Few days ago three members of the radical feminist group FEMEN disrupted an event of Berlin’s Islamic Week by charging topless into the hall where it was taking place with anti-Islamic slogans painted all over their bodies. A number of policemen seized the women and dragged them outside, while the event proceeded as scheduled. The question that I would like to answer in this post is whether this act of protest, provocative as it may be, constitutes a legitimate exercise of freedom of expression or simply a form of hate speech. I’m not concerned here with the method of protest, but the language used.
In principle, Islam is a religion—that is, a set of beliefs, ethical imperatives, and practices—so people should have the right to express their opinions about them. They may disagree with them, argue, or even protest against them. However, Islam is not only a religion; it is also a social identity, which means that there are distinct social groups or communities around the world that are marked as “Muslim.” Criticizing Islam thus can be seen as specifically targeting those communities—singling them out as morally, socially, or politically deviant. So when exactly does criticism of Islam cross the line from the socially and politically sanctioned right to express an opinion about another opinion to the socially and politically abhorred practice of expressing hatred, prejudice and animosity toward a specific social group?
The slogans used in the protest seem to point at Islam itself, not Muslims, but one shouldn’t stop here. One needs to consider what FEMEN said about the incident and what language it uses in general in its criticism of Islam. FEMEN posted a statement online following the incident, in which it expressed its outrage at the city of Berlin for providing a “public platform and support to the community that openly spreads inhuman ideology and calls for violence and incitement.” Clearly FEMEN is not directing their criticisms here at Islam alone, but it extends it to all members of the Muslim community as propagators of hatred and violence.
The statement goes even further by appealing to anti-immigration sentiments, which are on the rise in many Western countries: “FEMEN calls western government, do not ignore the fact that the violent form of Islam found its niche in the western democratic society. It operates in the parallel world in the midst of our society and is responsible for many crimes.”
Accusing immigrant communities of taking advantage of social and political liberty to conspire against their host countries is a common argument used by far-right groups and other anti-immigration movements in the West. The above quote from FEMEN’s statement can easily been attributed to Geert Wilders, the controversial Dutch right-wing politician, who once told the BBC “I believe we have been too tolerant of the intolerant.” Geert Wilders has repeatedly criticized Islam comparing the Qur’an to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and referring to the Prophet Mohammad as a “devil.” This has led to his prosecution in Dutch courts for inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims. Wilders, however, defended himself arguing that he was only criticizing Islam, not Muslims as a group or any specific ethnic community. His defense was accepted and the charges were eventually dropped.
Despite his claims of not targeting a specific group of people, Wilders has expressed what can be considered as “hate speech” against particular ethnic or national groups. Recently, television footage has showed Wilders in a party meeting in the Dutch city of The Hague asking his supporters whether they wanted more or less Moroccans in the city. The crowd, of course, shouted “Fewer! Fewer!” to which he responded smiling: “we’ll fix it!”
It is clear that a lot of criticism of Islam in Western countries is indeed nothing but masked xenophobia toward immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. It might be paradoxical that a so-called “feminist” movement appeals to far-right rhetoric in its criticism of what it calls “patriarchy.”
FEMEN’s criticism of Islam goes even beyond collectively profiling Muslims as violent and expressing anti-immigration statements to the extent of employing the most offensive racial slurs. During the events of the “Topless Jihad Day,” which was a series of protests organized by FEMEN for the release of a Tunisian girl who posted naked photos of herself online, one topless protestor postured herself in a position that mocks Muslim prayer while wearing a towel over her head.
If you are not familiar with racist slurs in English, look up the word “towelhead.” For the sake of comparison, imagine a white woman protesting misogyny in some African community by painting herself in black and holding a banana.
Another instance in which FEMEN expresses what can easily be seen as Islamophobic is an article written by Inna Shevchenko, one of the leaders of movement, in which she responds to a campaign by Muslim women against FEMEN by addressing them as follows:
“I don’t deny the fact that there Muslim women who will say they are free and the hijab is their choice and right. […] So, sisters, (I prefer to talk to women anyway, even knowing that behind them are bearded men with knives). You say to us that you are against Femen, but we are here for you and for all of us, as women are the modern slaves and it’s never a question of colour of skin.”
I can hardly imagine a way in which one can be as much belittling to Muslim women as FEMEN does. The irony is that it is all done in the name of liberating them.
As with most other racist movements, FEMEN is grossly ignorant of the groups against which they spread hate and bigotry. On their “Topless Jihad Day” FEMEN activists climbed over the fence of the oldest mosque in Berlin with slogans such as “Fuck Islamism!” One of them spoke to cameras condemning Islam for what she considers abuse and oppression of women saying that “our boobs will be stronger than their stones,” which is, apparently, a reference to the Islamic punishment of stoning adulterous married women (or men) to death.
What she and her topless comrades almost certainly did not know (or care to know) is that this mosque belongs to Ahmadis—a peaceful Muslim sect severely persecuted in Pakistan and some other Muslim countries for being allegedly heretic. In May 2010, for example, two of their mosques in Lahore, Pakistan were attacked by suicide bombers and gunmen killing more than 80 people. The fact that al-Ahmadiyya does not prescribe stoning as a punishment for adultery and that they have been very frequently the victims of Islamist terrorism and extremism seriously undermines, in my opinion, the credibility of any criticism they make of Islam.
“It is counter-productive to attempt to ‘save’ women by upholding racist, Islamophobic stereotypes. Can the rights of one structurally oppressed group, i.e. Muslim women, be saved while the rights of another structurally oppressed group, i.e. Arabs, Muslims and people of Middle Eastern decent, be mocked and oppressed?”
I would like to conclude this post by highlighting that I do not object at all to criticism of Islam. I even believe it is healthy for Islam to be criticized by both outsiders and Muslims themselves in order to maintain its intellectual, social, and spiritual vitality. Islam is indeed in need for criticism. However, there are many obstacles hindering the development of a healthy atmosphere of discussion and public debates, which include terrorism, conservatism, political turmoil, and socio-economic hardship. What is certain is that FEMEN and other Islamophobic organizations and ideologies are doing nothing but making things harder for Muslims yearning for a more modern, just, and tolerant Islam.