1-Nine months ago, Samuel Paty, a high school teacher in Paris, used profane caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class to illustrate to his students the meaning of freedom of expression and the consequences and reactions to it; he offered students of the Muslim faith, mainly from families originating from the Maghreb, the option to leave the classroom if they could not tolerate what Islam considers to be an unacceptable insult to the Prophet. A student’s parent complained about the teacher on social media—the complaint turned into a hate campaign and spread like wildfire. One week later, a Chechen immigrant assailed Paty outside his school and beheaded him using a machete.
2-Three decades ago in Vienna, a colleague invited me to watch Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” At the entrance of the movie theater, I noticed with some surprise two nuns handing out leaflets to movie-goers. “Life of Brian” was a parody of Jesus Christ and life in Roman-ruled Judea. The leaflet, which I read with interest afterwards, stated that the plot of the movie was unworthy of the Son of God and that it unjustly hurt the feelings of Christian believers.
3-Somewhere in the middle of the time gap between the leaflets in Vienna and the machete in Paris, an association of imams in Albania took the charitable initiative to donate blood to the sick, as proof of their love for the Prophet Muhammad, who, at the same time, was featured with a turban-bomb in cartoons published by a satirical newspaper in Denmark. Meanwhile, the Middle East, Pakistan etc. were engulfed in violent protests: Danish embassies were attacked and, in some cases, set on fire. The contrast is obvious!
4-Last year, in February 2020, the annual carnival of the town of Aalst in Belgium presented for the second time stereotypical caricatures of Jewish people in black clothes, featuring a big nose and carrying bags filled with money in their hands. It sparked controversy: many people, from Jewish associations to the Belgian Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission, criticized the carnival for anti-Semitism and dehumanization; on the other side, the Aalst municipality and the Flemish provincial government defended the carnival, saying it was based on tradition, and they were protected by the right to freedom of expression and satire. In February of this year, the carnival did not take place.
I believe that in our country, in the region and beyond, there is a solid consensus, not only political but also social, for the rejection of physical violence and to some extent verbal violence, in religious matters. This precious quality did not spring out of nowhere, but has been cultivated over the centuries. It is not guaranteed a priori and therefore must always be maintained and nurtured.
Europe’s difficult two-thousand-year history has been marked by atrocities such as the Iconoclasm, the Alhambra decree, the Thirty Years’ War, the pogroms and the last horror of the Holocaust. I am tempted to add the Albanian state-imposed atheism to this sad list. However, the concept of human dignity and freedom has been absolutely dominant after the Second World War and the fall of the Iron Curtain. So is the rejection of sectarian violence. We should be happy and grateful for this. Meanwhile, the Middle East finds itself in periodic convulsions where religious extremism takes up political space. The DAESH (ISIS) caliphate spreading in Iraq and Syria (2014-2019) was a notable example; but powerful theocratic political movements continue the struggle for power through religious radicalization, incitement of hatred among Muslims and in-between the Abrahamic religions, and the fostering of violent extremism. They do this in Arab countries but also in Europe and beyond; online and offline. The cold-blooded murder of teacher Samuel Paty is unfortunately just one case out of many. But because of his status and the circumstances of the murder, in Europe there was a special wave of solidarity. A day was established in his memory. And rightly so, because violence, murder and terror must be opposed without hesitation. The Minister of Education in Tirana, ignoring this memorial day, lost an opportunity to give a proper moral gesture.
On the other hand, respect for the other, especially for the religious other, is a legitimate and necessary category. Respect for the (remaining) Jews of Europe, for their religion and traditions, was invoked as a reason that the Aalst carnival be more discreet. The quality of respect as a value is such that you do not insult the other person and especially do not force them to be exposed to the insult. Respect can no longer be regulated by outdated anti-blasphemy laws; it stems at least from a culture of restraint, discretion, and empathy for the other.
In this context, we need to ask whether it is really necessary that the concept of freedom of expression be taught and illustrated with images that are seen as offensive and humiliating by some students. The magazine “Charlie Hebdo,” the victim of an Islamist terror attack in 2015, had not only published cartoons of Muhammad; whoever browsed it may have come across extreme images, including disgusting cartoons where the Pope of Rome is mocked for his physical and age-related flaws.
And yet, in the context of freedom of expression and critical thinking, such publications are within the law: whoever wants to look at them can do so; those who don’t, can ignore them. But no one can make them obligatory reading for believers, for example. Such provocations and wanton disrespect help those extremists who seek to radicalize the masses. Those extremists who hate the democratic values of the Constitution. The fight against their ideologies, as France and Austria are trying to do, is necessary to preserve democratic values. But, respect for other people’s faith is the other side of the coin.
Genc Pollo is a former Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Education, Minister of Telecom & IT, former Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Education and Media and also of European Integration.