Nine months ago, Samuel Paty, a high school teacher in Paris, used profane caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class to illustrate to his students the concept of freedom of expression and the consequences and reactions to it. He offered to his Muslim students, most of whom are from families that originate from the Maghreb, to leave the classroom if they could not tolerate what Islam considers as unacceptable insults to the Prophet.
A student’s parent complained about the teacher on social media, which turned into a hate campaign that spread like wildfire. One week later, a Chechen immigrant attacked Paty outside his school and beheaded him using a machete.
Three decades ago in Vienna, a colleague invited me to see the satirical movie Life of Brian by the British comedy troupe Monty Python. At the cinema’s entrance, to my surprise, I noticed two nuns handing out leaflets to people. For those who have not seen the film, it is a parody of the story of Jesus Christ and life in Roman ruled Judea. The leaflet, which I read with curiosity afterwards, stated that the movie narrative was unworthy of the Son of God and that it unjustly hurt the feelings of Christian believers.
Somewhere in the middle of the time gap between the leaflets in Vienna and the machete in Paris, an association of imams in Albania took the charitable initiative to donate blood to the sick, as proof of their love for the Prophet Muhammad; who was featured with a turban-bomb in cartoons published by a satirical newspaper in Denmark. Meanwhile, the Middle East, Pakistan etc. were engulfed in violent protests: Danish embassies were attacked and, in some cases, set on fire. The contrast is obvious.
In February 2020, for the second time, a festival in the Belgian town of Aalst featured stereotypical figures of Jews in black clothes, with big noses and carrying money bags in their hands. It sparked a major controversy as Jewish associations, the Belgian Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission criticized the organizers of the event and accused them of promoting anti-Semitism. The municipality of Aalst and the Flemish provincial government, however, defended their decision to hold the event based on tradition and freedom of expression. This past February, the festival didn’t take place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I believe in Albania, the Balkan region and beyond, that there is a solid political and social consensus to reject physical violence and, to some extent, verbal abuse when it comes to religious matters. This is a precious quality that did not fall from the sky. Instead, it was cultivated over many centuries of coexistence. It is not guaranteed a priori and therefore must always be maintained and nurtured.
Europe has a difficult two-thousand-year history marked by atrocities such as iconoclasm, the Alhambra Decree, the Inquisition, the Thirty Years’ War, pogroms and the horror of the Holocaust. I am tempted to add the state-imposed atheism of Albania’s former Communist government to this sad list. However, the concept of human dignity and freedom was absolutely dominant after the Second World War and the fall of the Iron Curtain. So was the rejection of sectarian violence. We should be happy and grateful for this.
In the meantime, however, the Middle East finds itself in periodic convulsions where religious extremism finds political space. The ISIS caliphate’s spread through Iraq and Syria in 2014-2019 was a notable example. Theocratic political movements continue their struggle for power through religious radicalization and the incitement of hatred among Muslims and the two other Abrahamic religions – Judaism and Christianity. This fostering of violent extremism is done in Arab countries, but also in Europe and beyond, using both online and offline methods.
The cold-blooded murder of Paty was, unfortunately, just one case out of many. But because of his status, and the circumstances of the murder, there was a special wave of solidarity throughout Europe that included a commemoration day set aside to honor his memory. This was the right thing to do, because violence, murder and terror must be admonished without any hesitation. The Minister of Education in Tirana, who ignored Paty’s memorial day, lost an opportunity to send a proper moral gesture.
Respect for the other, especially for the religious other, is a legitimate and necessary category. Respect for the (remaining) Jews of Europe, for their religion and traditions, was used as the reason for calling on the Aalst carnival to be more discreet. The quality of respect comes from the fact that you do not insult the other person and especially do not force them to be exposed to the insult. Respect can no longer be regulated by outdated anti-blasphemy laws, instead it stems at least from a culture of restraint, discretion, and empathy for the other.
In this context, we need to ask whether it is really necessary that the teaching of freedom of expression must be illustrated with images that are seen as offensive and humiliating by some students. The French magazine Charlie Hebdo, itself a victim of an Islamist terror attack in 2015, had not only published cartoons of Muhammad; whoever browsed it may have come across extreme images that included disgusting cartoons where the Pope is mocked for his physical and age flaws.
And yet, in the context of freedom of expression and critical thinking, such publications are within the law. Whoever wants to look at them can do so; those who don’t can ignore them. No one, however, can make them obligatory reading for believers, for example. Such provocations and wanton disrespect help extremists who are seeking to radicalize the masses. Those extremists hate the democratic values of a constitution.
The fight against their ideologies, as France and Austria are trying to do, is necessary to preserve democratic values. But, also, respect for the other’s faith is the other side of the coin.