In the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks in France, people from all over the world have come together in defense of free speech and against the threat of terrorism. Almost immediately after the office building of the magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked by Islamic terrorists, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie emerged as a global movement in solidarity with the victims. Unfortunately, (as well as predictably) some have used this celebration of free speech to churn out hate speech against certain religious groups. While it is of utmost importance for us to maintain our core values like freedom of speech and expression in the face of terror, it is also important to recognize when we are being hypocritical.
France has shown that even after being at the forefront of this free speech movement, there are some kinds of expression they do not consider free. Just three days after millions of people attended anti-terrorism and freedom of expression rallies in Paris, 54 people were detained “as France cracks down on hate speech, anti-Semitism and glorifying terrorism.” One of the people arrested was a popular French comedian named Dieudonne, “who popularized an arm gesture that resembles a Nazi salute” and has also “been convicted repeatedly of racism and anti-Semitism.” These arrests beg the question: does freedom of speech and expression exist for everyone, or are certain groups and topics off limits?
Anti-Semitic speech and Holocaust denial are serious crimes in Europe. But ridiculing Muslims is not only legal in Europe, it has been celebrated as almost a symbol of free speech in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. This glaring hypocrisy in Europe has served to censor criticism of one religion, and promote criticism and ridicule of another. In America, the First Amendment protects our freedom of speech and the right to criticize any religion. But just because our laws may not be as hypocritical as Europe’s doesn’t mean we don’t share double standards for Muslims that are just as hypocritical.
In the post-9/11 era, whenever Islamic extremists commit a terrorist attack the knee-jerk response has become tiredly predictable: Islam must be evil. First and foremost, this simplistic diagnosis is a way for non-Muslims to feel like their religion is superior. This arrogant and misguided attitude is on full display in a YouTube video featuring a hateful, ignorant woman standing in front of a giant American flag while burning the Qur’an. She calls the Qur’an “evil garbage” and tells it to “go back to hell where you came from” while also encouraging other Christians to make their own video burning the Qur’an. She had bookmarks made out of bacon to mark the “evil” verses and recited them out loud before tearing out the pages and lighting them on fire. This woman must have never read her own holy book, since there are plenty of “evil” passages in the Bible that she could have lit on fire if she wanted to be fair. Instead, she inadvertently illustrated a common double standard where ancient religious scriptures are deemed evil and unavoidable for Muslims, but easily overlooked for Christians.
Disclaimer for basic bros: I do not condone the violent scriptures of any religion, including Islam. I am merely pointing out the fact that all religions, including Islam, Judaism and Christianity, have barbaric scriptures which advocate the killing of non-believers. There are far too many Americans who are oblivious to this basic fact about their own religion. And this Qur’an burning Christian woman puts on display how ignorance breeds violence, as she dares “any Muslim’s who wants a piece of me” to come and get it. Clearly this woman is beyond help and will probably never realize that she is throwing stones from a glass house, but I write this piece because most people of faith are not this hateful and impervious to facts. It is time for tolerant Christians to recognize that Islam is no more inherently violent or barbaric than Christianity.
Unfortunately, we do live in a time when the majority of terrorist activity we see around the world stems from Islamic extremism, and this makes it easy to reinforce broad stereotypes about the religion. What most people don’t know is that this trend of militant Islamic terrorism is a relatively recent phenomenon which has mainly come in response to ongoing occupations in the middle east. The vehicle used in these terrorist groups is religion, but their goals are political. Islam has been merely used as a tool by middle eastern terrorists to recruit disgruntled youth and acquire power. It is important to understand the history of Islamic terrorism and it’s scope before painting an entire religion of 1.7 billion people as “evil.” This history is far too long and complex to articulate in this piece but you can read an overview of the evolution of Islamic terrorism here.
To put it in basic bro terms: using ISIS or Al-Queda as a representation of Muslims is like using the KKK or Westboro Baptist Church as a representation of Christians. As Americans, we are able to see the differences between the various branches of Christianity and thus do not lump moderate Christians in with these extremists. But the fact that Muslims are such a tiny minority in America leads us to view them as a monolith since we are not familiar with the nuances that exist in the Muslim world. Many Christians expect Muslims to denounce and apologize for every act of terror committed by a Muslim extremist, but don’t feel the need to apologize for the acts of Christian extremists. A double standard exists where Muslims are held responsible for the acts of their most extreme elements, while Christians are immune of responsibility for their most extreme elements. I often hear Christians say that members of the Westboro Baptist Church “aren’t real Christians,” but somehow believe that ISIS and Al-Queda are not only real Muslims, but the face of Islam. Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways.
You can’t gawk at the violent passages in the Qur’an without also confronting the violent passages in the Bible. You can’t cherry pick the peaceful passages in the Bible and overlook the peaceful passages in the Qur’an. You can’t expect billions of people to take responsibility for the most extreme elements of their religion if you aren’t willing to take responsibility for the most extreme elements of yours. What you can do, is acknowledge that all religions have had their fair share of bloodshed and extremists who are not representative of the entire group. The sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner we can have a real conversation about the real reasons why the Middle East is such a mess, and acknowledge our role in that mess.
We must always fight to preserve our right to speak freely and challenge ideas, even in the face of terrorist threats and intimidation. Nothing is above criticism and we should question everything, especially religion. And that goes for all religions, not just Islam, bro.