Imran Khan summoned the French Ambassador to Pakistan this week to condemn what according to the Pakistani foreign ministry is a "systematic Islamophobic campaign under the garb of freedom of expression". This came a day after he stated that the French president Emmanuel Macron had "attacked" Islam.
Macron has been getting a lot of heat from another major Islamic country, Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, questioned Macron's mental health due to the latter's views on Islam. There has also been a rise in Twitter users calling for a boycott of French products across the Arab world with #boycottfrance trending.
But what exactly did Macron and France do to deserve such global condemnation?
On 16 October, Samuel Paty, a French school teacher was beheaded by terrorists because he showed cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed as an example of freedom of speech and expression. Paty had been doing this since 2015, the year French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo suffered a terrorist attack. The cartoon Paty showed was from Charlie Hebdo. Before his gruesome killing, Paty had been subject to online threats for showing the cartoons in class.
There was a large outpouring of support in France for Paty and rightfully so, the man was the victim of murder. Not just murder, murder via beheading by a terrorist. Macron, like any leader would, stood in support of Paty and also reaffirmed France's commitment to the values of freedom of speech. Speaking on Wednesday, he touched upon the problem of Islamist separatists who lived in France but did not want to integrate into French society, by saying, "Our compatriot was killed for teaching, for teaching children freedom of speech, freedom to believe, or not to believe. Our compatriot was the victim of a terrorist attack."
If you're reading this, you could be excused for wondering what is so controversial about this. France is a secular society and has a strong tradition of freedom of speech. Someone was killed by a terrorist for showing a cartoon that a terrorist found offensive. But that's not how things work when you are discussing speech and Islam. For in Islam, any depiction of the Prophet Mohammed is blasphemy, and such blasphemy is punishable by death. The BBC reported that there have been divisions growing in France over the Islam and students themselves are holding the view that such a murder is justified. In fact, some students decided against taking part in the moment of silence for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015.
No doubt the sentiment is similar in the Muslim world, which comprises many countries that only provide lip service to the idea of freedom of speech. One such country being Pakistan and hence, Imran's reaction. He knows that by indulging in such grandstanding, he can consolidate his religious vote bank at home. The same is the case with the Turkish president, who has been trying to take Turkey away from the path of secularism for a while now.
Objectively though, this raises a much broader question: What kind of a world is it, where your biggest fear for saying or drawing something, does not come from the State but comes from a terrorist outfit?
Freedom of speech's biggest enemy is government overreach, but there aren't that many countries outside the Muslim world that would behead you for drawing a cartoon. Free societies cannot bow to pressure from these lumpen elements. Free speech is absolute, and no person's sentiment is worthy of protection by the law. For doing so, would establish the religion. Something that goes against the core tenants of secular values. To establish a punishment for blasphemy is to give State sanction to a religion and secularism a go-by.
Sure, if I drew the cartoons in India, I'd be jailed, but I'd be glad for that, because jail would be safer than a walk down some streets in Mumbai after doing such a thing. How is it that my freedom to draw what I like is no longer constrained just by the law but also by the mob?
We, people who believe in certain civil values, ought to rally behind France and the French president. Secularism and freedom of speech are values worth defending. They are values worth dying for. The French have lost a lot of blood fighting for freedom of speech while everyone else is trying to appeal to their various vote banks and dance around the issue. These are values that are not just recognised in nation but international law.
If Turkey and Pakistan cannot accept these values, it is they that need to leave the international community. Not France. We should focus our boycott energy on people like the Pakistani prime minister, who by this action, has effectively apologised for terrorism. Imran and Erdogan should no longer be welcomed in the international community.
The only limitation on expression ought to be the limitation of the mind. Anything else is a form of violence. When a community demands that one's expression be stifled in order to "protect their sentiments" and parts of that community attempt to violently enforce that demand via terrorism, we must begin to raise the question of whether it is time to actively critique religion. For the term Islamophobia has no meaning. No one is afraid of Islam; they just have disagreements and problems with it. After the events of this week, one might think, their disagreements and problems may not be entirely baseless.