The Mediation of Muslim Identity in Europe Post Charlie Hebdo

On July 21st, the International Communication Institute and the Guarini Institute hosted the third panel of ‘Media Geographies,’ ‘The Mediation of Muslim Identity in Europe Post- Charlie Hebdo.’ The speakers were Ibrahim Al-Marashi (California State University, San Marcos), Micheal Driessen (JCU), Pamela Harris (JCU), and Sabika Shah Povia (Journalist).

Prof. Al-Marashi opened the event with a historical introduction explaining why the Charlie Hebdo massacre happened and criticizing the media’s coverage of it. He explained that the depiction of Muhammad wasn’t ever historically prohibited; in fact, some depictions can be traced back as far as 1264 in Arabic literature (The Book of Muhammand’s Ladder), while others are linked to Dante’s Divine Comedy. The latter version of Muhammad, a condemned heretic of Dante’s Inferno, is indeed a very famous one in the West. Ibrahim argued that the problem with Charlie Hebdo cartoons, from the Muslim perspective, was the nature and manner of this depiction, not in the act of depicting Muhammad itself. The cartoons were brought to attention by a small local group of Muslims who feared that these blasphemous sketches could have encouraged Islamophobic, and rightist groups in opposition to the Muslim community.

Al-Marashi stressed the extent to which the media failed to bring before the audience a fair narration of the event. The Italian media was particularly egregious, manipulating a picture of terrorists shooting at a policeman to signal Islam’s threat against Westerners. The media failed to clearly report the extent to which most Islamist violence is targeted against other Muslims, including the policeman in this photo.

JCU Professor Michael Driessen followed with an analysis of how the Charlie Hebdo event influenced the Western narrative on Islam, Muslims’ own story of their global role, and the consequences of this for the democratization process in the Middle East.

The rapid advance of the IS wiped out decades of academic research and work in the field of Muslim democratization. After years of trying to steer away from the dangerous mindset of Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations,’ the escalation of Islamist violence cut loose such relatively moderate fringes as the Muslim Brothers. The Charlie Hebdo massacre displaced many academics’ focus on the religious, democratic alternative to authoritarianism in the Muslim world to the angry fight for secularism and Western freedoms at all costs. Driessen argued that the Western narrative of a clash of civilizations actually feeds the goals of the IS, by effectively sidelining more moderate, democratic Islamic political forces. Civil society still supports a religiously-infused democracy, though data from Tunisia, Egypt, and Iraq show a slight decline in support for democracy in the past three years. Prof. Driessen expressed his hope for a humanistic counter-narrative able to stand up to violence and to stand up for liberties.

Professor Pamela Harris discussed the multiple interpretations of the Charlie Hebdo violence, and the West’s response to it. Europeans tended to interpret the massacre as an Islamist attack on Western liberties, but focusing only on this could mean neglecting the real harms of anti-Muslim blasphemy. Prof. Harris argued that the liberal state’s commitment to freedom of speech, in vital service to the values of autonomy, truth, and democracy, can in fact be very selective. She argued that Edward Snowden deserved the PEN Freedom of Expression Courage Award more than Charlie Hebdo.

She explained the major differences between the United States and Europe’s valuation of free speech, arguing that Europe is more open than the U.S. about the relative value of free speech—balancing it against such values as human dignity, morality, privacy, and personal honor. For example, in Europe, blasphemy is a non-protected speech. In conclusion, she argued that maybe it is less about the form (speech) and more about the content, and that people should be aware and recognize when their speech could mean harm to someone.

Lastly, Sabika Shah Povia offered a very personal presentation about her life as an Italian citizen, of Pakistani origin, and Shi’a Muslim. She wanted people to understand that Muslims are part of Western societies, and that Muslims can be Westerners. She reported that 63% of Europeans had negative views on Islam and that Germany and France, states with the largest percentage of Muslims, also had the lowest percentage of Islamophobia in 2005. She explained how Italians had a hard time accepting Muslims as their own, and blamed the media’s biased or inaccurate coverage for creating prejudices and stigmas that are difficult to erase from people’s common understanding and narratives. Sabika critiqued most of Italians, or more in general Westerners, for expecting Muslims to take action with respect to the atrocities of the IS. She called upon Europeans to aspire to a more honest and less stereotypical vision of the Muslims in their midst. Sabika hoped that in time, maybe after ‘enough’ generations of immigrants have lived in the soil of European countries, Europeans as well, will recognize them as fellow citizens.