Asharq Alawsat - By Diana Mukkaled -
The discussion about Islamophobia in the West seems different this time.
The French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, by publishing cartoons that were offensive to Muslims, has once again drawn attention to Islam and the Muslim communities in Europe, and to the sensitivity of these communities towards the criticism of their beliefs.
Several years ago, and following the Danish cartoons incident, a severe split emerged. Although rare, there were those in Western democratic societies who argued for the absolute freedom of expression, no matter how offensive or sacrilegious. On the other hand, angry groups formed to prevent what they considered as something greatly harmful, which should not be met with leniency regardless of the justifications.
However, these days, after "Charlie Hebdo" published its recent issue renamed "Sharia Hebdo", and the newspaper's offices were set on fire by anonymous protesters, the division does not appear as severe as it was a few years ago. Of course, we will not find anyone who would defend the act of setting fire to a newspaper’s offices, or protesting violently. Yet, the dividing line between the two opinions regarding the freedom of expression is no longer an accomplished fact, or at least this is what reactions have shown with regards to the issue of the French newspaper.
Critics of the French newspaper's actions mocking Muslims are of the view that this is an exploitation of the freedom of expression, and that it only further consolidates Islamophobia and strengthens hard-line right wing currents. This is especially so in France, where Islam has become a cultural identity, and where Muslims seek shelter in a society where they always feel unaccepted.
But how pertinent is this discussion if it was proven that the newspaper had other goals, which had nothing to do with the freedom of expression?
In 2008, the newspaper dismissed a cartoonist for mocking President Sarkozy's son, his wealth and his conversion to Judaism, justifying the dismissal on the grounds that he had overstepped the line between satire and inciting hatred.
So why has this logic changed today?
It is difficult not to doubt the credibility of the newspaper's measures here, especially if we consider the amount of attention it received after its offices were attacked. All copies of the newspaper were sold out and additional issues were printed, which had never happened before. In fact, harsh economic conditions had forced the newspaper to temporarily close down in the 1980s for some time.
By posing such a challenge, did the newspaper mean to raise the ceiling of the freedom of expression? The likely result is that it has further widened the rift between the Muslims and the societies in which they seek to integrate. But if the newspaper's aim was to draw attention and generate propaganda, then it did just that.
It is clear that the newspaper played on a sensitive string with the aim of reviving its marginal stature. Yet it did so in a period when the West is reconsidering the Islamophobia issue. Charlie Hebdo did not choose the ideal time for its actions, as they could have been understandable had they taken place ten years ago. Today, thanks to the Arab Spring, the issue between Western societies and Muslims is not a question of freedom, because Arab societies have expressed a clear desire for such liberties.
So, we are now face to face with an out-dated concept, or one which will soon pass its expiry date.
Diana Mukkaled is a prominent and well respected TV journalist in the Arab world, thanks to her phenomenal show "Bil Ayn Al Mojarada" (By The Naked Eye), a series of documentaries around controversial areas and topics which airs on Lebanon's leading local and sattelite channel "Future Television". Diana also is a veteran war corrependent, covering both The War in Iraq and in Afghanistan, as well as the Isreali "Grapes of Wrath" massacre in southern Lebanon. Daring to do superb investigative work in Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen and Iraq (prior to the collapse of the Saddam's regime) and dedicating entire episodes of "Bil Ayn Al Mojarada" to issues such as "Honour Crimes" in Jordan, Diana has gained world wide recognition and was named one of the most influential women in a special feature that ran in Time Magazine in 2004. Diana writes a weekly coloumn for Asharq Al Awsat Media's Supplement, where she discusses current affairs in Arab and world media.