When it comes to defending free speech for minorities, the choice is simple: stand with us or against us.

French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has reprinted the cartoon of the Islamic prophet Muhammad to mark the beginning of the long-awaited trial following the 2015 terror attack on the publication’s office in Paris, which resulted in the deaths of 12 staff members.

French President Emmanuel Macron defended Charlie Hebdo’s decision as an act of defiance and bravery, saying, “we’ve freedom of expression, and freedom of belief”. The president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, Mohammed Moussaoui, says that we should not be paying our attention to the republished cartoons. Moussaoui urged people to focus on the trial “which must remind us of the victims of terrorism.’’

The slogan “Je suis Charlie’’, also known as “I am Charlie”, became a slogan to illustrate solidarity for the victims as well as for free speech and a free press. Even people who might hold disdain for Charlie Hebdo or disagree with its content have supported victims while unequivocally condemning terrorists with chants of “Je suis Charlie”.

The statement is loud and clear that French people will not be cowed into silence and will defend their long-standing tradition of free speech. However, republishing the cartoon has deeply offended Islamists. Terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda has overtly threatened Charlie Hebdo with severe consequences for republishing the cartoons. Their motive is evident: to terrorise people and hold western societies hostage to their vile and extremist ideas.

Charlie Hebdo and taking offence

These extremists have long used religion as a tool to radicalise vulnerable Muslim youth by dragging them down the path of violence and revenge. But it’s not only terrorist organisations posing a threat to the values of the free world. People who act as Islamist apologists in our midst have also made it clear to the world that their sympathies have never been with the victims who were shot down in cold blood for satirising religious beliefs.

Recently, an international union of Muslim scholars took offence at the republished caricatures of Muhammad instead of condemning the terrorists standing trial in the French court. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, says that republishing cartoons of the prophet is “unforgivable”. The Pakistani government condemned the decision by Charlie Hebdo to republish the “deeply offensive” caricature. People have staged rallies, burned French flags, and called on the entire Muslim world to cut diplomatic ties with France.

Such lame excuses to justify horrible terrorist attacks in the name of religious sentiments seem never-ending. The difference is that earlier, so-called representatives of Muslim communities hid their utmost contempt for free speech by sugar-coating it with “hurting religious sentiments”. An article published in Aljazeera clearly states, “It was the printing of these cartoons that ultimately provoked some Muslims to resort to violence and, as is customary, it was their backlash that became the nub of the ‘cartoon controversy'”.

The article further stresses how the religious sensibilities of certain Muslims are offended by the “assertions of the cartoonists’ right to free speech and to engage in humour.” The writer then recklessly continues to compare mockery with inhuman practices such as slavery in North America.

The author of the article published by Aljazeera seems to have overlooked the fact that human beings have a right to live with dignity, whereas ideas don’t have rights to be respected. The writer unabashedly slams critics who choose to defend free speech and refuse to engage in any detestable effort to justify that terrible attack on Charlie Hebdo. This is the epitome of victim-blaming, which shows immense indifference towards victims of violence. Saying that violence is not acceptable but that satirizing religious beliefs is also unacceptable. It also amounts to a straw man argument, hardly showing any condemnation for violence itself.

Why some Muslims terrorise

Muslims, especially vulnerable youths, see the victim-blaming narrative as the main reason why they react with violence to defend their religious sensibilities. The apologia to rationalise terrorist acts only implies that “Charlie Hebdo’s staff should not be killed, but what else did they expect by offending Muslims’ religious beliefs?”, which is appallingly absurd. This should be a concerning matter for all Muslims – a bunch of Islamists and their cronies are trying to control how the rest of the progressive and peaceful Muslims ought to react.

The deafening silence of the Muslim world and such scholars and demagogues on the plight of Uyghur Muslims exposes their goal was never to defend Islam, or innocent Muslim lives, or to protect Muslim women from rape and sterilisation. They merely aim to use provocative accounts of devastating situations in Bosnia, Kashmir, and Palestine, to radicalise Muslim youth.

