BRITAIN’S leading Muslim politicians have come out strongly in defence of freedom of expression following the terrorist attacks in Paris – urging communities to stay united in solidarity, not divided by fear.
Culture secretary Sajid Javid and shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan both condemned the “barbaric” murders of journalists working for satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo as well as innocent hostages in the Paris supermarket.
Javid said: “Most people would accept in our country, just as in any free country, we have a balance of laws that are there to protect people, but also to protect their right to freedom of speech and expression.
“People can still object to something they don’t like in a paper or magazine, but that doesn’t mean to say that it can’t be published. That is freedom, that is how it works.”
Khan, the Labour MP for Tooting, who describes himself as a practising Muslim, told EE it was important that Britons stood together in solidarity and not be “beaten by fear”.
“Acts of terrorism like this seek to divide us, and we must not let those who perpetrate them win. Here in Britain we will not be divided. We will stand together in solidarity with each other and the injured and bereaved in Paris, just like the millions of people who showed their unity in demonstrations across France last week.
“It is important that we are not afraid – we must carry on with our everyday lives and show that we will not be beaten by fear,” he said.
Paris and London are both on heightened alert as the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo, featuring a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammed on its cover, hits the stands this week.
Millions of people marched in solidarity against the killings, which caused outrage around the world. Last week’s attacks left 17 people dead, among them cartoonists, police officers and innocent civilians.
Javid, the son of Pakistani immigrants, said the “barbaric terrorists” who last Wednesday (7) mowed down 12 people at the Paris office of the satirical weekly – a target of repeated threats over its cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammed – were using a great religion to promote their “horrible activities”.
He said: “You can’t get away from the fact that these people are using Islam. They are taking a great religion, a peaceful religion of a billion people around the world, and using it as their tool to carry out horrible activities.”
Khan said he opposed any limitation to freedom of speech, adding it “is a right which defines our society and a right still being fought for in countries across the world.”
“We must all have the right to speak our minds and express ourselves without fear of oppression. Freedom of speech is a right to be proud of and to be protected at all costs,” he said.
Community leaders have condemned the attacks and urged sensitivity and respect for each other’s beliefs.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said freedom of expression was a fundamental human right, whether it “manifests in the form of cartoons and articles or religious sermons and dress.”
She said: “I must have the right to offend you, though that is certainly not my duty or desire. The crucial question is whether we stand up for everyone’s rights and not just those of people we like or agree with. Times of tragedy are invariably the most testing, but the people of France have equality and fraternity as well as liberty as a guide.”
The Tell Mama project, an anti-Muslim hate crime monitoring service, has recorded 15 incidents of anti-Muslim hate recorded in France, from gunshots at mosques through to pigs entrails being placed outside places of worship.
Fiyaz Mughal, founder and director of Faith Matters, which runs the Tell Mama project, told EE there was an “enormous amount” of anti-Muslim hate online and on social media after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
“In particular, Facebook and Twitter have been awash with anti-Muslim hate,” he said.
“We also know that whilst no lives have been lost regarding anti-Muslim hate in France, there have been 15 incidents of anti-Muslim hate recorded in France. There have also been gunshots targeted at people perceived to be Muslims.”
Dr Barbara Lebrun, a senior lecturer in contemporary French politics and culture at the University of Manchester, told EE there was a long history of anti-Muslim sentiment in France.
She said: “Attacks on French mosques have been a regular occurrence since the presence of mosques in France (the first and biggest one in Paris was built in 1922).
“There is a long history behind anti-Muslim sentiment in France due to the country’s colonial and post-colonial history – notably the violence and legacy of resentment of the Algeria War; the economic downturn that coincided with the end of legal migration in the 1970s; and the sadly commonplace practice of stereotyping.
“It is well-documented today that ‘Arab-looking’ Maghrebis are the most stigmatised ethnic minority in employment recruitment and in stop-andsearch police arrests.”
Dr Lebrun added: “If isolated (antiMuslim) incidents have occurred since the Wednesday killings, I am heartened by the wonderful show of unity of the French population, which included representatives of all the major French Muslim communities and countless Muslim individuals, who are law-abiding citizens agreeing with the republican principle of secularism.”
Professor James Nazroo, director of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) in Manchester, said he believes integration may well become a centre point of political debate in the upcoming UK elections after the Paris attacks.
“I would argue that the issue is not one of cultural difference, but of social and economic disadvantage,” he said. “But I think the emphasis will remain on so-called ‘uncontrolled borders’ and migration from Eastern Europe.”
He pointed out that the attacks in Paris were likely to make Muslims in Europe experience further prejudice, but France’s response to the attacks was “reassuring”. He said: “Previous research we have done suggests that experiences of racism and discrimination did increase following the events in New York, London and Madrid, and this had the potential to alienate Muslim people.
“The one nation responses from France however, and the identification of Muslim people who died defending others or who protected others during the attacks, is reassuring in this respect.”
On Monday (12), prime minister David Cameron vowed to give the security services more powers to monitor online and telephone conversations between terror suspects. “We must not allow terrorists safe space to communicate with each other,” he said.
The communications data bill – which critics call the “snooper’s charter” – were blocked by the Liberal Democrats, but Conservatives have said they will revive the legislation if they secure an overall majority in the upcoming general election.
Barrister Sailesh Mehta said a call for greater state powers usually comes after a terrorist incident, but warned Britons that their freedoms could be in danger.
He told EE: “Legislators will insist that the secret services need more intrusive surveillance powers, and that our rights of privacy must be further curtailed. There will be more detention without trial. Politicians always want more power for themselves, never less.
“In a UK election year, the main parties will try to out-do each other in suggesting ever more restrictions on our freedoms. This happened after every IRA bomb exploded in England. “Those that oppose such draconian measures will be shouted down by the media as being unpatriotic or in cahoots with the terrorists. It may be a grim year for freedom.”
Tariq Jahan, who helped calm tensions between communities in Birmingham during the 2011 riots after his son was killed, said he would hate to see more division being created after the Paris attacks.
“We live in a democracy, a society that’s not Islamic, so people have the right to say whatever they want to say.
“As a Muslim, my faith tells me to hold my tongue, so I will do that. Their (non-Muslim) faith doesn’t, so they should be allowed to say whatever they want. At the same time, I do understand to a certain degree why people were offended by the cartoons in the satirical magazine.”
Jahan added people must understand that “everyone is the same”.
“All these people who have been injured, they have lives, they are human beings. People tend to forget, if it doesn’t happen to you, it’s not that important.
“If you call someone a human being, they suffer just like you suffer. We cannot let groups like this divide us. Rather than talk about all the hatred in the world, we should talk about the love in the world,” he said.