23 January 2015
On Monday 12 January I received an email from the Jewish Chronicle asking if I would write an article for them.
"I wonder if you can help us with our coverage of the aftermath of the Paris attacks. We are looking for a piece by a Muslim spokesperson, who can explain the feelings of Muslims in Britain.
We’re particularly interested in the community response to what happened, and how it might affect inter-faith and inter-communal relations. We’d also like an idea of the range of views being expressed on freedom of speech and how it impacts on religious sensibilities.
We’d need around 800 words for tomorrow lunchtime if possible."
As my diary on Tuesday morning was terrible, I wrote the piece that evening and sent off 799 words. It was published in the JC edition of 16 January 2015 which had 30 pages devoted to the Paris attacks and their aftermath. My piece appeared on page 17 with the title "Muslims condemned it as well."
When I read it, I could see that it had been cut, which is understandable as space in a newspaper is always under pressure. The published piece is 565 words, but the editing has not distorted what I was saying, which is the sign of a skilled sub-editor. However the sub-editor had a lapse at one point, and I was dismayed to read the following sentence: "But I have never anyone, no matter how much they oppose Israel, who believes that the conduct of Israel justifies killing innocent Jewish civilians in Britain or France." I hope that readers who notice the absence of the word "met" will not form too negative a view about my ability to write grammatical English!
I prefer the original 799 word version, and have reproduced that below.
Relatively few British Muslims had heard of Charlie Hebdo before the terrible killings last Wednesday.
Of those who had, almost none would be fans of the magazine. My own view was that I regarded some of its cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as moderately amusing (“100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter”) and others as just deplorable bad taste. Even if it had been published in English and sold locally, I would not have bought it.
The attack last Wednesday came as a bolt from the blue for everyone. Knowing Charlie Hebdo’s history, my immediate expectation was that the killers were Muslims, and this was soon sadly confirmed. Twitter was flooded with condemnations by Muslims and non-Muslim individuals and organisations alike, initially while the identity of the killers was still unknown, and later with more detailed condemnations as more information became available.
On Thursday the Muslim Council of Britain issued a detailed condemnation, whose key paragraph summarised how most British Muslims felt:
“Dr Shuja Shafi, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain said: 'Nothing justifies the taking of life. Those who have killed in the name of our religion today claim to be avenging the insults made against Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace. But nothing is more immoral, offensive and insulting against our beloved Prophet than such a callous act of murder. Our thoughts, prayers and solidarity go to the families of the victims and the people of France.'"
The Conservative Muslim Forum, which I chair, within its condemnation said:
“The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) died of natural causes nearly 1400 years ago. He needs no avenging. Satirical cartoons of him published by magazines like Charlie Hebdo have no power to damage his reputation; nor do the actions of those who commit murder in his name.”
Sadly there are some extremist Muslims who have sought to justify the killings, but they are a tiny minority and do not deserve the oxygen of publicity which they sometimes still receive.
There is a variety of opinion amongst the Muslims about freedom of speech, as amongst other religious groups. Some would like the law to prohibit blasphemous publications, which English law did until 2008 when the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 s.79 abolished the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel, and also dropped references to blasphemous libel in the Criminal Libel Act 1819 and the Law of Libel Amendment Act 1888.
However the law of blasphemy in England had never protected Islam as in the case R v Chief Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate; Ex parte Choudhury ( 1 All England Law Reports 306) the Divisional Court decided, in the words of Lord Watkins, "We have no doubt that as the law now stands it does not extend to religions other than Christianity ...” Accordingly its abolition has made no practical difference to UK Muslims.
My own view is that God does not need me to protect him, and blasphemy laws always create problems as we regularly see in Pakistan. Accordingly I fully support Charlie Hebdo’s freedom to publish material even when I find it deplorable.
British Muslims were also shocked by the killings at the kosher supermarket on Friday. While British Muslims hold a range of views on how the Israel / Palestine dispute should be resolved, most are supportive of the Palestinian cause. However I have never met a single person, no matter how much they may support Palestine and oppose Israel, who believes that the conduct of Israel justifies killing innocent Jewish civilians in Britain or France. Accordingly I was very pleased to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas join the solidarity march in Paris on Sunday.
Sadly the recording history of the CST shows that every time there is a triggering event such as Operation Cast Lead or Operation Protective Edge, anti-Semitic attacks in the UK rise significantly. Tell MAMA has been recording anti-Muslim attacks for a shorter period but has seen the same pattern, with a significant rise after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich. France has already seen mosques being firebombed, and sadly I fear an increase of anti-Muslim attacks in the UK. That would of course please the terrorists, who preach permanent conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims.
There is also hope. French Muslims who have kept a low profile historically came out on Sunday to march in solidarity with Jews and Christians with the overall message which I saw on a placard (in French) “I am a French Muslim and I am against terrorism.” Accordingly the attacks may strengthen inter-faith relations in France and indeed in the UK.
Mohammed Amin is the Co-Chair of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. He is writing in a personal capacity.