France and the rest of Europe face a serious threat from Islamist terrorism. This has become more apparent after the brutal beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty, the terrorist attacks in Nice and Vienna, and the disgust and contempt most Muslim countries have expressed toward French values.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s battle against Islamist separatism fights the radicalization and socioeconomic marginalization of Muslims in France. Some of the measures include a ban on virginity tests, restrictions on home schooling and stricter oversight of foreign funding of mosques. Macron’s plan allows for the integration of Muslims and protects those who reject a radical and violent interpretation of Islam. It ensures that women are treated with a modicum of respect, that children have access to education, and that every Muslim in France is entitled to the same freedoms as other French citizens.
Despite that, France was met with the fury of the Muslim world, with mass protests taking place in numerous countries. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan denounced Europe’s supposed Islamophobia, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led the charge for Muslims to boycott French products, and former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad heinously suggested that Muslims “had a right to kill millions of French people.”
However, their indignation over France’s support for freedom of speech and secularism as being Islamophobic is severely undermined by their silence about and occasional defense of China’s treatment of the Uighurs.
The Chinese government has been running reeducation camps in Xinjiang, where over one million Uighur Muslims are detained. They are forced to renounce and denounce their religion, consume pork and alcohol, and there have been cases where women have been forcibly sterilized or fitted with contraceptive devices. The government has destroyed mosques and described Islam as a “virus” that needed to be cured. China actively persecutes Muslims based solely on their faith. Its treatment of Uighurs exemplifies islamophobia.
However, the brave calls condemning Chinese Islamophobia are nowhere to be found. There are no calls to boycott Chinese products, Xi Jinping’s portrait isn’t being trampled on, the Chinese flag isn’t being burned, and there are no cries of “Death to China.”
IN FACT, in 2019, when most European countries condemned the persecution the Uighurs faced, most Muslim countries – such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Iran and Pakistan – cowardly commended China’s measures to combat extremism, even going as far as to participate in the state’s rhetoric that “all ethnic groups enjoy their happy life in a peaceful and stable environment” and stating that China had maintained “openness and transparency.” Erdogan’s Turkey, once a champion of Uighurs’ rights, has started arresting and deporting exiled Uighurs in order to safeguard its economic and political interests with China.
The hypocrisy demonstrated by these leaders proves that their aim isn’t to tackle Islamophobia but to attack freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is the bedrock of democracy and it represents an existential threat to autocratic regimes, especially those that pretend to be democracies. The countries that attacked France for Islamophobia are merely attempting to distract their populations from their mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and their countries’ excessive corruption and worsening economic conditions.
This is nothing more than a cheap political ploy to consolidate power. It should come as no surprise that the most fervent opponents to France’s laïcité (secularism) are also the countries with the strictest censorship and restrictions on freedom of speech.
The right to blasphemy, regardless of how disrespectful it may be to some, is a core value that allows us to hold and debate different interpretations of all religions. When we allow the demagogues and fanatics to impose what should and should not be tolerated, we also allow them to define what Islam is for nearly two billion people.
Most Muslims reject this radical interpretation of Islam. It is time for them to stand in solidarity with France in defense of freedom of speech. Instead of attributing the blame on the cartoonists for drawing caricatures of the prophet, they should unequivocally condemn those who incite violence. The ability to criticize and mock all ideologies, religions and political figures allows us to engage in open discourse. Democracy isn’t simply about being allowed to vote, but also about having the freedom to express our minds and choose our beliefs, even if it might at times be uncomfortable.