Supporters of Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan shout slogans during a protest against the reprinting of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad by French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in Karachi on September 4, 2020. Photo: AFP / Asif Hassan

Anti-Muslim bigotry is on the rise globally. Let’s call a spade a spade. Islamophobia, even though some people prefer to tiptoe around using the term so that they don’t acknowledge the gravity of this gruesome form of racism, is an undeniable reality in the 21st century, casting a dark shadow over the lives of the nearly 1.8 billion Muslims dotted across the four corners of the globe.

From burning down and vandalizing mosques to physical attacks on people appearing to be Muslims walking down the streets, hate crimes against Muslim students on university campuses, verbal abuse and death threats directed against Muslim citizens and the Islamic faith being constantly slandered in the media, Islamophobia is materializing in innumerable ways.

Some governments have realized that this global plague is no laughing matter and are prioritizing responding to it, while many others have put preventive and remedial actions on the back burner, in effect divulging their mentality that Muslims, particularly when they constitute small minorities in non-Muslim societies, are useful to portray the idea of multiculturalism, but need no protection.

Virtually every country in the developed world has legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of ethnic, national or religious background as well as gender identity and orientation. But when it comes to applying those rubrics to Muslims, politicians seem to be dragging their feet.

For some world leaders, addressing Islamophobia is a matter of paying lip service to denouncing racism while refusing to admit explicitly that under their watch, Muslims are subject to disproportionate maltreatment, marginalization and discrimination.

In the immigrant-friendly, tolerant country that is Canada, the conventional wisdom is that society by and large is a welcoming one. Yet the government has refused to name January 29, the anniversary of the 2017 Quebec City mosque massacre, as a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia.

In Britain, where the capital city’s mayor has proselytized the motto “London Is Open” and people representing more than 200 nationalities and some 300 languages make up the “Babel of the modern world,” the prime minister is believed by many observers to be carrying to the torch of the Conservative Party’s Islamophobia and on several occasions has ruffled the feathers of the Muslim community by making Muslim-baiting comments and refusing to apologize.

In the United States, the melting pot of global cultures and once termed a nation of immigrants by the late John F Kennedy, the current president has not shied away from parading his abhorrence of Islam, and since taking office, has issued a spree of anti-Muslim orders and statements.

Ranging from a blanket ban on the entry of citizens of several Muslim countries to the United States to surrounding himself with infamous anti-Muslim apostles like Michael Flynn, who has said Islam is “like a cancer,” Donald Trump’s presidency has been an extravaganza of anti-Muslim animus.

Elsewhere in the world, the situation is more or less the same. Muslims continue to live under the specter of vilification, thinly veiled exclusion from social participation, discrimination, and at times violence.

This is not to say Muslims are a broadly victimized group starved of rights and benefits altogether. But it is certainly the case that, particularly in Western societies, they are still struggling to achieve equality, peace and stability, enduring cynical stares by onlookers who perceive them as the source of all the violence and extremism that is bedeviling the world and economic distress ensnaring these nations.  

Now, there is a critical question to be contemplated. What is the solution for the Western world to transmute its civilizational clash with Islam and Muslims into a sustainable understanding? Dialogue or alienation?

Charlie Hebdo cartoons

When in 2006 the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo reprinted the cartoons of Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad and published some of its own, few imagined that the headquarters of the small, relatively unknown magazine would become the target of terrorist attacks in 2011 and 2015, claiming the lives of 12 people.

On several occasions, Charlie Hebdo featured caricatures of Muhammad, depicting him in impertinent ways, including in naked and sexual positions. Its circulation, from the normal 100,000 sold copies, ballooned to 5 million copies in 2015, and praise was heaped on it as a bastion of free speech.

Now, despite all the criticisms they have received and the divisions created because of the cartoons, the Charlie Hebdo editors have aroused controversy once more by republishing the comics to mark the trial of suspected accomplices of terrorists who assailed the magazine’s offices in January 2015.

Charlie Hebdo’s director Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau wrote in an editorial introducing the magazine edition re-running the cartoons, “We will never lie down. We will never give up.” He said refusal to republish the cartoons would amount to “political or journalistic cowardice.”

It is evident that in an increasingly uncertain world in which fake news and disinformation are thriving, playing havoc with people’s ability to make sense of the truth, every effort should be exerted to safeguard freedom of speech and freedom of the press. These are universal values that are cornerstones of functioning democracies: virtues that people under authoritarian rule and in the developing world are desperately yearning for.

It is also understandable that the tradition of humor is time-hallowed and popular in France, and artists, media and the public often joke about history, celebrities, leaders, daily news and even religious sanctities – something that alien cultures may not be able to relate to fully.

Moreover, it needs no mention that the gunmen who were responsible for the tragic massacre at Charlie Hebdo headquarters on January 7, 2015, did not have carte blanche from the global Muslim community to stage that barbarity, which means they were representing themselves, not the millions of peaceful Muslims worldwide, nor were they inspired by the teachings of Islam to act in that callous way.

They were later found to be the affiliates of ISIS, a terrorist cult whose assertions of being driven by the tenets of Islam are not vouched for by any Muslim nation or community.

That said, it is reasonable to ask if republishing those cartoons in 2020 after all the uproar they produced when they first appeared would be conducive to understanding between the Muslim world and the West or would merely deepen the divides.

Also, there is an ethical consideration at play, which cannot be taken lightly. The Charlie Hebdo people should perhaps ask themselves if it is justifiable to use the exercise of free speech to proliferate hatred of a religion and the most central figure of that faith by making a hodgepodge of the concepts of terrorism, extremism, fundamentalism, Islam and Islamism and concluding that it is Islam that is the fountainhead of global terror and violence.

Islamophobia is not a quirky, extraterrestrial phenomenon. It is the lived experience of thousands of Muslims who feel its sting. It is any action or speech that dehumanizes and demonizes an entire population because of their differences and heterogeneity.

Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures scarcely generated any meaningful debate on extremism and terrorism, but they perfectly fueled Islamophobic sentiments and reinforced the cultural alienation that is least needed in these polarizing times.

Even former French prime minister Manuel Valls described the mood of France after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks a “state of territorial, social, ethnic apartheid” that left a segment of the population on the cultural fringe.

It is possible to dispirit and pour scorn on extremists, and it is possible to do so without deliberate provocations and without sketching a bomb on the turban of a figure some 1.8 billion people consider to be revered.

The response to any provocation like this, however, should be measured and rational. In Iran, Pakistan and a few other Muslim countries, people took to the streets, in state-sanctioned and independent demonstrations, chanted slogans and burned the flags of the United States and other Western countries. Somewhat expected, yes, but totally unjustified.

This sort of agitated response and inflated attention to an unwarranted provocation is exactly the sort of reaction Charlie Hebdo and other detractors of Islamic community wish to elicit and construe in line with their stereotypes: an angry, mindless cohort of people shouting and burning flags because they cannot tolerate liberal values.

No outcry is needed. Any effort to sow disharmony between the Western public and their Muslim fellow citizens, neighbors, friends and colleagues needs to be ignored. Simply don’t spend your money on Charlie Hebdo or any other medium that vends hate speech in the name of freedom of speech.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.