias and Ahmadiyas in Pakistan, women in the entire Muslim world and others whom they proclaim to be non-conformist Muslims are their targets too. The Sunni Muslims too do not have choice to follow their Islam as they deem right. A section of western media uses these violent incidents to represent it as a threat to "western" or "modern way of life" and to the world order and peace by amplifying its potential threat. The spate of mob lynching and communal riots in India may have killed more than the terrorist attacks in the entire world, but that is treated as a 'minor law and order' problem or freedom of religion problem that does not warrant 'we' and 'they 'divide', although it is also threat to the freedoms, democracy and rule of law. Gun wielding teenagers have killed more Americans in schools and other places than the Muslim terrorists. However, the "threat to American way of life" is perceived only from the "jihadists" and Islam in general.

In India Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898), a reformist and a rationalist philosopher, in his commentary on Quran wrote that there could be no contradiction between the word of God (Quran) and work of God (natural world). Exploring and understanding laws of nature was the domain of science and equally necessary. Maulana Shibli Nomani (1857-1914) on the other hand explained that science and religion operated in two different circles. One explored natural laws and the other moral laws. Science would measure weight of air e.g. and the energy generated from nuclear fusion and fission. However, for what purpose to deploy that energy was the domain of religion - whether to prepare destructive bombs or to harness it for better purposes. The moral laws and life after death was the religious domain. They were not contradictory. Muhammad Iqbal, the poet philosopher gave series of lectures in Lahore arguing for ijtihad and rejuvenation of Islam. Each generation had to understand Islam with its own experiences and views. These are some of the rational heritage of Islam.

This rich heritage is product of freedoms and liberties which are part of tradition of Islam. The covenant of Medina which was the constitution of the first state established by the Prophet granted freedom to practice religion to the Christians, Jews and Muslims in accordance with their traditions. The first Caliph after the Prophet was elected by consensus and so were the other three rightly guided Caliphs. It is only with the Umayyad and subsequent dynasties and empires that the illiberalism, closing the doors of ijtihad or reinterpretation and dynamism in understanding the Quran was lost. Dynamism in knowledge and Quranic interpretation was considered a threat to the dynasties. It is during this period that the term jihad was used more for the political wars between dynasties and not for striving to be guided by the righteous path of justice and taking care of the most needy in the society. As change in religious beliefs could signal revolt and rebellion against the dynasty, religion and religious doctrines were forced on the populace and blasphemy laws were promulgated to protect the regimes. Gradual colonisation of the Muslim world and the defeat of the Ottoman Empirein the first world war led to colonisation of large part of the Muslim world under the west. The Muslim world did not emerge from the colonisation and went into a conservative shell to protect its beliefs. It is time to come out of the shell, embrace knowledge, continue the rich heritage and openness and work for the betterment of the humanity and moral teachings of Islam.

There are intolerant, extremists, fundamentalists and violent people in every religious community. Muslim community also has its share. However, in case of non-Muslims, the entire community is not blamed for the act of extremist individuals. Any act by a Muslim extremist, which should rightly be condemned, attracts global coverage in media holding the entire community responsible for the offence subtly through the prominence accorded to it, length of coverage, choice of words and headlines. The Chechen youth, the jihadists and the cow vigilantes are not only against freedom of expression and democracy, they act against the teaching and values of their own religion.

Vol. 53, No. 22-25, Nov 29 - Dec 26, 2020