Death Threats in France: Idiocy in the Land of Voltaire

By Farish A. Noor ~ October 21st, 2006. Filed under: Syndicated Columns.

It seems as if this is going to be a bumper harvest year for fatwas and death threats. 2006 kicked off with the Danish ‘Muhammad cartoon controversy’ that led to a series of explosive and spectacular demonstrations the world over; though at the time many wondered how and why so many Muslim movements could spend so much energy mobilizing their followers over an issue that was, in the final analysis, less important compared to the immediate cataclysm we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan where thousands of civilians were being killed. With hindsight however it is clear that the impact of the controversy was global and that Denmark was placed firmly on the world map for six months at least.

Then last week yet another controversy erupted when the French academic Professor Robert Redeker of Saint-Orens-de-Gameville was forced to go into hiding and accept police protection after receiving death threats by email following a controversial article that he wrote for the newspaper Figaro. What Prof Redeker wrote was hardly new: In his column he merely reiterated the worn-out clichés of Islam being a religion of violence and Muslim history being one of bloodshed, war and conquest. Sadly, the reaction that it elicited was likewise predictable: First came the condemnations, then came the death threats. As if the jaded masses were in need of further evidence that Muslims are the stereotypical irrational zealots that the media portrays them to be, a small yet vocal minority of Muslims in France began to call for the killing of the author.

Now that Prof Redeker has gone into hiding, the government of France has been forced to take a stand on the issue and to react. What is important for us here is to analyze the nature of the government’s reaction, and understand its implications.

Off the bat, most of France’s leading political figures condemned the death threats to the author on principle. But the principle in question here is not that of solidarity with the author or the ideas he put forth: On the contrary many of the leading political and academic figures of France were quick to note that the article written by Prof Redeker was shallow at best, and replete with caricatural stereotypes not worth being taken seriously at all.

But the principle in question is this: That no French citizen has the right to issue death threats to another citizen, and that whatever disputes that may arise as a result of differences of belief and political opinion, the political rules of the game must be followed by one and all. Prof Redeker’s comments were inflammatory and pejorative, yet in many a constitutional democracy the world over such views are uttered by citizens of all political backgrounds and persuasions. The law that grants people like Redeker the right to articulate his views on people of another religion happens to be the same law that allows Muslims in France to go out into the streets to demonstrate for or against concerns close to their heart.

But the law of public accountability and the norms of free speech in the public sphere dictate that while everyone has the right to speak, no-one has the right to silence the other by force or the threat of violence. Here lies the element of transgression contained in the death threats issued against Prof. Redeker. France’s politicians have and do maintain that the issue here is not Islam or Muslims; and that their condemnation of the death threats and fatwas against Prof Redeker do not mean that they support the latter’s views. What it does mean is that no community – be they Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus or Buddhists have the right to issue death threats to any citizen of France.

This is what Secularism means in essence and practice: that it treats all religions on an equal basis and does not privilege one faith community over and above another. Another aspect of Secularism that is often forgotten is that it also aims to ensure the neutrality of the state vis-à-vis the different ethnic, racial and linguistic communities of a country too.

Some Muslims will undoubtedly bemoan the fact that their complaints against the Professor have not been taken seriously, and would be doubly angered by the fact that thanks to the minority voice in their midst they are again being typecast as violent fanatics and extremists. But let us ponder the implications of the issue at hand in a different context. If a writer, academic or public figure were to condemn the caste system that is inherent in Hindu faith and praxis on the grounds that it was a form of normalized and institutionalized inequality, would it be right for a handful of conservative Hindus to accuse such a person of Hindu-bashing and retaliate by sending out hate mails and death threats? Or should we not insist that in such cases of radical divergence of opinions one has no choice but to learn to live with difference? The same would apply to those who have criticized and condemned the excesses of the Church and its conservative stand on issues like gender and the Church’s historical complicity with Western colonialism and imperialism. These are painful truths that need to be uttered, despite the fact that it may offend some.

Silencing the voice of the other, no matter how critical and obnoxious it may be, does little to bring about understanding and certainly prevents the most basic form of communication from taking place. In this day and age when Muslims the world over feel misunderstood and yearn to have a voice of their own, they also need to learn to listen to the voices of others, no matter how critical they may be. We need to have some painful truths told to us in the face, in the same way that we need to dish it out at times to others. The option of silence is no longer with us, and in any case silence brought about by death threats and fatwas do nothing to curb the danger of prejudice and bigotry. If anything it is in the midst of such silence that the most virulent racism breeds best and fastest.

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