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Erdogan and Imran Khan’s Hypocritical War on ‘anti-Muslim’ France

The campaign by the leaders of Pakistan and Turkey against blasphemy and free speech in France, aided by their cynical abuse of the Holocaust, is duplicitous in the extreme – and constitutes dangerous incitement

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
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Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Credit: Lim Huey Teng/Reuters, Kenzo Tribouillard/AP, Turkish Presidency via AP
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid

In the wake of an extremist Muslim’s beheading of a French teacher who showed his pupils cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed, part of his class on free speech, French President Emmanuel Macron offered a staunch defense of free speech, and the right to publish those caricatures. The murdered teacher, Samuel Paty, has now been joined by three more victims, killed in or near a Nice church, including one whose throat was cut.

And who has taken center stage in the Muslim world’s response? Two so-called champions of selective, often hypocritical, outrage against ‘Islamophobia.' 

The Islamist populists leading the charge are Pakistan’s Imran Khan, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And their favored rhetorical strategy is to insist on a disturbing equivalence between Holocaust denial and blasphemy.

As the movement to boycott France accelerates in many Muslim countries, Erdogan assessed that Macron needs "mental treatment." That prompted France to recall its ambassador from Turkey. Imran Khan accused the French president of "deliberately provoking Muslims" as Islamabad summoned the France ambassador for a dressing down.

A picture of French President Emmanuel Macron with a footprint over his face at a  protest against Macron's comments on cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Quetta, Pakistan, October 26, 2020.
A picture of French President Emmanuel Macron with a footprint over his face at a protest against Macron's comments on cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Quetta, Pakistan, October 26, 2020.Credit: BANARAS KHAN - AFP

Angst over lack of "freedom of belief" and "minority rights" is indeed pretty rich coming from Turkey and Pakistan, the two countries currently leading the overheated Islamist rhetoric. However, it is their needless, and disturbing, equivalence between blasphemy against Islam and the Holocaust that is especially mindboggling – and yet strikingly common in their discourse. 

While urging the boycott of French goods, Erdogan invoked the Holocaust and equated France’s policies with Nazi Germany, saying that Muslims in Europe are now being subjected to a "lynch campaign similar to that against Jews before World War II."

Imran Khan meanwhile wrote a public letter to Mark Zuckerberg urging him to ban ‘Islamophobic’ content on Facebook, again using Holocaust denial as an analogy.

He noted Facebook "rightly" bans "any posting that criticises or questions the Holocaust, the culmination of the Nazi pogrom of the Jews in Germany and across Europe" and that "today we are seeing a similar pogrom against Muslims in many parts of the world," and asks for a "similar ban [to that on Holocaust denial] on Islamophobia and hate against Islam." 

If the Facebook CEO wants to do due diligence on the consistency of Khan’s call to delegitimize extremism and its shills, he should start with Khan’s recent speech eulogizing Osama Bin Laden as a "martyr" of Islam.

If there is anything more preposterous than Khan’s frequent and conveniently myopic lectures on Islamophobia, it is often their timing. 

The day the Pakistani premier was expressing outrage against Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons at the United Nations General Assembly, a man of Pakistani origin launched a terror attack targeting the French publication’s former offices.

Khan’s sermon attacking Macron came a day after yet another Hindu temple was desecrated and vandalized in Pakistan’s Nagarparkar region, and only 46 years after the Ahmadi Muslim community was defined as heretical in Pakistan’s constitution – an act of collective discrimination that Khan has addressed with full-scale appeasement

Even so, where Khan is perhaps unaware, or in denial, about Islamist abuses in Pakistan, he has been consciously and steadfastly over the years, drawing parallels between blasphemy against Islam and the genocide of Jews. In his letter to Zuckerberg, Khan reiterated a moral equivalence between banning Holocaust denial and censoring criticism of Islam.

Days later, Khan doubled down on his Holocaust analogy in a public letter to Muslim states: he noted many European states had banned any "questioning of the Holocaust" but not "mockery" of Mohammed. 

Screenshot of second page of a letter Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan sent to leaders of Muslim states on 28 Oct 2020, analogizing Holocaust denial with anti-Islamic blasphemy
Screenshot of second page of a letter Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan sent to leaders of Muslim states on 28 Oct 2020, analogizing Holocaust denial with anti-Islamic blasphemyCredit: Twitter screenshot

Unfortunately, for pieces of writing ostensibly aiming to argue for equal treatment of religious communities, Khan’s letters often betrayed bias against Jews, not to mention belittling of their genocide.

Before we even begin to unpack the horrors of juxtaposing the industrial massacre of six million people and caricatures, one should note how Khan’s reframing of Holocaust denial as "questioning or criticizing" is bizarrely watered down, especially when compared with the adjectives reserved for protection of Islam and Muslims: denial, extreme, hate, abominable, violent, abuse, vilification or, indeed, phobia.

Similar soft revisionism can be seen in the equation of Indian military occupation in Kashmir, or the Bharatiya Janata Party-led fueling of anti-Muslim hatred, with the extermination and ethnic cleansing of Jews. 

Regrettably, it is hard to find a global Muslim leader relating to the Holocaust simply as a crime against Jews that should never be repeated. Khan is just the latest to weaponize it in reference to victimization of Muslims, a tactic more often used by both Islamists and many in the Western left to describe Israel’s oppressive policies towards the Palestinians.

Pakistani men hold a banner with a defaced picture of French President Emmanuel Macron in a protest against caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.Peshawar, Pakistan. October 26, 2020.
Pakistani men hold a banner with a defaced picture of French President Emmanuel Macron in a protest against caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.Peshawar, Pakistan. October 26, 2020.Credit: Muhammad Sajjad,AP

In his letter to Zuckerberg, Khan appears to be arguing that the Holocaust is somehow privileged over blasphemy against Islam, implying some sort of lobbying, if not a downright conspiracy.

This is in line with Khan’s rehashing of anti-Semitic tropes about an Israel lobby – conflated in domestic popular media with “Jewish lobby" – destabilizing Pakistan, which he reinvoked as recently as last Friday when he accused the opposition parties of being the third party in an "axis of evil" alongside India and Israel. 

The grand paradox here, of course, is the fact that Khan, owing to his first marriage to Jemima Goldsmith, is regularly accused of being a "Jewish agent." And yet the Pakistani premier prefers validating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories instead of ever uttering a single condemnation of any of the, far too frequent, sweeping statements blaming "world Jewry" for any of the ills afflicting Pakistan or the Muslim world, or of the clerics who lead calls in Pakistani mosques for the destruction of the Jews. 

Ironically, much of the targeting of Muslims that Khan’s Facebook letter highlights – ranging from blaming minorities for the spread of COVID-19 to discriminatory religionist laws – are far more prevalent in Pakistan. 

Amidst all the talk of Islamophobia, Pakistan remains the only country in the world that actually criminalizes the recitation of Quran, and the Islamic call to prayer, when they deny the Ahmadiyya sect the right to self-identify as Muslims.

And despite the egregious invocation of the Holocaust and its suffering, the Khan-led Pakistan, like other Muslim-majority states, will never condemn what is the closest approximation today to the Nazis’ concentration camps – the "re-education camps" established by China in which one million Uighur Muslims are currently detained. Indeed, Khan vocally defends those concentration camps as a "non-issue." 

Turkish protesters hold a photo of a Hitler-mustached French President Macron with a shoe print on it in a demonstration against his comments on cartoons of Mohammad. Ankara, Oct 27, 2020
Turkish protesters hold a photo of a Hitler-mustached French President Macron with a shoe print on it in a demonstration against his comments on cartoons of Mohammad. Ankara, Oct 27, 2020Credit: ADEM ALTAN - AFP

Pakistan and Turkey’s use of the Holocaust for point-scoring, and the implied justification of violent reactions to "anti-Islamic" blasphemy, underlines a more general failure of Muslim leaders to understand the basic concept of free speech, or even their own duplicitous claims of “double standards.” 

