The last few days have seen two separate terrorist incidents in France, both involving Muslim youth (both refugees, not French-born Muslims) beheading (or trying to behead) French civilians because of perceived outrage over blasphemy. In the first shocking incident a teacher named Samuel Paty tried to do what good teachers do; he was teaching about freedom of expression and wanted to show the cartoons that led to the murderous assaults on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. He told his Muslim students that if they felt uncomfortable seeing those cartoons, they could step outside the class. There is no indication that he himself said anything that could be construed as an attack on the prophet. But the very fact that he showed the famous cartoons in his class was enough to rile up at least one of the Muslim student’s parents, who started to outrage on social media, which led a Chechen youth named Abdullah to travel a 100 km, find the teacher by paying his students to point him out and then beheaded him on a public road before being shot dead himself.
If this was not bad enough, today another “refugee” (this one from Tunisia) went on a stabbing/beheading spree at the basilica of Notre Dame in Nice and killed 2 women and a 55 year old sexton. Another person, this time in Saudi Arabia, stabbed a guard at the French consulate before being arrested. At the same time there have been massive protests in Bangladesh, a mock beheading at a girl’s school in Pakistan, official protests from Pakistan and Turkey and boycotts of French products all across the Muslim world.
Eruptions of violence in response to blasphemy are not uncommon in the Muslim world and many blasphemy-murderers are honored as heroes (in Pakistan the murderer Ilm Deen, who killed a Hindu publisher in the 1920s is even honored in school textbooks and is widely regarded as a role model by mainstream politicians and intellectuals). But outsiders still ask, why are Muslims so universally upset at France, but there has been hardly a peep about the Chinese suppression of Uighur culture, which has involved the destruction of countless mosques and shrines, the incarceration of tens of thousands in giant concentration camps and even an attempt to rewrite the Quran in line with “Chinese values”?
The first set of explanations is historical and “materialistic”; the liberal/leftist version says that France (and the West in general) is a colonial power that colonized many Muslim countries and conducted a very vicious and cruel counter-insurgency campaign in Algeria. China does not have this history with most Muslim countries. Western powers are also seen as supporters of Israel while China is seen as an ally against Western powers (and in the case of Pakistan, against India). China in fact does have such a history with the Uighurs, but the Uighurs themselves are peripheral to the Muslim world and most people do not have any personal connection with them. RW Islamophobes bring in the added twist that Muslims get upset at France/West because it is a soft target that will not hit back with greater violence or even material sanctions; and they do not get upset at China because it does hit back physically as well as economically. This appeals to RW fans of other religions, who are not always fans of materialist explanations, because they seem to feel it shows Muslims as essentially mercenary and calculating. I think there is something to all these explanations, but not as much as fans of this explanation want to believe.
I think “the Muslim world” does not react to Uighur persecution the way it does to France for many different reasons (including lack of awareness, calculation that we need China against India, history of Western colonialism, etc) but the biggest reason is that the Chinese really do not threaten Islamism and classical Islam in the way the West does and this is especially true of blasphemy about the prophet Mohammed. As far as Uighur persecution goes, it is awful, but many Muslim countries have done worse to their own people (Syria comes to mind). It threatens Uighur identity and culture, but it will not have any effect on the core Muslim world. But Western ideas of free speech and the attendant possibility of criticism of religion are a direct threat to classical Islam’s dominant public position. And the existence of powerful blasphemy and apostasy memes protects Classical Islam from public criticism. In that sense, the West has always been a bigger threat and remains so.
Till now, even in the West, the avoidance of public ridicule of the prophet as a red line has held for the most part. While Islamophobes in America (the country with the freest free speech on the planet) can and do say what they please within their own bubbles, mainstream outlets will not join in. The same is true of Western leaders; they can say the occasional critical thing about Islamism and can say a LOT of things about Islamist terrorism, but they too avoid crossing this final critical red line. If a magazine crosses the line occasionally but no one in power defends their right to blaspheme too vigorously, then too the red line holds. But what happened in France is that Macron (and the French in general) have taken the view that these beheadings are an attack on THEIR core cultural values and they will not stand for it. IF they are not forced to back down soon, then the red line may no longer hold. A major power is saying it is OK to ridicule Mohammed and their leaders are making no attempt to split the difference by also criticizing the magazine for “being provocative” or otherwise hedging their bets. This is serious. If this stands, then one of the core elements of classical Islamic culture and self-image will be under threat. Today France, tomorrow Germany. Then what? We might then be living on a planet where large (and well developed, desirable) parts allow open ridicule of the prophet Mohammed.
I can hear some people muttering “so what?”. For many modern people it is inconceivable that people are willing to die (to kill would be less of an outlier; there are people who are willing to kill for someone like Trump, forget the prophet of a major religion) to stop someone 1000s of miles away from making a cartoon. But from the point of view of many (most?) Muslims, . nothing could be clearer: “If we allow this, we will become like Christianity”.
By the way, I dont think their fear is really justified. I dont think Islam or even classical Islam (the version of Sunni Islam that developed in the Abbasid empire) will fade away if blasphemy becomes normalized in big parts of the world (I dont think it will be normalized in the Muslim world any time soon). But I am not representative of Muslim opinion. This is a big deal for most Muslims. But getting beheaded is also big deal for most Frenchmen, so I dont expect their anger to go away either. I expect this confrontation to get worse and I expect “average” Muslims in Western countries will make a painful adjustment and will continue to live in countries where such blasphemies will not be suppressed. But some will not make that adjustment. Most of these non-compromisers may just go back to the “dar ul Islam”, but some may also strike again in the West, and so the cycle will continue until it finally becomes normalized or actively suppressed. If I had to bet, i would bet on “becomes normalized”, but prediction is a rum game.
Typical images from Pakistani whatsapp:
Jamia Hafsa, Islamabad. Female teacher at #Deobandi seminary beheads the effigy of the “blasphemer” French President @EmmanuelMacron in front of female students, many of them children.https://t.co/qeUyAtPlAL pic.twitter.com/5DAEbB19Do
— SAMRI (@SAMRIReports) October 29, 2020