A tug-of-war between our religions and our freedoms?

By Harry Hagopian
January 23, 2015

Over the past fortnight, I read reams of analyses and predictions regarding the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris as well as the subsequent attack on the kosher supermarket. I also listened to volumes of interviews by pundits who have painstakingly dissected the stark differences between legality and morality or between satire and sadism as they also opined on whether Islam as a religion – or Muslims as its followers – were innocent or guilty of those latest atrocities.

I spotted columnists like Ranya Radwan, Nadim Kteich or Hussain Abdul Hussein on various MENA web-pages, let alone political analysts such as Dominique Moisi, Olivier Leroy or Jean-Pierre Filiu on various French platforms. Tariq Ramadan has been on more interviews than I could count, and I will not even venture to go to the USA where Fox News made an absolute hash of it by referring to Muslim no-go zones in Paris and Birmingham or where, as Hussein Ibish comments in NOW, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal provided a timely demonstration of real Islamophobia.

So what new can I say, given that I have already ventured one early opinion on the Huffington Post? I do not wish to revisit the centuries-old debate that pits the respect of religion versus free speech, or the facile attitude of admonishing Muslims not to read any material they deem offensive. Nor do I wish to enter into the sophistry of reminding you – as Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow has done so well – that what is legal is not necessarily also moral. But I would like to suggest three points that might perhaps blend Western – and French – indignation with Eastern – and Muslim – outrage.

• Charlie Hebdo does not only satirise Muslim core religious beliefs. It has been doing so with Christianity too, all the way from Jesus himself to the Pope and many other leaders. And it might well be that Christians will have reacted vociferously if not also violently a few short centuries ago. However, Christians who get upset these days or take such publications to heart express their anger by holding prayer vigils or penning their thoughts in their e-bulletins rather than by killing those they consider as blasphemers. But Islam is five centuries younger than Christianity and so Muslims might with time learn to overstep such bellicose reactions or emotive paroxysms when challenged by caricatures that are at times a pictorial reminder of the ugly fault-lines in our societies.

• A lot has been written about the need to reform Islam. In my view, those writers are spot-on as I believe that the jurisprudence of Islam has stonewalled progress and refused to move with the times. However, in order to reform Islam, it is essential to reform Muslim minds too, and that is where imams, rulers and community leaders should be brave enough to be innovative, to go against the tide and assume the risk of speaking out against those surahs or beliefs that ostensibly empower let alone vindicate nihilism or foster nasty violence. They should remind those younger Muslim generations who might harbour dubious eschatological tendencies that compassion and mercy are two key components in the Muslim text and are recited by Muslim believers more than once every day.

• Finally, I believe as a Christian that Jesus Christ – my own prophet and Lord – does not need to be defended by mere mortals like me. Rather, I would suggest that a prophet is above satire or lampoons and does not warrant the kind of ideological bigotry to defend him (or her, in the case of a prophetess) by wreaking vengeance and violence onto others. Otherwise, such a person in my opinion is no longer a prophet and not different at all from any of us.

However, it is disingenuous to pretend that Islamophobia is not with us or conversely that there is no deep-seated concern about a violent brand of Islam within many parts of our Western societies. However, research also shows a correlation between increasing knowledge of Islam and decreasing anti-Muslim prejudice. It therefore behoves well upon Muslim advocacy organisations to counter the sole recitation of those negative verses that do not brook much tolerance. Instead, they should speak out loudly and unapologetically about those other verses in the Holy Quran that also relate to social justice and respect for other faiths in order to prove that Islam is not solely about a jihad that – mistakenly – involves a phenomenology of blood and gore. After all, there are also verses underlining that there is no compulsion in religion, or verses that advocate patience, forgiveness and understanding (2:256, 16:125-126, 20:130, 25:63, 41:34 and 7:199).

What happened in Paris, just as what happens in Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Burma or elsewhere cannot be condoned or justified by any self-respecting intelligence. I too am not ready to equivocate or tone down my criticisms for the sake of being politically correct or religiously inclusive. By the same token, I do not wish those incidents – whether they are random or connected – to become the clarion call for a clash between peoples. I still do not buy into Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations, and much as I am not necessarily advocating that Muslims literally ‘do in Rome what the Romans do”, I would add that the responsibility lies on Muslim shoulders as much as on all our shoulders to help defuse a volatile situation and in so doing forfend every single precious life no matter its genome, identity or faith background.

In my opinion, religious fidelity and free speech can learn the art of coexistence despite the acerbic challenges. The much harder – and harsher – question is whether we as followers of a religion or as advocates of free speech can coexist too?

* More from Ekklesia about Charlie Hebdo and the aftermath: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/charliehebdo

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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