A contribution to an understanding of the calls for boycott in the Islamic world
written by Andreas Wüst
Many in the West may rub their eyes in astonishment: in the Islamic world, thousands of people are currently taking to the streets and calling for a boycott of the products of the very country that (at least in Europe) is mostly perceived as a frontrunner for democratic rights and freedom of expression in particular ever since the French Revolution of 1789. The stumbling block: old caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, which had been republished a few weeks earlier by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and for the discussion of which the history teacher Samuel Paty, in the exercise of his educational duty, was cruelly executed by a monster, shouting the words “Allahu Akbar” into the world. The current protest against France in its anger rarely makes a distinction between the editorial board of a private magazine, who is responsible for the publication of the caricatures, and the state, which protects the publication rights of this magazine as a guarantor of free speech and laïcité – regardless of the individual attitude of state actors to the cartoons themselves (click here).
Once again, the gap between worldviews seems impossible or difficult to bridge, the Clash of Civilizations so famously dubbed by Samuel Huntington many years ago appearing to be more real than ever.
Indeed, the republication of the Muhammad cartoons is perceived by many Muslims around the world less as an expression of the sublime right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but more as another moment of humiliation that must be viewed separately from the related murder of Samuel Paty .
Muslims of this world may be quarrelling with one another and years of feuds and deep enmities may divide the ummah, that Muslims so often refer to – but many Muslims of all streams still agree on one thing: Allah and his prophet Mohammed are inviolable and a vilification or mockery equal a sacrilege.
The reactions of defiance in view of this sacrilege are reflections of the pride in the old Islamic culture that was once characteristic of large parts of the world from Baghdad to Fez, from Sudan to Andalusia.
A son may, to the chagrin of his father, have neglected all Islamic duties all year round, a young woman may have alienated herself from her ancestors’ religion to the displeasure of her mother; but at the moment when this feeling of holiness of God and his prophet, which is deeply anchored in the souls of many people, is challenged, son and daughter stand united with their parents on the street to protest against this deeply felt injustice.
The case of the French Muhammad cartoons is perceived as just another in a long series of humiliations, both large and small, that the Muslim soul has endured for many generations.
Many may roll their eyes, but yes, the Crusades are often still viewed as a collective trauma. Likewise the colonial times, in which the French occupation, for strategic reasons, played off Berber-speaking and Arabic-speaking parts of the population of North Africa against each other, the great powers France and Great Britain divided up the Middle East under the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the British brought Baghdad and Cairo, two important centers of the Islamic culture, under their control and transported the riches of the Islamic world to Europe via Aden, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. For many, the founding of Israel was tantamount to a perpetuation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement under international law and thus colonial claims to power in the Middle East. And even those (and there are many) who believe in a peaceful coexistence between Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, cannot and do not want to understand why the State of Israel allows and even promotes that religious zealots and fanatics with ever new settlements are violating the contractually fixed borders between Israel and Palestine while referring to the biblical promise of salvation and taking advantage of Israel’s duty to protect its citizens and in the awareness of the stark power imbalance between the Israeli army and Palestinian forces.
Yes, there is no other country that is the subject of more United Nations resolutions than Israel, but Israel can ignore them with impunity thanks to its potent partners on both sides of the Atlantic. It should come as no surprise that many supporters of the Palestinian cause see Israel’s acts or omissions as planned state terrorism.
Even if many Muslims, due to ideological or religious differences, distance themselves from the guerrilla-like and bloody counter-attacks by Hamas or the baring behaviour of Hezbollah, they feel solidarity across borders with the often precarious situation of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, who are often referred to as brothers and sisters.
Furthermore, when the global war on terror was proclaimed in the wake of the terrible terrorist attacks of 9/11, which were also condemned in the Muslim world, many Muslims felt they had been placed under general suspicion and held under group liability. The subsequent invasion of Afghanistan or the attack on Iraq, justified on the basis of false evidence, together with the terrible bombing of Baghdad, an historical centre of Islamic culture, were and are felt to be disproportionate and deeply unjust.
All the more so since many (mostly secular) despots in the Arab world like to use the war on terror as a pretext to control and suppress the people of their countries – and especially practicing believers. And they do so with the help of their Western partners even more than before. Just a few days before Ben Ali was overthrown in Tunisia, France, for example, had promised to deliver tear gas to the dictatorial regime in North Africa in order to bring the protests against state violence and arbitrary rule to their knees.
Even today, Germany, France, Great Britain and the USA still deliver weapons and heavy war equipment to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And with this war material the despots of these states are covering an entire country – Yemen – with war, terror, hunger and death in the name of peace and justice.
These and other events in history give many Muslims a feeling of generalized injustice, frustration and powerlessness – not only in view of Western hegemony and arrogance, but also with regards to the opportunistic leaders of their own countries who often sympathise and cooperate with the West. Knowing about this feeling may help explain what is currently happening in much of the Muslim world. Many people there cannot avoid making the fatal mixture of western greed, hypocrisy, ignorance and unscrupulousness responsible for the suffering of large parts of the Muslim world population. More and more often these massive cases are put in relation to the admittedly horrific death of the victims of nevertheless exceptional terrorist attacks in Europe and America. This relationship is often done unconsciously, but is increasingly being made explicit (at least behind the scenes).
The point is not to justify the recent terrible attacks in Nice, Paris or Vienna, or to legitimise the calls for boycotts on French products all over the Muslim world. Some large mosques and Islamic associations in France, as well as many states, have sharply condemned the terrorist attacks and in some cases also the calls for boycotts.
It is also not about trying to evoke sympathy, but about raising understanding. Understanding for why many Muslims or people who feel loosely attached to the Islamic culture, feel offended by the republication of Mohammed cartoons.
