Seeing Through France’s Double Standards & Hypocrisy | Lukman Harees | ISLAM 21C | 5 Nov 2020
Recent events in Paris over the past few weeks have caught global attention. Last month, two people were stabbed outside the former offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after it republished the controversial caricatures mocking the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) to emphasise the right to free speech. A high school history teacher, who had reportedly shown images mocking Prophet Mohammad (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) in a lesson on freedom of expression, was then brutally murdered on 16th October. Quite rightly, the world stood up and condemned them, and so did the Muslim community leaders in France as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). However, it also defies logic why criticism of the “justification for blasphemy-based harassment of any religion in the name of freedom of expression” was quite muted in comparison.
About two years ago, European Court of Human Rights ruled  to uphold an Austrian court’s decision that “defaming Prophet Muhammad exceeds the permissible limits of freedom of expression”. A cursory look at the global media, however, reveals that showing cartoons denigrating the Prophet of Islam (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) to school children and republishing the insulting cartoons were seen as acceptable or defiant gestures in defence of free expression. In comparison, the immense hurt caused to the feelings of more than two billion Muslims, including those who have lived in Europe and France for a long time, was barely highlighted with the emphasis it deserved.
The French may defend such insults to religious beliefs as the essence of laïcité — the French word for the secularism that separates religion and state in the country — and see freedom of expression as absolute. However, to France’s large Muslim community as well as their brethren worldwide, laïcité has meant a lack of respect towards the beliefs of this community. 
Interestingly, the claim that freedom of expression is absolute is false, as France and other European countries have laws against anti-Semitic hate speech. On one hand, the republic prides itself as the nation of Voltaire, with a tradition of trenchant social satire to which Charlie Hebdo clearly sees itself as heir. On the other hand, France has restrictive privacy laws, some of the toughest hate speech laws in the European Union, and a ban on Holocaust denial. This combination of Voltairean bravado and restrictive measures has created a deeply contradictory attitude toward free speech.  France’s attitude to free speech is thus fraught. On many occasions, their hypocrisy that freedom of speech can be trashed if it does not suit their purpose has also been exposed. The problem seems to be France’s inability to recognise Islamophobia and anti-Arab xenophobia as hate speech at all.
This is hypocritical. France has been jostling between freedom of expression and Islamophobia over the Charlie Hebdo caricatures ever since the magazine printed them in 2006. Interestingly, to the French, the so-called freedom of expression does not appear to apply when the French flag is desecrated or when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apparently questioned President Emmanuel Macron’s mental state, prompting the recall of the French ambassador in Turkey.
Adding insult to injury, Macron is exploiting the murder of the school teacher for political ends by pushing new legislation strengthening the 1905 act on laïcité, thereby allowing for closer scrutiny of schools and associations exclusively serving religious communities. French police have now started raiding mosques and Islamist groups across the country. Much to the chagrin of the Muslim world, Macron also bellowed that “Islam is a religion in crisis all over the world today, we don’t see it only in our country”, prompting Muslim leaders like Erdoğan and Imran Khan to condemn these insulting and Islamophobic remarks. A boycott of French goods within Muslim countries is also underway.
Islamophobia is nothing new in Europe. Closer home in the UK, Islamophobia has become the new normal. Islamophobia in France, however, is older than these recent events. The European New Right, a movement that repackaged racism as blood and soil ethno-nationalism, originated in France in the 1960s. In recent times, France has been home to some of the most well-known Islamophobic and racist writers. These include Macron’s political opponent, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front (now known as the National Rally), and Renaud Camus, whose theory of Great Replacement inspired the Christchurch mosque killer who slaughtered 50 Muslims in cold blood.
In 2004, France banned the Islamic headscarf in public institutions. A year after the 2015 attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, France also banned the burkini.  Even Macron called the 132-year colonisation of Algeria as involving “crimes and acts of barbarism” that would today be acknowledged as “crimes against humanity”. Has France ever apologised for this atrocity, let alone pay compensation? A suggestion made to this effect in 2017 drew a sharp rebuke from Macron’s rivals on the political right.  France has always wanted those not ethnically ‘French’ to reject their past, including their culture and beliefs, and become secular in the truest sense possible so as to integrate with ‘mainstream’ society. For some, however, this only represents a new form of intolerance. 
Insulting the dignity and personality of the beloved Prophet of Islam (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) is part of the well-oiled global Islamophobia campaign; it is nothing new. During the time of the Prophet, the Meccans called him a poet, a magician, and a madman, among other names. Today, he is insulted with other labels. Modern critiques of some of the undertakings of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) are meant to question the civility of Islam in the ongoing manufactured clash of civilisations that fuels both Islamophobes and extremists. Michael Bonner notes, “Many of these modern arguments over historiography, and over the rise of Islam and the origins of jihad more generally, began in the nineteenth and the earlier twentieth centuries among European academic specialists in the study of the East, often referred to as the orientalists”. Bonner highlights that the motivation of these arguments cannot be disconnected from “their involvement in the colonial project”. 
