An Appeal against Violence and a Pledge for Respect

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times June 1, 2021 13:30

An Appeal against Violence and a Pledge for Respect

I believe that in our country, in the region and beyond, there is a solid consensus not only political but also social for the rejection of physical violence, to some extent even verbal violence, in cases of religious extremism. This is a precious quality that is cultivated over the centuries

By Genc Pollo*

1-Nine months ago, Samuel Paty, a high school teacher in Paris, used profane caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class to illustrate to his students the freedom of expression and the consequences and reactions to it; he offered to the students of the Muslim faith, mainly from families originating from Maghreb, to leave the classroom if they could not tolerate what Islam calls unacceptable insults to the Prophet. A student's parent complained against the teacher on social media, which turned into a hate campaign and spread like wildfire. One week later, a Chechen immigrant assailed Paty outside his school and beheaded him using a machete.

2-Three decades ago in Vienna, a colleague invited me to see the movie "Life of Brian" of Monty Python. At the cinema entrance, I noticed with some surprise two nuns handing out leaflets to people.  "Life of Brian" was a parody of Jesus Christ and life in Roman ruled Judea. The leaflet, which I read with curiosity afterwards, stated that the movie narrative was unworthy of the Son of God and that it unjustly hurt the feelings of Christian believers.

3-Somewhere in the middle of  the time gap between the leaflets in Vienna and the machete in Paris, an association of imams in Albania took the charitable initiative to donate blood to the sick, as proof of their love for the Prophet Muhammad; who was featured with a turban-bomb in cartoons published by a satirical newspaper in Denmark. Meanwhile the Middle East, Pakistan etc. were engulfed in violent protests: Danish embassies were attacked and, in some cases, set on fire. The contrast is obvious!

4-Last year, in February 2020, the carnival in the town of Aalst in Belgium presented for the second time the stereotypical figures of Jews in black clothes, featuring a big nose and carrying money bags in their hands. It sparked controversy: starting with Jewish associations to the Belgian Prime Minister and President of the European Commission who criticized the carnival for anti-Semitism and dehumanization; on the other side the Aalst municipality and the Flemish provincial government defended it based on tradition and freedom of expression and satire. In February of this year, the carnival didn’t take place.

Violence

I believe that in our country, in the region and beyond, there is a solid consensus not only political but also social for the rejection of physical violence and to some extent verbal violence, in religious matters. This is a precious quality that does not fall from the sky, but is cultivated over the centuries. It is not guaranteed a priori and therefore must always be maintained and nurtured.  

Europe has a difficult two-thousand-year history marked by atrocities such as the Iconoclasm, the Alhambra decree, the Thirty Years’ War, the pogroms and the last horror of the Holocaust. I am tempted to add the Albanian state imposed atheism to this sad list. However, the concept of human dignity and freedom is absolutely dominant after the Second World War and the fall of the Iron Curtain. So is the rejection of sectarian violence. We should be happy and grateful for this. Meanwhile the Middle East finds itself in periodic convulsions where religious extremism finds political space. The DAESH  (ISIS) caliphate spreading in Iraq and Syria (2014-2019) was a notable example; but powerful theocratic political movements continue the struggle for power through religious radicalization, incitement of hatred among Muslims and in-between the Abrahamic religions, and the fostering of violent extremism. They do this in Arab countries but also in Europe and beyond; online and offline. The cold-blooded murder of teacher Samuel Paty is unfortunately just one case out of many. But because of his status and the circumstances of the murder, in Europe there was a special wave of solidarity. A day was set in his memory. And rightly so because violence, murder and terror must be opposed without hesitation. The Minister of Education in Tirana, ignoring this memorial day, lost an opportunity for a proper moral gesture.

Respect

On the other hand, respect for the other, especially for the religious other, is a legitimate and necessary category. Respect for the (remaining) Jews of Europe, for their religion and tradition was invoked as a reason for the Aalst carnival to be more discreet. The quality of respect is that you do not insult the other person and especially do not force him to be exposed to the insult. Respect can no longer be regulated by outdated anti-blasphemy laws; it stems at least from a culture of restraint, discretion, and empathy for the other.

In this context we need to ask whether it is really necessary that the teaching of freedom of expression must be illustrated with images that are seen as offensive and humiliating by some students. “Charlie Hebdo” magazine, a victim of Islamist terror attack in 2015, had not only published cartoons of Muhammad; whoever browsed it may have come across extreme images, including disgusting cartoons where the Pope of Rome is mocked for his physical and age flaws.

And yet, in the context of freedom of expression and critical thinking, such publications are within the law: whoever wants to look at them can do so, those who don’t, can ignore them. But no one can make them obligatory reading for believers for example. Such provocations and wanton disrespect, helps extremists seeking to radicalize the masses. Those extremists who hate the democratic values of the Constitution. The fight against their ideologies, as France and Austria are trying, is necessary to preserve democratic values. But, also, respect for the other’s faith is the other side of the coin.

(*Former minister and DP MP; Panorama, May 31, 2021)

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times June 1, 2021 13:30