Good Muslims love the country they live in - Laiq Ahmed Atif

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, this week's edition of Reporter asks whether there can be limits to satire, freedom of expression and religious tolerance 

The appalling murder of French cartoonists from the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo at the hands of Islamic extremists last week was the topic of debate on the latest edition of TV discussion programme Reporter.

Programme host Saviour Balzon asked Laiq Ahmed Atif, President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Malta, about Islam being a religion of peace, confronting him in particular with the fact that there are many who interpret passages from the Koran which advocate violence in a literal sense.

"Jihad is not about killing, it is an internal struggle. Terrorists are terrorists. Terrorism is not a religion” explained Atif. “We need more dialogue between religions, which should spread love not hate”.

Philosopher Joe Friggieri said his initial reaction to the Paris killings was one of shock. “It was cold blooded murder and no further descriptions are necessary.

"This attack was not only on the journalists themselves, but also on free journalism and freedom of expression”.

This, he said, led to the historic reaction by the French who demonstrated that they would not tolerate this manner of intolerance.

“Islamic militancy represents a minority, not the majority of Muslims. However it must be said that in the majority of Muslim countries they do not enjoy the freedom of expression and liberties that we have here. “

Friggieri described the participation of French Muslims in the protests after the shootings as a statement saying that they identify themselves as French first and foremost and Muslims second.

Balzan quizzed panel guest and cartoonist Ġorġ Mallia on cartoons that offend. “Are there limits on cartoon satire?” he asked.

Satire and offence must be judged in the context of culture, answered the cartoonist. As an example, he said that in Malta the reaction to provocative art is conditioned by the Church and that, at least in his experience, Malta wasn’t ready. “In fact I had attempted to broach this subject in the past but the reaction was very negative.”

Mallia described offence as central to the very nature of the cartoon as an art form. “It offends. The French are very liberal in the cultural sense– they wanted to test the limit of freedom of expression with these cartoons”.

Asked if the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed offended him, Atif said that they did. “I switch channels if I see them, but Mohammed, peace be upon him, did not endorse violence. In fact he had said that if someone attacks you with the pen, you must retaliate with the pen.”

Broadcaster and historian Charles Xuereb described the reaction to the attacks as unprecedented.  “The reaction is shocking, even in the context of the libertarian culture of Paris. You saw three million Parisians marching for liberty yesterday”

He did not think that the caricatures by Charlie Hebdo were the cause of the violence, citing France’s history with Algeria - the attackers’ country of origin - global terrorism and the fact that France is a symbol of liberty as more realistic factors. “They wanted to attack the birthplace, the symbol of liberty.”

Balzan pointed out that in the past months and years there have been a number of atrocities carried out by Islamic militants; Pakistan saw massacres of children, violence between Sunni and Shia all over the Middle East and asked the panel whether calling Islam a peaceful religion could be described as hypocrisy.

Friggieri commentet that he would often try to embrace the point of view that Islam is a religion of peace, “but when you see the atrocities and the punishments of Sharia law you ask yourself whether this is true”.

“What happened in Paris was that the atrocities did not take place in a faraway foreign land, governed by those laws, where we would say ‘what a shame’. It happened in the centre of Europe – and it shocks. Will it happen again? The majority of the 150 million French Muslims are not this way inclined.”

He laid the blame at the feet of those Muslim preachers who “need to learn that the West views religion the same way as any other philosophy - open to discussion and criticism and not on a pedestal.”

Xuereb disagreed, saying that the Algerian connection cannot be ignored. “While it is no longer a colonising power, the history between France with Algeria is not a happy one,” he said, mentioning the 1961 massacre of 75 Algerians whose bodies were thrown in the Seine, which resulted in the reprisal killings of eight French nationals.

Balzan pointed out that in Algeria hundreds of journalists have been murdered without a whisper of protest by the West.

Cartoonist Gorg Mallia dismissed the religious aspect entirely, saying that terrorists are simply criminals looking for a justification to murder. “They are also doing a lot of damage by allowing the far right to gain a fingerhold in Europe”.

Atif, asked what his opinion of the factors that drive people to perform these acts, said there are many reasons. “There is a lack of education, a lack of employment, frustration. There is also brainwashing by leaders. Many poor people, orphans, are brainwashed into thinking that this is the only way they can better themselves. They expect paradise, but the point is where does the blame lie? On the children or on the leaders? The leaders will have to appear before God and give an account for their actions.”

Muslims have a right to not be offended, said the local Muslim leader. “Freedom of expression is a right, but humankind also has rights. Islam says everything one does should be done with decency – yes the cartoonists have a right, but so do Muslims. A right not be offended.“

Mallia believes the central issue is protection of power, however. “We are talking about power, the Imams are looking for material power and are sending people to be cannon fodder. The Imams never ask their children to be suicide bombers.”

"The pen is also a powerful weapon," added the cartoonist.

Friggieri said there is already a danger that the Maltese, who “do not like immigrants much already”, will begin to view all immigrants as terrorists, also pointing out however that “there is no guarantee that what that happened in Paris will not happen here”.

“The only weapon is vigilance.”

Atif said that he was not aware of any instances of Imams spreading inflammatory teaching amongst the Maltese Muslim community. To the contrary, Atif said, every Muslim should integrate and obey the laws of the land they live in. “The love of your country is part of your faith. If I live in Malta I should love Malta. If I am a bad Muslim, I can do what I want, but if I am a good Muslim, I will love the country I live in”.