Aftermath of Charlie Hebdo cartoons

September 2020 saw the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo reprinting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and subsequently, an attack was carried out by Islamic extremists outside the former headquarters of the magazine. Charlie Hebdo has a long tradition of using caricatures as a way of countering the rhetoric of political and religious authorities. This assault comes five years after an attack on the same magazine for the same reasons. Following these events was a beheading of a middle school teacher who had shown these cartoons to his students, in a class on ‘freedom of expression’.

Muslim countries in the Middle East and South Asia, along with Turkey, have witnessed protests against France and a ban on French products. This ban would extend to French multinational stores as well, including the Carrefour supermarket chain, Total and its petrol products, and fashion and cosmetic products from the brand L’Oreal, among others. The question arises, who is the ban for? It is clear that a strong European economy such as that of France will most likely not suffer from a boycott by countries in the Global South. The consequences of this ban may not be felt by the French economy; instead, only serve to fulfill the wants of far-right groups in Pakistan and restrict consumer choice.

This ban on French products is hypocritical if the Uighur Muslim crisis is taken into account. While PM Imran Khan of Pakistan has strongly condemned the cartoons and admonished President Macron for “attacking Islam”, Khan has not denounced the concentration camps in China for Uighur Muslims. This act highlights the politics that underlie the condemnation of France, while China remains unquestioned and unaccountable: whereas France is far removed from Pakistan in terms of political geography, China is an immediate neighbor with whom Pakistan wishes to keep good relations. The expected boost to Pakistan’s economy from the ongoing project of China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is too profitable an opportunity to squander in favour of opposing human rights violations by the very country upon whom the success of this venture depends.

Moreover, a political battle of wills has ensued as tensions rise in both nations following the controversy. France’s idea to have ID numbers for children led to Pakistan Minister for Human Rights, Shireen Mazari, likening it to Hitler’s ideology of anti-Semitism, only this time it was so-called Islamophobia. Mazari was forced to withdraw her statement after France clarified their position, saying this identification form would not apply to only Muslim children, but to all children in France. This identification is related to a recent move on part of the French government to make sure that all French children are attending schools, and to prevent “radicalization at home”.

By far the most concerning thing to happen on local ground is the mass protest carried out by TLP, which called for completely severing ties with France and banning French products; and in doing so fueled the ideology of the far-right Islamist political party. The fact that the government allowed these protests to take place, that too in the midst of a worsening pandemic, is highly unsettling. Violence ensued at the protest and riot police had to resort to using tear gas and rubber bullets. Additionally, it exposed many to the threat of COVID-19, and the leader of TLP also succumbed to the virus on November 19th.

What is especially worrying is the fact that such far-right politico-religious parties are allowed to exist in the first place and that their activities are not sanctioned by the government of Pakistan. Parties such as the TLP, JUI, and JI, in all their years of existence, have only managed to polarize the citizens of Pakistan even further, and have constantly fought against rights for women and minorities from a supposedly “religious” stance. It is clear that they are using religion as a means to an end: the end being power over a heteronormative patriarchal society based on a version of religion that constantly oppresses women and minorities in order to silence dissent.

These instances show Pakistan’s hypocritical and uninformed stance on French legislation related to Muslims. However, France has not been doing itself any favors in the present moment, or in the past, when it has carried out controversial bans on hijab, niqab and burkinis. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has asserted that this ban violates women’s freedom of religion and it could have the effect of marginalizing them by obstructing their access to the public sphere. The French Interior Minister has also attacked stores selling halal meats, claiming that this serves “separatism” in the community.

Clearly, France needs to take a more nuanced position when dealing with the threat of extreme Islamism in their secular nation: “…what is concerning is the lack of nuance from the government that results once again in Muslims feeling as if they are guilty until proven innocent,” says Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar and expert in religious freedom (The Washington Post). On local ground, it must be demanded that the government of Pakistan also take a stand, not only against international threats, but against native threats posed by far-right political groups which misuse religion as a tactic to gain power and cause civil unrest.

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