‘Neither French Beheading, Nor Provocation Is Justified’

Mufti Mohammad Israfil, 52, says France must learn from India how to peacefully co-exist in a plural society. The Mufti from Kanpur, UP, also believes that state and religion must remain separated

What happened in France last month was abominable, from both sides, though as President, Mr Emmanuel Macron should have handled the matter with some cool-headedness and grace, as is expected from top leaders, instead of making this an emotional issue.

I still remember the first time the image of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) was published in the Danish newspaper, Jyllanden Post in 2005. It was a provocation then, and it was a provocation when Charlie Hebdo published it. Provocation is neither journalism, nor art. Cartoons are meant to give food for thought, not hurt a popular sentiment.

We in India, before 2014, knew how to not cross one another’s boundaries. Different religions have co-existed peacefully for a long time here. Perhaps the world could learn from the pre-2014 India on how not to cross the line.

Religion is fluid –or at least its interpretation is fluid, while government is a stable structure in the sense that even a single change needs to pass through multiple bodies. Common people keeps moving between the two in their public and private spheres. Governance and religion must remain separated. I do feel unhappy about the people running Charlie Hebdo or other similar provocative publications; and I feel equally miffed when artists like MF Hussain take the liberty of drawing the objectionable images of Hindu gods and goddesses. It takes so much time to understand your own religion, how can you make fun of another religion that you don’t even understand?

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Samuel Paty, the teacher who was killed, needed to understand that it was a contentious topic he was teaching. And as far as I have read, the matter had been stretching on for some time with the school authorities.

The Mufti from Kanpur says none of the party is entirely blameless in France’s case

Strict legal action should be taken against those guilty, but the government also needs to ensure that age-appropriate topics are introduced in the correct manner. Even wise men in government offices have been unable to solve such issue, as was seen in the Denmark case. Therefore with children, we require extra care in dealing cross-cultural issues. I am not justifying what happened, but none of the party is entirely innocent.

Islam was perhaps the first religion to bring law into social dealings. Many other religions might have had laws but people were being governed according to the whims and fancies of the kings or heads of state. Islam tried to give powers to the common man and you could say the Quran and Hadees are books of law.

The maulana, mufti, qazi interpret law and serve justice. Islam is never about spreading terror, but about spreading love for yourself, your neighbours, to the less fortunate. I would say ‘religious pollution’ has put important social issues on the backburner. If I were to tell you who is responsible for this atmosphere of ‘dharmik unmad’ (religious hysteria), I would say Israel and the US.

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As the pandemic has shown us, we are all in this together. We need a world that knows how to come together. In India we have co-existed peacefully, more or less, despite diverse language, food, and clothing with every few kilometre. The world needs to see and learn from us that there is a solution to the situation the world is in today.

Mutual respect is the key in handling sensitive issues. Prophet Mohammed, Jesus, Moses, Krishna are all revered figures and Islam says respect (especially for the leaders of others) is the pillar on which a society stands. I wish there is neither more provocation, nor more bloodshed as a response to that provocation. Restraint is the currency of a peaceful society.

Macron Agenda To ‘Liberate’ Islam Has A History

The recent storm over the inflammatory statements against the Holy prophet and Islam itself, by the French President Macron has set the Muslim world on fire. Leaders of all hues and denominations have condemned the so-called latest attacks on Islam. The outcry as expected follows a similar pattern after any anti-Islam incident takes place in the Western world. We need to take a deep breath, pause and wonder on the similarity of attacks and the Islamic response to it globally.

Muslims, unlike other followers of the ‘books’ do not believe in ruminating about the past. Instead they move on with times. While the two other communities, which follow the book, impart their young generations about the atrocities faced by them in the past, instil anti-Islam feelings in them. Alongside the western world also continues with its activities related to interfaith relations and peaceful coexistence.

In real terms one wonders whether these activities are indeed carried out with intentions or are just an eyewash, while beneath the surface anti-Islam hatred continues unabated, as they are in real terms afraid of Islam and its teachings.

What has happened in France is nothing new. The French radical extremism, legitimises itself under the French term laicité meaning secular, and under this garb it continues its attacks on French and non-French Muslims, and this deceiving is nothing new.

A French NGO, The Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) listed 1,043 Islamophobic incidents that occurred in 2019 (a 77 percent increase since 2017). Not so far back, in October 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron and his then Interior Minister Christophe Castaner connected terrorism in France to any signs of French Muslims’ faith and culture, including having a beard, praying five times a day, eating halal food, etc.

ALSO READ: Charlie Hebdo And The Laxman Rekha

‘Liberating’ Islam

Last week, Macron declared “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today, we are not just seeing this in our country”. He added that he is seeking to “liberate” Islam in France from foreign influences by improving oversight of mosque financing.

