Supporters of hardline Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan protest against the reprinting of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad by French magazine 'Charlie Hebdo' in Rawalpindi on Sept. 4. (Photo: AFP)
Two Catholic Church leaders in South Asia have strongly criticized caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad by French magazine Charlie Hebdo and their support by French President Emmanuel Macron as well as broader French society for the sake of secularism and freedom of expression.
Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore in Pakistan and Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi in Bangladesh are among the handful of church leaders who find anti-Islam actions in France and violence in the name of religion equally deplorable.
“We condemn the sacrilegious display in the strongest terms. A liberal society doesn’t mean increasing difficulties for the public and hurting their sentiments, especially their religious beliefs,” Archbishop Shaw, chairman of the National Commission for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism, told UCA News on Oct. 26.
In a statement on Nov. 2, Bishop Rozario, chairman of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh, was even more critical.
The prelate said that the right to freedom of speech should not be “devoid of values and ethics” and that Christians could not support “an unforgivable injustice” committed by Charlie Hebdo by publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, adding that it was more frustrating that the French president and citizens have supported the cartoons.
“We should not attack the religious faith of anyone. Pope Francis has been calling for a world based on humanity and fraternity, and we condemn such deplorable acts. We also strongly condemn all kinds of violence. Let us learn to respect each other's religion,” Bishop Rozario added.
Heads and citizens of Western states need to carefully listen to the messages that two leaders of a minority faith in Muslim-majority countries are trying to convey.
Firstly, the invasive idea of ultra-secularism and an extreme level of freedom of expression “devoid of values and ethics” in the post-Christian West that offends religions and their followers, even inciting violence, is unappetizing and unacceptable.
Secondly, needless provocations against Islam in Europe and America, often out of thoughtless Islamophobia since the 9/11 attacks, pose grave dangers for minorities, especially Christians in Asia, a Muslim-majority continent where they have earned the trust and praise of the majority faith through decades of good works and interfaith dialogue and have coexisted peacefully for ages. Those hard-earned achievements could be destroyed by the anger of emotionally driven followers of Islam.
We should not forget that America’s decades-long war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan achieved nothing but scorched earth and dead bodies. As a byproduct, it emboldened a new generation of extremists who, after failing to target Western interests, vented their anger violently on Christians in Pakistan, where scores have been killed in deadly gun and bomb attacks.
Such violence also encouraged terror groups in other Muslim countries including Indonesia and Bangladesh to cause mayhem targeting both minorities and liberal Muslims.
Samuel Paty, the French teacher killed by a Russian Muslim refugee in Paris for showing Charlie Hebdo cartoons in his class, was perhaps a strong secularist, but three people murdered by a suspected terrorist at a church in the French city of Nice were practicing Catholics.
So, the acts of ultra-secularists not only pose threats to secularists but also to religiously faithful people. That’s the real problem.
Causes of extremism
In the West, it is common to blame Islam for terrorism instead of blaming and uprooting the main causes of extremism — poverty, unemployment, lack of education, poor religious and moral formation and lax family bonds.
For example, poor, neglected and disintegrated slums or ghettos in France and other European countries inhabited by Muslim refugees from Asia and Africa have become breeding grounds for social vices like terrorism.
So, when an act of terror happens, Islam as a faith is blamed but no soul searching takes place to figure out the systematic lapses in the state and the society.
Ironically, gruesome acts of terror committed by people with Christian roots are rarely associated with their faith. The deadly gun attack on a New Zealand mosque by a white supremacist and dozens of mass shootings in the US and Europe, supposedly by Christian men, have not been associated with their religion.
In 16th century Europe, Christianity faced massive religious, political, intellectual and cultural upheaval that splintered the Catholic Church and led to the emergence of Protestantism and separation of the state and the Church. It is true the Church also had various anomalies and needed checks and balances, but it cannot be blamed for much of the socioeconomic and political crisis in the continent in the aftermath.
The drastic fall of Catholic Europe opened the floodgates for defaming Christianity, including important religious figures like Jesus and Mary as well as popes, in the name of liberalism.
Now, the West is attempting to reform Islam and Muslims by forcing extreme liberalism on them in the form of imposing secular practices like banning the burqa and headscarf for Muslim women in France. President Macron recently said that “Islam as a religion was in a crisis.”
Moreover, anti-Islam cartoons in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 and then republished by Charlie Hebdo, which sparked a deadly terror attack in 2015, are examples of the vilification of Islam.
These actions are the signs of what can be called the West’s secular fundamentalism that cares little to nothing for religions and religious institutions. These are surely not paths to harmony and peace.
The real spirit of secularism
The Western idea of secularism centers mostly around relegating religion from public to private life and, in extremity, wholesale rejection of religion for so-called modern and scientific ideas. However, this is neither the ultimate way nor the true spirit of secularism.
Secularism should be seen as a counter to communism that denies any influence of religion. It is effectively ending the dominance of any single religion and advocating equal treatment and respect for all faiths and their adherents based on principles of religious pluralism and harmony. It acknowledges religious diversity.
Since gaining independence in 1971, Bangladesh, despite more than a decade of military rule, has followed secularism in the sense of religious harmony. Thus, it has been praised as one of the moderate Muslim countries for years, and even by Pope Francis before and after he visited the country in 2017, despite sporadic violence from religious extremists.
The West needs to rethink its extreme liberalism in order to provide a space for all people — believers and non-believers alike — without allowing them to offend one another if we really want to establish peace and harmony in the world.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.