In the wake of the Paris terror attacks on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and in a Jewish supermarket, French people marched with world leaders through the streets of the capital in defence ‘of the principles of the French republic’ and in particular the right to offend others.  The Interior Ministry abandoned its standard practice of at least attempting to quantify crowds by declaring the numbers were ‘uncountable’ – no one dared to understate the size of the rally, although unofficial estimates claim four million took to the streets of Paris on a cold January Sunday, with many more marches across the country and indeed around the world, as the ‘Je suis Charlie’ (I am Charlie) label went viral on social media.

Of course, the ‘survivors’ of Charlie Hebdo were well aware that elements who they would regard as anathema marched under the ‘Je suis Charlie’ banner.  The Front National (FN), who envisage a clash of civilisations between the West and Islam, unashamedly participated.  The very next day the ‘anti-Islam’ PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident [West]) weekly Monday rally in Dresden drew its highest turnout with 25,000 people. The findings of an academic study by Dresden Technical University on the PEGIDA movement actually made out that only a quarter of protesters cited concerns they had with Islam, the vast majority expressing dissatisfaction with politics, unhappiness with the media and public opinion, and general concerns over immigration and asylum seekers.  These are all hot-button issues for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and before the party branched out to the working-class, most PEGIDA protesters were similar to the UKIP cliché – white, male, middle-aged and middle-class.

Although the Dresden rally on Monday the 19th of January was cancelled after ‘abstract’ death threats became ‘concrete’ according to PEGIDA leaders, 100,000 people took part in counter-rallies around Germany.  PEGIDA had pledged to stage more rallies in Berlin and Munich, until the 21st of January when a photograph emerged of PEGIDA founder, Lutz Bachmann, sporting a Hitler moustache and hairstyle in conjunction with Facebook comments he had made calling immigrants ‘cattle’, ‘scumbags’ and ‘trash’.  Bachmann immediately resigned throwing the future of the movement into doubt, though the offshoot in Leipzig, LEGIDA, still marched on Wednesday the 22nd of January.

Meanwhile, in Denmark, the country of the magazine Jyllands-Posten, whose controversial depictions of the Prophet Muhammad induced riots in some Muslim-majority countries in 2006 (and inspired Charlie Hebdo to reprint them), PEGIDA spread its influence to stage rallies in Copenhagen and Aarhus on Monday the 19th of January.  Inevitably (and no doubt to the chagrin of its journalists), front covers of Charlie Hebdo were brandished.  A splinter rally in Copenhagen protested against all forms of Islam, rather than the ‘fundamentalist’ version PEGIDA claims is its target.  As in Germany, anti-fascist rallies were mobilised and drew greater numbers, though it was the PEGIDA affiliates that drew the most media attention.

Far from the sympathies expressed by most world leaders, in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, according to official figures, 800,000 people marched against everything Charlie Hebdo stood for, on the 19th of January.  The autonomous Russian federal republic only has a population of 1.3m.  Its Putin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who had declared a holiday to allow the rally and was the highest-profile speaker at the demonstration, raged against the ‘false slogans’ of free speech and democracy in ‘defiling’ Islam. The event was extensively covered by Russian state media, its anti-western themes no doubt in tune with Kremlin beliefs.  The Chechen mass turnout was replicated in many other predominantly Muslim countries around the world.

Islam has a strong tradition of aniconism (shunning images of God and religious figures) but whereas the proscription against showing the Prophet Muhammad has many justifications, the one that is rarely mentioned is the cautioning against idolatry.  Such is the obsession though with the Prophet as has been recently displayed, it could be argued that many Muslims have fallen into that mindset which they most despise.  The Chechen rally had an underlying subtext of curtailing of individual expression that fits in with the prevailing official Russian attitudes.

Moreover, while it is blasphemous for Muslims to produce images of the Prophet, logically the ban does not extend to non-Muslims and in a pluralistic environment, there should be freedom of thought.  The ‘Survivors’ Edition’ of Charlie Hebdo had a very compassionate image of Muhammad on its front cover, but it still drew the ire of repressive Islamic regimes in Iran and elsewhere.  Which is not to say anything goes – offending for the sake of offending because you can is very juvenile.  Criticism needs to be pointed and aimed at the people in power, not ‘punching down’ on the marginalised.  The home-grown terror attacks in France were only linked very obliquely to religion.  Rather, they were borne of humiliation and exclusion, combined with radicalisation from Western actions in the Middle East and an atavistic desire for violence united in the minds of mentally troubled individuals.  To successfully combat that and uphold cherished western values is through engagement, integration and inclusion, not suspicion, persecution and mockery.

Protests Correspondent, Europe

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