One wonders who gave the right to Macron to ‘liberate Islam’. Historically, Macron is not the first French ruler who wanted to “liberate” Islam. This is an old French “secular” tradition from the times of Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoleon invaded Egypt and Palestine in 1798, he lied to the Egyptians by announcing that he and his army were “faithful Muslims” and that they have come to liberate Muslims and Islam from the tyranny of the Turk Mamluks.

However, the deception did not work and both the Egyptians and Palestinians rose against him. Napoleon was defeated, though his army committed untold atrocities in Egypt and Palestine. At that time Napoleon and France wanted to avenge the defeat faced by French forces in the Palestinian city of Acre, two centuries ago.

French Invasion of Algeria

The French invasion of Algeria was launched in mid-June 1830 and Algiers fell on July 5. The French army robbed Algiers’ treasury clean, stealing upwards of 43 million Francs in gold and silver. The French King Charles X told the French National Assembly that the immediate goals of the invasion were to avenge the French for the Algerian insult, besides “ending piracy and reclaim Algeria for Christianity”.

In line with its Christian commitments, the conquering French army took over mosques and converted them into churches and cathedrals at gunpoint, including the largest Ottoman Ketchaoua mosque in Algiers, built in 1612, which was converted into the Cathedral of St Philippe in December 1832. That same year the French wiped out the entire tribe of the Ouffias, sparing no woman or child, and seizing all their possessions. 

French barbarism

We should not forget the French barbarism, which has been recorded for posterity by history. Authors like Martin Evans, John Phillips, Haley C. Brown have documented in-depth the French atrocities in Algeria in their books. It would also be pertinent to note here that the French played a crucial role in persuading the Algerian ulemas and clerics to close the doors of Ijtihad, which ultimately made a crucial and long lasting affect on the growth of Islamic sciences and social sciences.

In 1871, Algerian Muslims revolted again against French rule, with 150,000 people joining the forces of a local tribal leader, Al-Muqrani. The French genocidal machine responded by killing hundreds of thousands of Algerians, which, combined with the French-caused famine deaths in the late 1860s, resulted in the death of one million Algerians. The French razed dozens of towns and villages to the ground while eliminating the entire elite of Algerian society. But even that did not resolve France’s “crisis” with Islam.

During the 19th century, France colonised many Muslim nations, and thus their concern about their “crisis” with Islam increased further. To answer this quest, a journalist of ill repute and with known anti-Turk views was appointed to seek answers. Edmond Fazy (1870-1910) presented his analysis in the form of Questions diplomatiques et colonials, which contained submissions by known anti-Muslim and anti-Turk academics, journalists or so-called experts on Islam and African nations. Edward Said has discussed the real role of these so-called Orientalists in-depth in his book Orientalism (1977).

Future of Islam

Chauvinism and hate have always dominated the French culture, whether it is with the British or Islamists. Many of the contributors to Fazy’s journal saw fit to manipulate Islamic theology and transform Muslim ulemas to produce not only a modern Islam that European modernity would tolerate, but also one that, they hoped, would weaken the Ottoman Empire.

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The project of transforming Islam into something compatible with European Christianity and which French laicite can tolerate continues afoot in 2020, but with unsatisfactory results as far as Macron is concerned.

Both the French Muslims and immigrant Muslims continue to face an institutionalised discrimination in France. The country continues to be submerged in a dominant discourse of chauvinism and hate today that is not dissimilar to the one that always dominated French culture even before the French Revolution.

The current French crisis is based on its White supremacist Christian agenda and a country holding on to its past glories or misdeeds, while in reality they should strive to undo or repent their misdeeds committed by them in the former colonies held by them.

What the French need to do is to pay back the debts they owe to all those whom they robbed and killed around the world since then. Only that will end France’s crisis with “Islam” and with itself.

At the same time, Muslims across the globe need to connect or reconcile their national, ethnic and sectarian identities within the context of Islam’s inner unity and integrity based on moral and human grounds, on the one hand, and maintain its global and cosmopolitan outlook on the other. This will be the best antidote against such vitriolic agenda.

(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He writes on issues related to Muslims, education, geopolitics, and interfaith)

Charlie Hebdo And The Laxman Rekha

A cartoon is “a simple drawing showing the features of its subjects in a humorously exaggerated way, especially a satirical one in a newspaper or magazine.” And a caricature is “a picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect.”

One must be naïve to dwell on dictionary meanings of the two, trying to know why and how religion and politics, crusade versus jihad, blasphemy and blood-letting have intruded into what should be a medium of amusing enlightenment.

