By Christopher Lamb
France is witnessing a rise in anti-Islamic sentiment after the beheading by an 18-year-old Chechen Muslim refugee of teacher Samuel Paty after he had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to pupils in a lesson about free speech.
Two Muslim women were stabbed near the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the French government now plans to dissolve two Muslim civic organisations.
The women were attacked on Sunday evening as their assailants shouted racist insults. France’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said he was proposing to dissolve the CCIF (Collective against Islamophobia in France), which works to counteract anti-Muslim hatred, and BarakaCity, a humanitarian aid group.
Darmanin also said he had ordered the closure of a mosque in north Paris after it re-broadcast a video condemning Paty. French police, meanwhile, have raided the homes of dozens of Islamist activists active on social networks.
Muslim leaders from across the world have condemned the Paris attack, and have sought to disassociate the terrorist actions from the teachings of Islam.
Qari Asim, a British Imam and government adviser, told the Religion Media Centre that small minorities were twisting religions to their own divisive political agendas, and called for a “robust counter-narrative” to all forms of extremism.
But he warned that kneejerk reactions by political leaders could fuel hatred. “It is hard to opine on the particular actions that the French are taking,” the Leeds-based imam explained. “[But] generally, reactive actions when the emotions are raw sometimes fuel further hatred and division.”
He was clear, however, that religiously-inspired violence can never be justified. “The perpetrator [in the Paris teacher attack] was insulting the legacy of Prophet Muhammad as the prophet always taught tolerance, and patience. What happened over the weekend went against the core teachings of Islam,” Imam Asim said.
“As far as Muslims are concerned no one above the law. Any extrajudicial killings are beyond the pale of Islam.”
Yesterday, Dr Ahmad al-Tayyeb, Egypt’s grand imam of Al-Azhar, also issued a condemnation of the Paris murder in a message delivered to an inter-religious prayer gathering for peace held in Rome. Dr Tayyeb is considered to be the leader of Sunni Muslims.
At a meeting attended by Pope Francis and other faith leaders, Dr Tayyeb disassociated himself, and the teachings of the “religion of Islam”, from the “heinous criminal act and from whoever would embrace such deviant, false thought”.
Dr Tayyeb, whose statement was read out at the event organised by the Catholic peace group Sant’Egidio, said: “Such a terrorist and his likes do not represent the true religion of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Likewise, the terrorist of New Zealand, who killed the Muslims while praying in the mosque, does not represent the religion of Jesus, peace be upon him.”
Imam Asim pointed out how the Koran (2:256) stated there could be “no compulsion in religion”, which provided the basis of Islam’s defence of freedom of speech.
It was perfectly legitimate, he argued, to “debate and critique” religion, but he also pointed out that there are widely accepted restrictions on freedom of speech. Imam Asim argued that it was vital to have a dialogue about balancing freedom of expression and freedom of religion, in light of the sacred centrality of Muhammad in Islam.
For most Muslims, it is prohibited to depict the prophet in the form of an image, and Dr Tayyeb said in his message that “insulting religions and abusing sacred religious symbols under the slogan of the freedom of expression are forms of intellectual terrorism and a blatant call for hatred”.
Imam Asim stressed that “co-existence” between different religions and world views was part of the “divine plan”, because “if God wanted he could have made everyone believe the same thing”.
He stressed that Britain was one of the most tolerant societies in the world but that too often “fringes of our society are becoming the vocal parts”, and influencing the media and political leaders. “Political leadership across the world need to be extremely careful they don’t legitimise hatred against any community,” he said.
“Small minorities are twisting and wrapping religions to promote their own political or sectoral agendas. It is not Islam or religion which is the enemy . . . it’s not ‘us and them,’ it’s all of us who are law-abiding members of society standing against extremists whether they are Isis-inspired or from the far right.”
Imam Qari Asim Head Imam at Makkah Mosque Leeds and Chair of Mosques & Imams National Advisory Board