The Charlie Hebdo Prophet Muhammed cartoons and the awful terrorist attack that followed continue to haunt France. On September 25, a stabbing outside the magazine’s former headquarters injured two people. The suspect, a young Muslim man from Pakistan, claims he committed the attack as revenge for the cartoons. On October 16, a French public school teacher, Samuel Paty, was killed by an 18-year-old Muslim Russian immigrant because Paty showed the cartoons in class during a discussion about freedom of speech.
In response, French President Macron delivered a speech on “Islamic separatism,” where he said the biggest threat to France’s values and secularism was “radical Islam.” He went on to talk about his country’s failures in addressing the factors that have led to that separatism, saying, “we built a concentration of misery and difficulties. We concentrated populations according to origin and social milieu. We created neighbourhoods where the promise of the republic was never kept and where these most radical forms [of Islamism] became sources of hope.”
Yet, even amidst this recognition of failure, President Macron claimed that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today. We are not just seeing this in our country.” This statement has drawn the condemnation and ire of Muslims worldwide and prompted Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to question Macron’s mental health. Muslims around the world have also boycotted French products.
However, I do agree with President Macron. Islam is in crisis around the world. Though it has nothing to do with the principles or the 1.8 billion practitioners of the faith. Islam is in crisis because it is being used. “By whom?” you ask? By just about every politically salient faction around the world. Extremist groups use it to mask their heinous attacks on humanity. Western governments use it to justify their discrimination and wars. Eastern governments, such as Saudi Arabia and China, use it to defend the oppression of their people and Muslims around the world. Xenophobic, racist, and Islamophobic groups use it to strike fear into their societies and defend their paranoid, unreasonable views. All in all, Islam is being used as a tool for many different groups to further their own ends. As such, it is reduced to a monolith—a caricature of itself, if you will.
Quite frankly, I, along with the global Muslim community, am tired and fed up with having to endure this puppet show. We are tossed around from being the victim of Islamophobia to being the terrorist villain. This alternation is illustrated again in France. Following the murder of Samuel Paty, two women stabbed two other hijabi women near the Eiffel tower and called them “dirty Arabs,” telling them: “This is not your home.” A few days later, the Nice stabbing attack occurred in a church where a Tunisian immigrant killed three people. In the span of a few days, the Muslim community went from denouncing the terrorist attack that killed Paty, to decrying the hate crime that injured two hijabi women, to once again having to condemn yet another deadly attack.
My point is in no way to argue that Muslims worldwide, and in France, should not stand with their country or mourn the deaths of innocents. Nor am I insinuating that Muslims have suffered more or deserve some privilege. All I am saying is that I am tired. I am tired of having to explain and atone for a stranger’s actions. I am tired of being outraged over hijab and burqa bans. I am tired of mourning innocent people’s deaths while also mourning the demise of my liberty and dignity. Most of all, I am tired of being reduced to one idea, viewpoint, or entity. My religion is as vast and varied as every other religion or group, including people from every kind of background, culture, and political persuasion. It is this very diversity that not only makes us a major world religion but also creates space for inclusion.
I am sure that France is also tired of having to mourn the deaths of its countrymen. I understand their frustration and exhaustion with debating issues around religious symbolism and extremism. I deeply empathize with the fear they experience when they suffer an attack. I comprehend and appreciate these struggles because the Muslim community is a part of these experiences.
In the end, I know that the privileges of individuality are only bestowed upon those at the centre of society, such as how a white gunman is a lone wolf or how the KKK doesn’t reflect all of Christianity. However, aside from this monolithic reduction, there are more significant issues that need to be addressed related to young Muslims’ radicalization. As President Macron mentioned in his speech, the neglect that some communities face in terms of jobs, housing, the opportunity for social mobility and more, creates disenfranchisement and pushes people to the margins. According to Pew Research from 2017, most of France’s Muslim population live in ghettos. The number is approximately 5,750,000, or around 8.5 per cent of the French population.
As Prime Minister Trudeau noted in his speech following the Samuel Paty murder, “Freedom of expression is not unlimited.” Indeed, the nuance between free speech and hate speech is highly contentious. Still, the key to understanding that difference is respect. No, not a respect for the religion or the culture or any other label, but a respect for the human being. Disagree, question, and debate with the Muslim community, but do not lose sight of the fact that we are people, endowed with unalienable human rights, and deserving of the same level of freedom and dignity as everyone else. In other words, we are all entitled to liberty, equality, and fraternity.