As France buries its dead and begins to deal with the aftermath of last week’s terrorist attacks, over 50 anti-Muslim incidents have been reported across the country, outside of Paris. These include 21 reports of shootings and grenade throwing at Muslim buildings, as well as 33 cases of threats and insults, according to Abdallah Zekri, president of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF). CCIF is a monitoring body within the Central Council of Muslims. The French government responded by including mosques and other Islamic buildings in those protected by the huge number of extra police and military personnel they have deployed for this purpose.
However, many people are also concerned that there will be longer-lasting and more serious consequences for the French Muslim community. France is officially a secular republic with the freedom to practice any religion. The complete separation of church and state in France has led to laws such as that of March 2004, which prohibits the wearing of any clothes or other attire displaying religious worship in state schools.
The law was taken so seriously that not only were staff and pupils forbidden to wear a hijab in school, but a directive published in 2012 extended the ban to parents on school trips. This meant, for example, that a hijab-wearing mother could not accompany her child’s class on an outing. It took a ruling by the French Council of State, the highest administrative court, to determine that this could be left to the head teacher’s discretion and an accompanying mother may wear a scarf.
Other areas of concern include potential restrictions placed on religious slaughter, circumcision and faith schools. In France, as in other European countries, laws have been passed previously with the (perhaps unstated) intention of “reining in” the Muslim community, but which have had a knock-on effect on the Jewish community, sometimes aptly described as “collateral damage.”
Despite events such as Friday’s attack and areas of political difference, there are many fields of co-operation between Jewish and Muslim communities in the UK and other countries. As family-oriented immigrant communities, the two groups often find that they have much in common, not least the fact that they are often subject to racist attacks. In the UK, TellMAMA, the Muslim monitoring organization for anti-Muslim attacks, has taken advice from and is in regular contact with the Jewish organization CST (Community Security Trust). Richard Benson, former chief executive of CST, is a co-chair of TellMAMA.
In the same vein, Chief Rabbi of Moscow Rabbi Pinchos Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of Jewish Rabbis, thanked the Muslim communities of Europe who had “expressed their support at this time” and said, “I truly believe that all the faith communities of Europe should work together to create a safer and more inclusive society, excluding extremists from our midst, who are a danger to the future of Europe.”
Perhaps the most fundamental point of contact is that of freedom of speech and personal expression. As minority communities, it is vital for Jews and Muslims to remember that the freedom that allows us to worship in the way we choose and educate our children in the way we choose also allows other people to say and do things that they choose, even when those choices offend our religious system. Obviously there are boundaries regarding hate speech and incitement and it is a moot point whether the Charlie Hebdo journalists crossed those boundaries. Our society provides mechanisms for expressing one’s displeasure in these circumstances.
For example, BBC journalist Tim Willcox caused outrage in the Jewish community and elsewhere when, interviewing a French woman, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, about Friday’s attack, he suggested that “Palestinians suffer greatly at Jewish hands,” as though this might in some way be comparable. However, no one firebombed his office or shot him. Instead, people complained to the BBC and Willcox issued an apology.
Speaking to the Guardian about the next edition of Charlie Hebdo, which will feature a cartoon of a crying Muhammad on the cover, Sughra Ahmed, president of the Islamic Society of Britain, echoed this point. She said freedom needs to be defended.
“We need to de-escalate the tension around all this. Those Muslims who feel offended may have a right, but in the scheme of things we should be far more offended by injustice, economic exploitation, anti-Semitism, murder, etc.
“At a time when Muslims in other parts of the world are struggling for freedom, we should understand better than anyone else the importance of free speech. Freedom is a benefit for all, and we need to defend it at all costs.”