If you wish to lay eyes upon some of the most beautifully designed geometric patterns and ornately decorated tiles mankind has ever crafted, look no further than the interiors of some of the world’s oldest mosques. They are a wonder to anyone who takes the time to view them.
The constraints that pushed decorators of mosques to employ such creative vibrancy and develop this unique aesthetic did not come entirely out of artistic intuition or even a need for mathematical harmony, but out of religious necessity. Then, just like now, Muslim doctrine opposed making recognizable images of the prophet Muhammad, or any other prophets, for doing so is said to detract from their importance. When artists were given the task of making mosques beautiful, they had to do so without using recognizable figures, particularly not the faces of prophets.
Stigmas on both sides
Now, in modern day France and in countless other countries around the world, the constraints of Muslim doctrine have inspired a very different kind of art – the art of satire. Artists, journalists and everyday people all over the Western world and beyond use the right of free speech to criticize every part of life, and Islam is no exception. But many in the Islamic world as well as many Muslims living in predominantly non-Muslim countries are still adjusting to close proximity with societies where public mockery of religion is not just allowed, but a common norm. Western society too is adjusting to Islam.
As frightening as it can be to point out, Islam, like Christianity, another religion that is no stranger to violence and intolerance, does have certain facets that are not acceptable in a modern society. It is not okay for women to have fewer rights than men. It’s not okay to devalue people based on religion or sexual orientation. These are problems in other religions too, but open critique of these issues from practicing Muslims is both underreported and undersupplied.
There remains a sharp social stigma in Islam that makes open criticism of the religion from both believers and non-believers alike very difficult. Unfortunately, that stigma has frequently manifested in tragic and unnecessary violence such as the recent attacks on Charlie Hedbo in Paris. The world over, however, this violence still most commonly involves Muslims attacking fellow Muslims.
The West’s free press, which supposedly is up in arms to defend freedom of expression, is also not without blame. It certainly underreports instances of discrimination that Muslims in the West face for their faith. The Western press also ‘freely’ expresses more depictions of Islam’s extremist side than it does anything else.
“Violence has an echo”
Still, as attacks around the world show, this kind of over-depiction doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is often the case that outrage among fundamentalist Muslims in reaction to satirical religious mockery can hurt Islam’s image more than any cartoon ever could. The most tasteless anti-Islam cartoon is nothing compared to murder. Also, attacks from Islamic terrorists almost always swell the ranks of ultra right groups in Europe. An extreme right party has a far better chance of overwhelming France than terrorists have of eradicating free speech there.
In the same way that gang members killed two New York City cops as “revenge” for the police-related deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, French Muslims are now under attack from France’s most intolerant and revenge-seeking citizens. Attacks on Muslims in France have already resulted in fired guns and detonated grenades in French mosques, as well as the miscarriage of one French woman who was severely beaten by two islamaphobic men for wearing a hijab. Conversely, the Israeli bombings of Gaza in recent months emboldened anti-Semitic French Muslims of Palestinian descent to attack French Jews and Synagogues. To quote a much smarter person than I on the subject: “Violence has an echo.”
All of this drives the question: Is there a right way to criticize Islam? Extreme satire almost always risks stereotyping. That alone doesn’t justify killing anyone. Extreme political correctness is equally flawed. Secular classes of people who openly criticize religions like Christianity often won’t do the same with Islam in fear of both violence and appearing racist. The West still suffers from the misperception of Islam being as much an ethnic identity as it is a religious one. Given that Muslim populations exist everywhere from Morocco to Malaysia, such a concern needs to be overcome. Islam has many moderates and peaceful reformers in many different countries. Though, unless they are Malala, they are not well highlighted.
We need a balance of all of these approaches. If Westerners wish to criticize Islam and truly employ free speech, they have to tell the whole story. If Muslims want to participate in a world where everyone isn’t Muslim, they must accept harsh criticism of Islam and even contribute to it.
If that can’t be done, more Muslims and non-Muslims alike will continue to senselessly die.
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