As the dust settles after the killings in Paris there has been a plethora of comment about the limits of ‘free speech’. Some argue it is absolute. Others recognise there are and always have been limits – laws about racism, anti-Semitism and libel included. Others still observe how those limits are increasingly selectively applied – even within the editorial decisions of ‘Charlie Hebdo’.
Muslims understand the European principle of free speech better than we are given credit for. We understand that Europe settled its uncomfortable relationship with the Catholic Church with greater free of inquiry, criticism and accounting of powerful institutions. We also understand that it has morphed into an industry where the freedom to mock, insult and expose celebrity sells newspapers and magazines.
But we also understand that within the imposed legal restrictions there are all kinds of reasons why people limit what they say, write and draw. So, when we see a systematic campaign focussed insulting and vilifying a minority community, we know that is well outside the European norm. When we see the French State, in the response to the killings, funding an industrial scale insult to the same community, the message comes through loud and clear. It didn’t feel as if the decision to run 5 million copies was to show that France had decided to uphold free speech. It felt instead as if France had decided to show 7 million of its supposed citizens that they were not really part of the ‘fraternity’ it champions as part of its republican principles.
This is hardly surprising. What these attacks have revealed to the world is the longer-term failure of France’s inability to bind its citizens together harmoniously. Many Muslims in France have commented on how – despite being born and raised in France – they are discriminated against in applying for jobs. Much has been written about how the state has abandoned the estates in the banlieues. France discriminates against Muslim women’s dress and has banned pro-Palestine protests when Gaza was under attack. Charlie Hebdo’s portfolio is a testimony to not just a hatred of Islam and Muslims, but old-fashioned racism tolerated in a way that is impossible to imagine in some other countries. Laïcité appears to be more about abolishing religion (mainly Islam) from public view rather than absence of religious involvement in government affairs.
All of this suggests the French model of aggressive muscular integration has failed – and has not achieved the thing that all states aspire to – and that is societal harmony between diverse communities.
But this problem is not unique to France. Modern Britain is also rife with debates on identity. Ironically after its own failings, Britain has moved towards ‘muscular liberalism’ championed by David Cameron, even cheered on by Marine Le Pen. Multiculturalism has been blamed for creating cultural ghettos. Hence the new aggressive inspections by Ofsted to promote ‘British Values’ in schools and the merging of security policy with community cohesion policies to force Muslims to adopt secular liberal values. The secular government has decided it must get involved in religious affairs and there is a parallel system of justice for Muslims, where all too often they are assumed guilty until proven innocent. Whenever Muslims speak with a confident voice, they are labeled as ‘extremists’ – unless they shout that they want a liberal version of Islam and are then championed as heroes.
Yet despite most of the negative press, most of the debates and fault lines about identity have nothing to do with Muslims.
People ask themselves if they are British – or English, Scottish or Welsh. A remarkably large number of Scots wanted to leave the United Kingdom, despite narrowly losing a referendum in 2014. Within England, the north-south divide is as wide as ever. There are problems relating to race (the killing of unarmed Mark Duggan led to riots in the UK and unearth concerns about the way many Black people are treated by the criminal justice system) and relating to values (younger socially liberal city-dwellers don’t always share the same values as older socially conservative people living outside of cities). There have been debates about the effects of immigration from Eastern Europe – about the effect on local services and about how it all affects the character of Britain.
In a press conference with Barack Obama on his recent trip to the USA, David Cameron asked if Europe could learn some lessons from the USA about how to make its population feel like it belonged. But under Obama’s presidency community relations appear to be at a low. Racial tensions reignited in the USA after the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. – and again in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Every few weeks there appear to be stories of how unarmed African-American youth are seen as fair game for police, who appear to face no sanction for their actions.
What does this tell us?
All the aforementioned complexities tell us that despite what many of the politicians in the West tell us, the nation state has not been able to harmonise their citizens, binding them in as cohesive a way as they would like to have done.
Despite centuries of effort – sometimes coercive (such as in France) or a softer integration approach such as in the United States, or Britain under multiculturalism – the nation state has failed to become the melting pot it was once hoped to be. Secular liberal states, for all their claims of pluralism, seem unable to harmonise societies consisting of diverse races and religions.
By contrast, Western states that often vilify Islam recognise one period of European history when diverse peoples lived in harmony was that of Islamic Spain. They recognise that the Ottoman state managed to sustain minorities. They recognise that Palestine and Syria under Islam once managed to melt people into one such that they fought off European Crusaders together.
In the next part we will look at some of the causes for this…
Dr. Abdul Wahid
Chairman of the Executive Committee
Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain