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Opinions of Sunday, 8 February 2015

Columnist: Antwi-Boasiako, Kwaku

Charlie Hebdo is not the problem…

The killing of 12 people at Charlie Hebdo's Paris offices on the morning of 7 January 2015, at about 11:30 local time, sparked a chain reaction across the world in the following days and weeks. There were marches of defiance in France and protests of anger by Muslims in several countries across the world against publishing images of Prophet Muhammad in Charlie Hebdo’s first post-attack edition.
Niger, in West Africa, experienced one of the most violent and deadly protests against publishing images of Prophet Mohammed by Charlie Hebdo (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-30863159). At least 5 people were killed. Churches were burned down or looted. Shops run by Christians were looted. Bars, hotels and businesses under non-Muslim ownership were also targeted. What is instructive is a subsequent radio interview that the BBC World Service granted to a victim. The victim was clearly upset by whatever he had lost, but most significantly he was upset to listen to one of the young Muslim protesters on TV who apparently didn’t even know what Charlie Hebdo was or why he was protesting. And that is the main reason for writing this piece.

I find religion to be tyrannical. People are brought up to accept whatever is in the particular religion’s scriptures without being able to question anything. Whether what they read makes sense to them or not, people dare not raise questions. Children recite scriptural verses verbatim and accept and practice religious rituals without daring to ask ‘why’. Any attempt to raise questions, and you risk being accused of either insulting the religion, the Prophet or being accused of apostasy, which in some Muslim jurisdictions carries the death penalty. It is the same with all the major religions, except that the punishment in the Islamic context is, in recent history, always the harshest. And so people grow up accepting certain teachings of their religions even if they don’t understand and can’t explain why they have to do what their Imams, Pastors and Preachers tell them.

When I was in secondary school, a very close friend of mine stopped attending the Catholic Church and instead joined the Assemblies of God Church. He had been very prominent in the activities of the Catholic Church. He later explained to me that he could not understand why he had to kiss a cross/crucifix and other objects, and no senior member of the church was able to explain it to him. Hence he felt the need to quit the Catholic Church. Not many Muslim children can simply quit being Muslims. In Afghanistan and some parts of Pakistan, even their own family could kill them. I have always wondered why a young man or woman in the 21st century would accept to kill himself in order to kill other people in the name of satisfying some religious edict, without questioning why the Imam or Sheik would not ask his own children and other family members to first offer themselves as suicide bombers or Jihadists. I wonder why a young man wouldn’t ask the Imam to first kill himself, if he believed there are rewards in Paradise for so-called Jihadists. The reason I think they don’t ask questions is because right from their childhood, they have been taught to accept every word in the Qur’an as the final word of Allah that is not subject to questioning or interpretation. Any attempt to do so amounts to disobeying the Prophet and the consequences can be severe. So if an Imam quotes a portion of the same Qur’an to them and tells them to kill all ‘infidels’ or those who ‘insult’ the Prophet, that young man feels powerless to reason up with the Imam or just say no and walk away. Young people are being radicalized simply because religion has been used to rob them of their power to reason. Otherwise, how do you explain why anybody would kill a fellow Nigerien and destroy properties belonging fellow Nigeriens because of a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad published by a magazine based in Paris that is over 3,600 kilometres away from Niger?

Defiance

If people would be honest, they would admit that there are so many beliefs in their chosen religion that they do not understand and yet are afraid to ask questions. For instance, how many Muslims have questioned why the image of the Prophet cannot be displayed or published? And how many have really bothered to wonder how imperative it is for another human being to be killed simply by publishing such an image, especially when the publisher does not subscribe to the Muslim religion? There is no question there’s the need to respect other people’s faith. But should that respect come as a result of fear of death, threats and intimidation, or it should come as a result of understanding of the reason(s) behind what others believe? There is a limit to how far fear can exact respect from other people. This is because there comes a time when people lose their fear of death and/or lose their desire to live. So, how long can fear be used to stop people from publishing images of the Prophet, if they don’t even understand the reasons why such a restriction exists in the first place? Will people respect Islam better if they are afraid of being killed or if they are taught to understand Islam? When in September 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of the Prophet that led to protests around the world, including violent demonstrations and riots in some Muslim countries, did the violence stop Charlie Hebdo from doing the same? And, did killing those 12 people at Charlie Hebdo’s offices stop them from further publishing the Prophet’s images?

From secondary school, through university and working life, I have had many close friends and colleagues who are Muslims and so I cannot bring myself to do anything that offends their religious sensibilities. But that is not to say that I understand why certain things are done or not done in their religion. And also, of course I wouldn’t want to be killed this young and leave my children asking why their father had to be killed. But the question is, like the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, what if one day and for some reason I no longer cherish the relationships I have with all these Muslim friends and colleagues? What if some day and for some reason I no longer fear having to get killed and leaving my children behind? What if some day life means little to me and I become foolhardy?

Only yesterday, 21 January 2015, there was controversy brewing in Ghana (http://www.myjoyonline.com/news/2015/January-21st/waec-clashes-with-islamic-authorities-over-wearing-of-hijab.php) between the Islamic Unit of the Ghana Education Service (GES) and the West African Examinations Council (WAEC). WAEC said it will not make an exception to their requirement for passport pictures, after an official of the Islamic Unit of the Ghana Education Service (GES) expressed anger over WAEC’s insistence that Muslim girls need to remove a religious apparel, the hijab, before they could take their photos for exams registration. So why such a huge controversy? I know some Muslim women who have travelled to the USA from Ghana. And I am 100% sure that the passport photos they took when applying for their US visas, met the requirements of the US Embassy. And those requirements include not covering the ears. According to the US Embassy, photos for visas must “Show the applicant facing straight ahead, looking neither down nor to the side, with applicant's head centered in the frame and applicant's ears exposed”. I have never heard any Ghanaian Muslim leader protest to the US Embassy to allow Muslim women and girls to wear the Hijab when taking photos for US Visas. So why this needless controversy that can potentially affect the education of those Ghanaian Muslim girls?

So, is Charlie Hebdo the problem? You may kill all the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists today and yet there would be other cartoonists who will do the same a few years down the line. There is real need for the major religions to do serious introspection and find a better way to preach to their followers as well as the unbelieving world. There is a limit to how much violence and death can achieve. Could the major religions consider using dialogue and teaching to get the world to understand their religion and to respect their beliefs rather than resort to violence and intimidation to exact respect and compliance? By the way, if Allah or God is so powerful and merciful and can do anything He pleases, as all the major religious scriptures would have us believe, why would Allah or God require a drug-dealing, gun-running Taliban official to gun down a woman who is accused of committing adultery while the man she is supposed to have slept with goes scot-free?

Kwaku Antwi-Boasiako

Accra, Ghana