My Say: Am I Charlie?

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NO, I’m not. This is my answer to whether I support the action of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo — in the name of press freedom — in producing cartoons that can incite hatred and violence. For every “I am Charlie”, there is one “I am not Charlie”.

Freedom of expression and a free press are the bulwarks of journalism and Western democracy but it must surely come with responsibility, especially on matters that can fuel religious hatred. In the case of Islam, the continuing ridicule of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) by depicting him in demeaning caricatures is a senseless expression of press freedom that will only lead to more anger, violence and killings.

You can’t start a fire without a spark, so why set it off? Is Charlie Hebdo a Islamophobic publication? Satire is meant to entertain and amuse rather than incite. Why must one ridicule Prophet Muhammad — and let it be known that Jesus (Isa), Moses (Musa), Abraham (Ibrahim), Solomon (Sulaiman) and David (Daud) are prophets of Islam too — or for that matter, the religious figures of Buddhism, Hinduism or Christianity?

While I am not Charlie, there is no way one can justify, let alone support, such heinous crimes as the Paris massacre, even in the name of religion. But such irresponsible provocation in the name of freedom of the press and expression — sacred in a democracy — is sowing the seeds of hatred among a small section of society: in the case of Charlie Hebdo, among the French Muslims and those who can be easily influenced by misguided Muslim fundamentalists elsewhere.

Islam is very clear on many things. It does not condone terrorism and murder is forbidden. The Quran, Chapter 6:151, says, “And do not kill a soul that god has made sacrosanct.” Islam does not allow the killing of innocents for “killing one innocent person is likened to the killing of the whole of humanity and saving one life is likened to saving the whole of humanity”.

The prophet, in his last sermon, among many things, reminded Muslims that “all mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab  any superiority over an Arab, a white has no superiority over black nor a black any superiority over white except by taqwa (piety) and good action”.

In reacting to the Paris killings, more than 50 European-based imans and scholars, mainly from the UK, issued a statement that Muslims do believe in freedom of speech and respect the right of people to say what they believe to be correct. However, they feel that freedom of speech should not translate into a duty to offend.

Quoting the hadiths, they reemphasise two of the prophet’s sayings. One, compiled by Bukhari, says, “Someone who unjustly kills a non-Muslim citizen cannot attain a whiff of heaven, even though its fragrance is felt from a distance of 40 years.” The other, compiled by Tabarani, notes that “he who hurts a non-Muslim citizen hurts me, and he who hurts me annoys Allah”.

But why is Islam still seen as a religion that promotes violence, even if is only a small section of the estimated 1.8 billion Muslims who act that way? Is Islam wrongly represented by the world media as a violent religion or is the Muslim community failing to portray to the world what Islam is actually about?

Or is it much more than this? Jeffrey Sachs, in a related article in the Forum pages in this issue, explains it well. “Islamist terrorism is a reflection, indeed an extension, of today’s wars in the Middle East,” he writes, where the Western superpowers have long had vested interests. The bigger picture is that it needs a geopolitical solution that none of the major powers — the US and Europe included — seem interested to solve.

While it is the duty of the Muslim world to get rid of the extreme elements within its community, it is the responsibility of the major powers to help restore peace and stability in the region. Old and complicated wounds need to be healed sooner rather than later.

While the holocaust is still marked by the West as an annual event even though it occurred many years ago, they still turn a blind eye on the Palestinians who have suffered for an equally long time — 67 years and counting.

The West wants the world to remember how the Jews suffered in their Warsaw ghettos during World War II, but does not want to solve the political-socio-economic imbroglio facing the Palestinians in the ghettos of Gaza and West Bank — a horrible life cycle which is now into its fourth generation.  Their plight is worse than what the Jews had ever experienced in Warsaw.

Resolving the Palestine issue is a major factor that could help reduce the influence of extremists in the Muslim world. Almost all madrassas, Islamic movements, the neutrals and  the liberals — not to mention the extremists and fundamentalists — will put Palestine injustice at the top of their list of what they perceive as Western hypocrisy.

For the extremists, it is a short cut to get new recruits. Just throw in the injustices heaped upon the Palestinians, tell them the stories of the massacres in Sabra and Shatilla and show them picture of children and women killed in Gaza, and they will immediately hate the West and what it stands for.

To add to this, why does one need the likes of Charlie Hebdo or Danish publishers to add fuel to a burning fire? Muslims can withstand criticism and even insults but why ridicule the prophet who is dearest to them — in the name of press freedom?

Can’t editors behave responsibly? Certainly they can. There are now stories appearing in the press and social media that Western satirical newspapers have changed their stance on publishing caricatures deemed offensive in the past — but in the case of Islam and prophet Muhammad, Charlie Hebdo will not stop.

Its first publication after the Paris killings again featured the prophet. Although the message is less offensive, many interpretations of the cartoon have deemed it demeaning,  whether or not it was meant to be that way, going by social media postings.

Now, Charlie Hebdo co-founder Henri Roussel, 80, who contributed to the first issue in 1970, has come out to ask, “What made him (the editor who was killed) feel the need to drag the team in overdoing it?”

In an ideal world, if all human beings are equal and can accept satirical religious insults, it may be alright. But then all is not equal in the world, and it will never be. There are a lot of people who are open to criticism on many matters —  politics, race, socio-economic policy, corruption, wrongdoing and abuse of power — and the press should report on these matters without fear or favour — but insulting religious leaders and prophets will almost always invite trouble.

But Islam and Muslims will survive the Paris tragedy and further thrive in Europe. Despite the challenges of adapting to life in Europe, the mature democratic system there will ensure their rights will be respected, in many cases more so than in many parts of the Middle East that are ruled by military dictators and royal families. The free practice of religion, including Islam, is protected in the constitutions of most developed countries.

For the majority of Muslims, the best thing  to do is to ignore these offensive cartoons and say “I am not Charlie” and will never be.

Azam Aris is senior managing editor at The Edge

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 19 - 25, 2015.