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The frailty of religious sentiments

A truly democratic country must value both freedom of speech and freedom of belief

The frailty of religious sentiments

Police officers stand guard as cartoons of French satirical weekly newspaper 'Charlie Hebdo' are projected onto the Hotel de Region in Montpellier on Oct. 21 during a national homage to French teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his civics class. (Photo: AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron is facing the wrath of the Muslim world, from Turkey to the Middle East, Pakistan and Bangladesh, for hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims by supporting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad for the sake of “freedom of speech and secularism.”

Macron has hailed as a hero Samuel Paty, a French teacher brutally decapitated on the street by an alleged Islamist terrorist on Oct. 16 for using the cartoons to teach students the values of freedom of speech. The brutal killing sparked street protests in France and calls to uphold the nation’s secular values.

President Macron, who earlier said that “Islam as a religion was in a crisis,” took the populist line and vowed to “never give up cartoons.”   

Turkish President Recep Tyyip Erdogan hurled insults at Macron in a series of speeches, most notably suggesting he should take “treatment on a mental level.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted: “By attacking Islam, clearly without having any understanding of it, President Macron has attacked and hurt the sentiments of millions of Muslims in Europe and across the world.” 

The cartoons featuring Islam’s most revered prophet, first published by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, have been at the center of a furious battle between Islamists and secularists in France and elsewhere for years.

This magazine has not spared any great personalities from caricatures, from Jesus to Pope Francis, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. But it came into the spotlight only after taking a swipe at Islam.

In 2015, the magazine’s Paris office was attacked by Islamist terrorists, leaving 11 staff and one policeman dead. The magazine decided to republish the cartoons to mark the beginning of a trial of the terror attack this year.

While some see the actions in France regarding Islam as the nation’s commitment to free speech, others see them as needless provocation.

Various Muslim-majority countries including Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait have seen street protests against President Macron and already strong calls have been resonating for a boycott of France and French products.

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There were sporadic street protests in Bangladesh but no official statement. However, social media has been abuzz with criticism and attacks on France and Macron.

Freedom of speech versus freedom of belief

The old debate centering on freedom of speech and freedom of belief brings forth that religious sentiments are so frail and sensitive that they can be easily hurt and broken, leading to angry responses and violent attacks.

A truly democratic country must value both freedom of speech and freedom of belief, and any deviation can be an issue of debate and legal actions, but terrorism and killings in the name of protecting freedom of belief should never be tolerated.

We must also condemn Islamophobia and the wholesale association of terrorism with Islam in the West since the 9/11 terror attacks on the US.

On the other hand, we should also deplore how religious minorities are targeted and made scapegoats in Muslim-dominant countries over fake accusations of hurting the religious sentiments of the majority.

Turkish President Erdogan has for years been a staunchly Islamist politician attempting to assert Islamic identity as the new Ottoman emperor of the century for political mileage. His recent decision to convert the iconic Hagia Sophia museum (built as a church in the fourth century) to a mosque despite global uproar is evidence that he cares more about the sentiments of Muslims than those of other faiths.

The world is tired of endless cases of blasphemy against minority Christians and Muslim Shias and Ahmadis in Pakistan. Often the cases stem from personal and community disputes only to be exploited with the draconian blasphemy law or with violent attacks based on mere accusations. Islamic Pakistan is unlikely to make the lives of minorities better by repealing the fatal law. Girls from minorities girls are routinely abused, raped and forced to marry Muslims, mostly with impunity.

It sounds ironic when PM Imran Khan deplores France for hurting the sentiments of Muslims while appearing to care little about abuses of minorities in his homeland.

What about the sentiments of minorities?

Bangladesh is a nominally secular country but it has seen a revival of Islamism in recent decades thanks to the influence of Wahhabi Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and the pandering of political parties to Islamists for political gains. Minority Hindus and Buddhists as well as secularists and Ahmadis have faced abuses by radical Muslims legally and physically.

On several occasions, religious bigots created fake social media accounts to circulate anti-Islam posts to create grounds for attacks on Hindu and Buddhist communities including temples.

Every year during Durga Puja, the largest religious festival of Bengali Hindus, idols of goddess Durga are broken by zealots who largely enjoy impunity.

This year a group of Muslims in capital Dhaka wrote a letter to a local government office to cancel permission for Hindus to set up a Puja ground in a club, claiming that it “hurts religious sentiments” of Muslims.

A Buddhist monk is in hiding after being falsely accused of hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims in Chittagong district.

Dozens of cases have been filed under Bangladesh’s repressive Digital Security Act against both religious minorities and liberal Muslims for allegedly hurting the religious sentiments of individuals and groups of Muslims by online posts and social media. There are no such cases filed by minority communities. 

Although Bangladesh’s constitution guarantees equal treatment all faiths, it recognizes Islam as the state religion. This creates a latent dominance and preferential treatment of Islam, leading to a feeling that only the sentiments of Muslims matter.

The real problem lies with regarding religious sentiments as fragile as a glass ceiling that can be hurt and broken so easily, even with a one-line post on Facebook or Twitter. That religious sentiment can be harmed as if it is a human being is a misguided ideology.

We cannot dream of a better world without true democracy that guarantees free speech and prioritizes tolerance instead of pandering to individuals and groups whose religious sentiments are so insecure and frail.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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