Currently, it is actually again Muslims themselves who are being instrumentalized in their anger: For example, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan uses the rage of many Muslims in the face of the caricatures to upgrade a cultural issue to a political one and to present himself as a spearhead of the protests and as a defender of Islamic values. Meanwhile he diverts attention from his massive domestic political and above all economic problems, as Bülent Mumay aptly pointed out in a recent guest contribution for the FAZ.
Erdoğan’s favorite adversary, French President Emanuel Macron, himself however did not strike the right tone in his speeches also published on the Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera after the terrorist attacks in France. He did not manage to bring back the famous fraternité (unity) to the deeply divided, multicultural French society, let alone to pacify international protests.
In the transnational solidarity, Islam manifests itself less as religion than as a still-lived cultural system. It functions to a certain extent as – admittedly somewhat crumbly – cement between otherwise very different and diverse societies. It may be a vague feeling of belonging together, but strong enough to be effective across national borders. However, it becomes clear to everyone relatively quickly that the feeling otherwise hardly manages to maintain bonds – at the latest when the next tribal disputes, the next fight for raw materials or the next conflict about religious sovereignty make it into the headlines.
In order not to get me wrong: Especially after the unspeakable European experiences with state-enforced anti-Semitism and mass extermination of people who think, believe, love and live differently, freedom of expression and the press as well as the right to freedom of religion must have absolute validity. Kurt Tucholsky’s famous answer to the question “What is satire allowed to do?” must remain valid: Yes, satire can do anything.
She must and should be allowed to do anything. And yes, I ask my fellow Muslims to bear it when their prophet is ridiculed, just as I once had to endure when the German magazine Titanic, in the wake of the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, published drawings of a priest kneeling in a disreputable pose in front of the crucified, apparently blushing and sweating Christ.
I demand from Islamic associations as well as from the Christian churches, Jewish communities, political parties and associations that they also take responsibility for radical forces in their ranks and that they check their belief systems for points of reference for extremist tendencies and deal proactively with this problem. It is unbearable to hear that Islamist terrorists have nothing to do with Islam, just as it is short-sighted to say that the Crusades have nothing to do with Christianity or that the construction of settlements in Palestine by fundamentalist Jews has nothing to do with Judaism or right-wing extremism has nothing to do with patriotism.
It is necessary that all worldviews and religions deal with their history, learn where certain radical tendencies stem from, what their causes are. In view of the current protest movements in the Islamic world, such an examination of one’s own religious history is also called for by the Tunisian philosopher and Islamic scholar Youssef Seddik in a recent interview with the newspaper Jeune Afrique. He says: Only with a deeper knowledge of one’s own religion – and not only their texts and rituals –it is even possible that, as a believer, one no longer feels affected by the blasphemous statements of others. Because in the end, blasphemy only affects God and the person who commits it. Seddik makes an apt comparison: If someone insults you on the street as a fool, that insult does not make you fool. If you still feel concerned, then apparently only because you (at least secretly) have doubts about your own cognitive abilities.
At the same time, we as a society must pay more attention to the fact that we do not call every terrorist act committed by a misguided person who has radicalized himself alone and without ever having frequented a mosque or even prayed regularly, only with the help of the Internet, as Islamist terror. Because just as there are mentally confused people in all societies in the world, so there are of course also among the up to five million people with a Muslim background in Germany.
I value the principle of the separation of religion and state, the principle of secularism and laïcité, I defend the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
But I also don’t want a Muslim in Germany to be afraid of going to the mosque for Friday prayers because he or she has to fear getting on the observation lists of the intelligence services. I don’t want him or her to be ashamed or even judged for saying the necessary praise to God with the words “Allahu Akbar” when fulfilling the duty to pray. I do not want Jewish citizens not to dare to wear a kippah in public for fear of attacks or to only pray behind police-guarded synagogue doors protected by steel locks. I don’t want every AFD supporter to be insulted as a Nazi and every leftist as an anti-fascist terrorist.
What I wish for is a secularization of all religions and worldviews as well as a de-emotionalisation of the discourse about identity – be it of a religious or ideological nature. This requires all of us to be willing to learn from, with and about one another. Transparency must be the top priority. Just as Christian churches (at least in large parts of Europe) are always open to everyone – even at times of prayer and mass – mosques and synagogues should also be accessible to everyone at all times – both in the real and figurative sense. Because only with open gates and with sermons, readings and prayers in German one allows the innate curiosity of every person to develop and thereby mitigates fear of contact.
As difficult as this may seem in terms of practical implementation (especially in the case of synagogues, which – sadly as it is – are still exposed to a particular security risk) I see no way around this approach in times of growing anti-Semitism and islamophobia. Muslims as well as Jews and Christians have to become (again) more visible in society; they have to lose their nimbus of linguistical and ideological incomprehensibility and inapproachability in order to counteract fears, skepticism and mistrust born out of ignorance. To this end, imams and rabbis must be trained in Germany, under state supervision and with the involvement of the respective communities’ religious representatives, and need to be equipped with the tools necessary for social life in this country.
By these means, I hope that we will grow together to become a society in which we care about one another’s feelings, be it as teachers, newspaper editors, politicians – in short: as citizens gifted with reason and empathy. We must learn to show the decency and sensitivity to formulate critique around certain sensitive topics in a manner that avoids provocation and offense for the sake of provocation and offense.
It is true that the line between respect for others and self-censorship is sometimes very fine and in a democracy this line has to be negotiated over and over again. But this strenuous and sometimes painful act of self-questioning is necessary to obtain peaceful coexistence in our society.
To put it again in the words of Kurt Tucholsky: Yes, satire is allowed to do anything. But I ask myself, does it have to do everything that is legally allowed?
Let us discuss!