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Parlor Talk: Europe and its Muslim Community

Posted by Kyle Baranko on May 6, 2015 at 1:15 PM

Over 140 writers have expressed their displeasure with PEN American Center’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo with its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award. The movement was originally spurred last week when six novelists withdrew from the competition. Since then, the leaders have gathered signatures from an increasing number of competitors who protest the selection, arguing that the satirical magazine’s visual representations of the prophet Mohammad serve to alienate and humiliate France’s Muslim minority. The writers continue to reaffirm their status as proponents of free speech, but say that Charlie Hebdo’s content goes too far in criticizing and mocking Islam.

The protestors have a point. After the killing of twelve staff members in a terrorist attack last January, the satirical magazine has been the subject of much debate. All over Europe and the Western world, communities organized marches to express sympathy for the victims and to support freedom of speech. However, after the initial period of mourning, many people voiced their displeasure with Charlie Hebdo’s controversial content, arguing that its depictions of Mohammad were racist and unnecessarily offensive towards Muslims. Defendants of the magazine counter with the fact that the magazine satirizes all religions, not just Islam. Many of the cartoons have been relatively mild, providing an image of Mohammad but with a message that praises the religion’s fundamental values and laments its susceptibility to radicalization. On the other hand, some of the cartoons have been graphic and blatantly unnerving. For example, one cartoon shows a nude portrayal of Mohammad lying on his stomach, seductively posing for the camera. These more provocative images have sparked public condemnation from the Muslim community and even resulted in cyber attacks on the company’s website. The cartoons satirize many different topics, but those representing Mohammad have easily drawn the most criticism, culminating in a court case in 2007 when the French Council of the Muslim Faith sued the magazine for its portrayals of the prophet. The court sided with the magazine.

France has the highest rate of Muslim citizens in all of Europe, standing at about 7.5 percent. Despite the government’s best efforts at integration, many Muslims remain alienated in French society; rigidly enforced secularism has prevented Muslims from practicing in their ideal manner, exemplified by a law banning women from wearing a full veil in public. Muslim immigrants often arrive poor and lack the means to make socioeconomic advancement, struggling to adjust to a new language and customs. Resentment towards the Muslim community has exacerbated this issue, as many traditional French citizens look down upon and ostracize the ethnic group. The rise of the Islamic State has also helped move this issue to the media’s spotlight. European officials alarmingly report a high number of young Muslim men who leave the continent in order to fight in Iraq and Syria. Anti-terrorism programs in several European countries have highlighted the security issues posed when these men return from overseas, fearing a renewed wave of local terrorist attacks.

Both the Charlie Hebdo attack and the events in the Middle East have sparked anti-Islam rhetoric across several Western European nations. Germany in particular, a country with the second highest rate of Muslim citizens at 5.8 percent, has seen the rise of public demonstrations discouraging immigration from Muslim regions of the world. Stop Islamisation of Europe (SIOE) is an organization that began in Denmark and spread to the rest of the continent, focusing on combating Islamic immigration. A similar group, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), organized a massive rally in Leipzig, Germany, only canceling when the threat of terrorist attacks became apparent. These rallies would have been the largest East Germany had seen since pro-democracy protests about 25 years ago. These were the massive protests that helped topple the Soviet Union and create a free, transparent nation-state that now assumes a large leadership role in the Western world. It is ironic that the largest rally since then would have been explicitly discriminatory towards a minority; the freedom of speech and democratic government gained from past protests have led to hateful rhetoric targeted at an ethnic group. Thankfully, counter rallies were also planned to express their support for Germany’s Muslim community. But the divide is unmistakable.

Those six authors did not drop out of the competition because they believe Charlie Hebdo’s content simply went too far. They dropped out because they believe that these cartoons symbolize, literally, the burgeoning anti-Islam sentiment throughout Europe. Freedom of speech is a fundamental pillar of democracy, illustrating the views of the population and fueling social change. However, rhetoric can also be arbitrarily centralized on one particular ethnic group or religion, and this is what could be happening in Europe. We should all be able to criticize and make fun of religion as we see fit. But not everyone understands satire in the same way, and those not well versed in the intended messages of Charlie Hebdo could use the content to fuel the anti-Islam attitude sweeping through Western communities.

Categories: Culture: Anthropology

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