Any Western state, including France, which “allows” blasphemy against Islam also permits the same against other religions. Instead of taunting parallels between Holocaust denial and caricatures of Muslim prophets, a more valid global comparison would focus on blasphemy laws, which exist across 77 countries, and what the impact of censoring blasphemy has on rights and lives.

Blasphemy is a capital offense only in Muslim-majority countries. 12 Muslim-majority states have established the death penalty with 20 others establishing prison sentences. And lest one thought the idea was to protect all people of faith – these offenses are all Islam-specific, and the laws do not stipulate similar punishments for sacrilege against other religions.

Elsewhere, even countries that have an outdated form of a blasphemy law, like Australia, Canada or Finland, have a more or less redundant version which, importantly, is still equally applicable for all religions.

Furthermore, those conjuring these absurd comparisons seem to ignore how opposition to Holocaust denial has never triggered  violence. Nowhere is it suggested that the provocation of Holocaust denial justifies violence, knife attacks or murder. Nowhere is violence or the death sentence codified for denying the genocide of Jews.

Compare that to the open incitement of another "leader" of the Muslim world's fight against Islamophobia, ex-Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who self-identifies as a "proud antisemite," tweeted Wednesday that "the Muslims have the right to punish the French" for being blamed for violence, and continued: "Muslims have the right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past."

A man waves a dagger at a protest against the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which reprinted a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad. Karachi, Pakistan, September 4, 2020
A man waves a dagger at a protest against the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which reprinted a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad. Karachi, Pakistan, September 4, 2020.Credit: AKHTAR SOOMRO/ REUTERS

The irony couldn't be clearer: only last year, Mahathir was rhapsodizing about free speech, but for antisemites: "When you say, ‘No, you cannot say this. You cannot be anti-Semitic’ then there is no more free speech," he declared, and followed up by querying how many Jews actually died in the Holocaust.

In any case, Imran Khan and others regularly miscontrue why Holocaust denial has been criminalized in countries like Germany, when they suggest it is a form of pandering to ‘safeguard the delicate/politically significant sentiments of Jews.’ But the ban on denial is actually part of legislation banning the denial of Nazi crimes in a bid to help ensure they’re never repeated where they were instigated. 

Had Pakistan accepted its own genocide of Bengalis in 1971, or Turkey its genocide in Armenia,  their leaders today might have better standing, and if they had been apprised of the notion of hypocrisy, they might have known better than to shout ‘Islamophobia’ amidst Islamist abuses in their own country. 

Indeed, it is Pakistan and Turkey’s glorification of Islamist vandalizers of Hindu temples and Ottoman massacres that have contributed to the rise of populist, and self-unaware, leaders like Khan and Erdogan.

For freedom of expression to be universally applied, Holocaust denial itself should be decriminalized. People should be free to be ignorant of the most gruesome horrors of history, even one of the gravest crimes committed against humanity.

If nothing else, this might prevent self-appointed global Muslim leaders from expediently equating the denial of the Holocaust with "global anti-Muslim persecution," a narrative mired in contention. 

The truth is if these Muslim leaders fail to see the duplicity of their demands for the exclusive protection of Islam from satire, their own boosting of bigotry, their equation of blasphemy with the genocide of Jews and their implicit endorsement of the righteousness of violent retaliation, then there is no way they should ever be given any veto power over free speech.

We can’t ever have confidence in the critical faculties of "moral" leaders who, in the aftermath of the killings of cartoonists, can only bring themselves to condemn the cartoons.      

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent at The Diplomat. His work has been published in The GuardianThe IndependentForeign PolicyCourrier InternationalNew StatesmanThe Telegraph MIT Review, and Arab News among other publications. Twitter: @khuldune

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