This naivety seems misplaced in a world that is divided between the Macrons who want unrestrained freedom to draw and write at the risk of hurting sentiments and the Mahathirs who want to avenge that, even with violence.

Macron’s France is on edge after the republication in early September of cartoons of the Prophet (PBUH) by the Charlie Hebdo weekly, which was followed by an attack outside its former offices, the beheading of a teacher and an attack on a church in Nice that left three dead. The chain of violence and protests continues, worldwide.

While Macron now ‘understands’ and ‘respects’ the anger his calling the perpetrators of violence ‘terrorists’ has aroused among the Muslim protestors, he resolutely defends the “freedom of expression.” Malaysia’s former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who advocated “moderate Islam” in the last century, now says his call for “killing of millions of Frenchmen” was “quoted out of context.”

ALSO READ: Muslims Have Right To Kill French: Mahathir

For them all, the devil lies in the printed/spoken word, and in the cartoons – or is it the mind at work in these highly polarized times?

Mercifully, some moderate views are also coming forth. Canada’s Justin Trudeau defends freedom of expression but says it is “not without limits” and should not “arbitrarily and needlessly hurt certain communities.” But this was met with violence in Quebec.  

Now, Macron, too, says: “We owe it to ourselves to act with respect for others and to seek not to arbitrarily or unnecessarily injure those with whom we are sharing a society and a planet.” Though belated, wise words indeed.

This brings me to India and Indians – warts and all. Muslims in some cities have protested – so also have Bollywood biggies like Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah, angering many from their community.

Don’t go by the current phase, or past aberrations — Indians are generally tolerant, even complacent, and do not respond easily, even to something wrong and unjust. For good or otherwise, this explains why so many who do not belong have made it their home.

The government of Narendra Modi, often accused of dividing people, has rightly condemned violence against the cartoons’ publication, but without condoning their controversial content. The underlying message is: why drag in religion (read ‘others’ religion) to show how free a society you are?

I wish all of them observed the “Laxman Rekha.”  Referred to in Hindu epic Ramayana as an impregnable line Lakshmana draws asking elder brother Rama’s wife Seeta not to cross it while he goes searching for Rama. But she crosses that, and is abducted by Ravana. In modern Indian parlance, it refers to a strict convention or a rule, never to be broken.

I am not referring to Ramayana’s red line, but to the modern Indian one that, never really drawn, but was practiced and enunciated by renowned cartoonist R K Laxman.

His lines were indeed, the proverbial “Laxman Rekhas” that told you what is rational. The humour was intrinsic. It stung your mind, but gently. They wove a spider’s web that even the intended target would shrug off. They were not like beehive that a bee-lover or even a bee-keeper would dread to go close to.

They were soft and were minimal – indeed, a few strokes, and it did not require any effort to know which character was being drawn and what was the message.

Press in India has for over two centuries been embellished by numerous cartoonists and caricaturists.     Indeed, Indian cartooning tradition is a positive one, saying the damnedest thing without being venomous. Abu Abraham, O V Vijayan, Shankar and so many others made scathing comments without hurting.

But, arguably though, none has surpassed Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Laxman. Born on October 2, 1921, he died, aged 93, on January 26, 2015.

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For over six decades, five of them spent at the Times of India newspaper, Laxman gave those in power a little rap on the knuckles that was no more than a call to correction. It was never a reprimand.

He spoke through his mascot, the battered and bewildered “common man”.  Whatever the changes India has undergone, the “common man” continues to symbolise the quintessential Indian.

Anthropologist Ritu G. Khanduri notes, “R. K. Laxman structures his cartoon-news through a plot about corruption and a set of characters. This news is visualized and circulates through the recurring figures of the mantri (minister), the Common Man and the trope of modernity symbolized by the airplane.”

Friend and former colleague Arun Vardhan says the lines he drew were soft and light and composite in nature. They reflected a southern Indian mind evolved over millennia, at once secular and humane.

That ethos Laxman contributed to is under grave threat. He thrived when the society was not this polarized.  Intolerance has grown, and it is not politics and politicians alone. Social media has ‘democratized’ opinion – indeed, everyone has an opinion — to express and to defend. It has provided a perceived net of anonymity for the person/s to spew venom or hatred. 

Dr Mrinal Chatterjee, Director, Eastern India Centre of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) regularly surveys the media scene, particularly the burgeoning one in several Indian languages. He is pained at the scene all-around but assures me that by and large, the cartooning scene has stayed above the toxicity.  But we both wonder, worryingly, for how long?

People are getting tired. Viral on the social media these days is a collage of old Laxman cartoons wherein the “Common man” and his spouse are asking: why have stopped laughing?

Laxman and his era may be past, but each society needs to draw its own “Lakshman Rekha” if it has to survive and leave something good for the posterity.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com