Islamophobes always invoke the ‘freedom of speech’ argument to peddle their racist ideology. Even before the Charlie Hebdo saga, there was the Danish cartoons row, the Innocence of Muslims film, and the Qur’ān burning frenzy. Yet these were not the only incidents. Various Islamophobic reports full of many similar insults, desecrations, and attacks against Islam and Muslims have failed to grab public attention. Justifying the maligning of Islam through a defence of the ‘freedom of speech’ statute is a sophistry that has been adopted by many politicians and is a clear majority in the media these days. It is interesting that when it comes to insulting Islam, the only Western value that is advocated fervently is the concept of freedom of speech. What about other important values such as tolerance and diversity that have ostensibly been helping to cement multicultural societies in the West? Why doesn’t anyone remember these values to contain the anti-Islam frenzy that has turned the lives of Muslims who reside in the West into a very bitter experience?
These insults harm the universal human values and the high ethical principles of all societies. Muslim countries and organisations like the OIC should not only expose and condemn these instances of hate speech, but also act decisively to pursue a relentless campaign to promote respect for the sacred values of all religions. At the grassroots level, the correct response is not violence. However, when Islam has become an inseparable part of their identity, it is unrealistic to expect the Muslims to remain silent. In fact, they should not. It is therefore imperative for them to be part of well-orchestrated initiatives both to thwart anti-Islamic conspiracies and to raise awareness about the exemplary personality of the beloved Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam).
The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.
Insulting Prophet Muhammad not ‘free speech,’ ECtHR rules | DAILY SABAH WITH AGENCIES | 25 OCT 2018
Members of the European Court of Human Rights listen at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, 31 October 2017 (EPA Photo)
Defaming the Prophet Muhammad exceeds the permissible limits of freedom of expression, ruled the European Court of Human Rights, upholding an Austrian court’s decision
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled Thursday that an Austrian woman’s criminal conviction and fine for her statements accusing the Prophet Muhammad of pedophilia did not breach her right to free speech.
The decision by a seven-judge panel came as an Austrian national identified as E.S. by the court, had held seminars on Islam in 2008 and 2009 for the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) where she discussed the prophet’s marriage to his wife Aisha, a child at the time, and implied that he was a pedophile.
An Austrian court convicted her of disparaging religious doctrines in 2011 and fined her 480 euros (548 dollars), a judgment that was upheld on two appeals.
Stating that the court had found that “the applicant’s statements had been likely to arouse justified indignation in Muslims” and “amounted to a generalization without factual basis”, the Strasbourg-based ECtHR said that the woman’s comments could not be covered by the freedom of expression.
The court said it “found in particular that the domestic courts comprehensively assessed the wider context of the applicant’s statements and carefully balanced her right to freedom of expression with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected, and served the legitimate aim of preserving religious peace in Austria.”
The statement also added that there had been no violation of Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, covering freedom of expression. “Relying on Article 10 (freedom of expression), E.S. complained that the domestic courts failed to address the substance of the impugned statements in the light of her right to freedom of expression.”
ES’ statements “were not phrased in a neutral manner aimed at being an objective contribution to a public debate concerning child marriages,” the ECtHR held, adding that the moderate fine imposed on her could not be considered disproportionate.
The Austrian courts had drawn a distinction between pedophilia and child marriage, which was also a common practice historically in European ruling families.
The ECtHR also underlined that it classified the ‘impugned’ statements as “an abusive attack on the Prophet of Islam, which was capable of stirring up prejudice and putting at risk religious peace.”
It noted that the Austrian courts had held that ES was making value judgments partly based on untrue facts and without regard to the historical context.
Religious beliefs must be subject to criticism and denial, the ECHR observed, but when statements about religions went beyond critical denial and were likely to incite religious intolerance, states could take proportionate restrictive measures, the court said.
Austria, a country of 8.8 million people, has roughly 600,000 Muslim inhabitants. Lately, it has emerged as the leader of Islamophobia among European countries. The coalition government, an alliance of conservatives and the far right, came to power soon after Europe’s migration crisis on promises to prevent another influx and restrict benefits for new immigrants and refugees. In April, Austria’s far-right Chancellor Sebastian Kurz threatened to close one of the biggest mosques in Vienna and urged municipal authorities to be stricter regarding state subsidies for Muslim organizations in the city.