One shouldn’t forget textual corollary. Shallow promises of heaven and jihad to establish an Islamic state are made only to gain political mileage. Not to mention how these Islamists sent death threats to Charlie Hebdo in response to a cartoon of Tariq Ramadan, who is no sacred religious figure, but a darling of Islamists as the grandson of one of the most influential Islamists of the last century: Hassan al Banna, founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Strangely enough, the “civilised” world see Ramadan as worthy of admiration despite several allegations of rape against him and his own moral support for clerics who preach horrors like female genital mutilation. This showcases the culture of offence never being about protecting religious sentiments or defending religious beliefs. Rather, Islamists specifically orchestrate it to shut down all kinds of criticism of people who manipulate religious sentiments to serve their own nefarious agendas they may share.

Drawing Muhammad

It must be made clear that drawing the prophet Muhammad’s image has been a tradition in Islamic history. Many Muslims artists refuse to see images of the prophet as blasphemous. Any effort to rationalise violence against people for mocking religious beliefs only protects the values of Islamists and their radical interpretation of Islam, which forbids any depiction of the prophet but condones instigating deadly riots and killing innocent people to defend the prophet’s honour.

Free from religious orthodoxies, Muslim philosophers have been making a remarkable contribution to mathematics, physics, and medicine for centuries. This is a tragedy that such traditions of innovation and diversity have been replaced by insularity and parochialism in the Muslim world. The ever-growing disregard for human rights in the name of protecting religious sentiments is profoundly worrying in such closed societies.

Religious people need to understand that their religious sensibilities ought not to be offended by other people’s refusal to respect or share their religious beliefs. Instead of scorning Charlie Hebdo and people desecrating the Quran, it’s time to concede that many an impressionable Muslim youth are brought up to disdain secular values that provide religious protection to all minorities in a democratic system. They are left at the mercy of Islamists to be groomed to be a “good” Muslim and refuse to integrate into Western societies. They grow up to distrust their fellow citizens and governments. Those resisting to follow the extreme path are shamed as traitors and sell-outs.

No wonder, then, that some leave to join ISIS, commit atrocities against innocent people on western soil, and some ghettoise themselves. This clash between Muslims’ religious sensitivities and western traditions of free speech lays bare these ever-deepening fault lines. This is no time to hide behind political correctness when facing such danger. A massacre of cartoonists and publishers is never a justifiable reaction to defend one’s religious beliefs.

Free speech in the Muslim world

Unfortunately, we can observe around the Muslim world how religious zealots are hell-bent on persecuting dissidents for offending their religious beliefs. Free speech has routinely been denied by religious fanatics to those who advocate progressive, humane values, and deeply depend on free speech as a shield against human rights abuses.

Muslim artists, writers, and dissenters indiscriminately face hostility and persecution for expressing their views. People view such freethinkers as threatening to religious beliefs. Dissent has become blasphemy and free speech a sacrilegious transgression that may mobilise people into lynching and committing vigilante murders and mass protests.

The US Commission on Religious Freedom report 2017 revealed that 9 out of 10 countries with the strictest blasphemy laws are Muslim majority countries including Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Qatar, Egypt, Libya, Comoros, and Algeria. According to the United Nation’s report on human rights in 2019, “the number of executions remains one of the highest in the world” in Iran. In Iran, being accused of adultery, homosexuality, blasphemy, and apostasy can result in the accused facing the death penalty. The curtailment of freedom of speech, the violation of basic human rights and a lack of fair trial has become a new normal for Iranian people.

In 2019, Saudi Arabia reportedly carried out a mass execution of 37 people convicted of protest-related offence, espionage and terrorism. 42 cases have been registered as blasphemy charges in a single month this year in Pakistan.

The president of the Nigerian Humanist Association, Mubarak Bala, remains in detention after facing accusations of blasphemy, which carries the death penalty in Nigeria. Another musician, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu in Nigeria faces the death penalty for composing a “blasphemous” song. Islamists burnt down his home and staged protests until he was arrested.

This showcases how a radical interpretation of religion demands respect for religious affiliations and sensitivities at the expense of innocent human life. Therefore, the denunciation of such brutal acts and extremist ideologies that endorse killing people for merely changing their minds or criticising and mocking religious beliefs is morally obligatory for everyone who believes in human dignity. Silence only warrants the motive of Islamists and their nefarious agendas, agendas that should be condemned unequivocally.

To reaffirm the fundamental values of freedom and liberty, it is important for Muslims to show the world that they can stand up to defend basic human rights while disapproving of these cartoons at the same time. When it comes to defending free speech, the choice is simple: stand with us or against us.