After the ongoing row around the release by American Coptic and Christian fundamentalists of the movie “Innocence of Muslims”, violently attacking the founding father of Islam and stirring up bloody riots across the Muslim world, the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo has done it again, publishing on September 18 new cartoons on Muhammad. Violent reactions are expected and France has decided to close its embassies and schools in around twenty Muslim countries.
This is not the first time that Charlie Hebdo has attacked Islam. But, for this self-proclaimed ‘atheist’ magazine which courts vulgarity and loves playing agent provocateur, Islam is no more evil than any other religion. In 2006, they were sued by a Muslim organisation – which lost in court, the judges arguing that nobody was forced to buy the magazine – for reprinting caricatures of Muhammad published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, plus another showing him saying of the Islamists, “It's tough to be loved by these ass-holes”. Their office was set on fire last year, allegedly by fundamentalists, after they published a special issue called “Sharia Hebdo”. They have since then been put under police protection.
My first gut response, but also intellectual reaction would be: get lost! Have we not fought hard enough for centuries for press freedom, for freedom of thought and of religion, against the concept of a state religion or of a religion of the state, against the death penalty for blasphemy or against obscurantism and sectarianism from clerics who – throughout the ages – have sent dissidents to be burned at the stake, only to be forced to accept diktats from far away religions, (even if some of their flock live around us)? This would be an unacceptable step backwards! But, at the same time, one has to ask in times like ours, when a single spark can easily set fire to the entire Muslim world, is it sensible, responsible to burn Qurans, to make a movie in the USA ridiculing Islam or, to add insult to injury, to publish new caricatures in a French magazine, knowing very well that human lives are at stake ?
The choice is difficult: none of the alternatives easy to accept. But is it not the case that those who riot in the Arab world or in our own capitals represent only a minute fraction of the billion plus Muslims in the world? Even if many were indeed shocked by this mockery. And are the majority not aware that those who, for one reason or another, criticise Islam – and we have the constitutional right to criticise any idea, religious or not – only represent a tiny fraction of our societies? And that the vast majority of people on all sides do not concur either with this unacceptable violence, this instrumentation of religion, or this caricature of social behaviour in the worst taste.
So, what should be done when we know that we have principles to uphold while we are, at the same time, facing unstable countries which could blow up any time and crowds easily aroused by extremists or terrorists? Should we, in order to defend our constitutional right of free speech, discard these protests? Or should we, in order to pacify these crowds, trample our fundamental principles? In short, should we take all the blame on us, put it entirely on the Muslim world or try to understand all points of view and look for an understanding? If that were ever possible?
For that, we have to remember that what we might find shocking today in these excesses from Muslim crowds and clerics was fairly habitual in some of our own societies not so long ago. No need to go back to the dark days of the Inquisition. In 1766, in the Enlightenment Age, the French Chevalier de la Barre, accused of having profaned a statue of Christ, was tortured, beheaded and burnt. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the Fascist regime under General Franco fought the legal Republican government and committed atrocities under the name of ‘Christ the King’ with the blessing of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, while some Republicans burned churches and killed priests under the pretence of anti-clericalism. Not to mention the sectarian war long fought between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Or the last war in Yugoslavia, in the 1990's, which was mainly fought on religious grounds between Orthodox Serbs, Croatian Catholics and Bosnian Muslims, that is, people who were ethnically similar and speaking the same language.
In Ireland the Church has long played an influential role in politics till it recently lost its credibility thanks to the scandal of paedophile priests. In Spain, the Roman Catholic Church is still exempt from tax, even in its business activities; the same is also true in Greece with the Orthodox Church. And, recently in France, the archbishop of Lyons has denounced a bill legalising same sex marriage, saying it could lead to polygamy and incest.
So, one might well conclude that when they give a hearing to the fundamentalist vision of Islam preached by clerics who want to go back to religion as it was supposed to have been in the seventh century, Muslims are not as backward as many westerners believe they are. Which has not stopped them from using mobile phones and the internet to spread their ideology and organise their flock, or from travelling by car and air-planes, not on camel like they did back in the time of the prophet. Muslims might only be a few decades behind our societies by the time they, as a whole, adjust to unavoidable changes. Especially if fundamentalism is still alive and growing among us. In the United States, this is obvious, but not only there. At the same time, the behaviour of the great majority of Muslims from Northern Africa in France, from Turkey in Germany, from the Middle East or South India in Britain are the living evidence that they want to integrate and live peacefully in their new environment. In France, for instance, Muslims remain strongly in favour of secularism and public education.
Yet, in any society, it is always easy for populists and fanatics to stir up protests and violence, playing on real or alleged fears and humiliations - even if Islamic terrorism is often lethal while the Christian one is all but extinct. Their feelings are to be taken into consideration, just like those of the other parts of society. No less, but no more. Which should mean, for instance, that the demands coming from Arab leaders like Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood in talks with French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, that any breach to the sacred should be banned by law or censorship are unacceptable. Even more so, the Iranian death fatwa renewed against writer Salman Rushdie.
We should also reject any attempts to have the UN ban attacks on any religion, or demands for the prosecution of blasphemy, which, as the French daily Le Monde said in an editorial, is “a notion which is incomprehensible in societies which have lost their links to the sacred”. Especially when we remember that the Salafist brand of fundamentalism come from Saudi Arabia and is often financed by Saudis; even if this country remains one of our main suppliers of oil, one of our best buyers of weapons and a major investor in the west. Politicians are embarrassed: they love the money flowing from the Arabic peninsula but they loathe ideas coming from there.
So, we should never have given these unfortunate incidents the worldwide coverage they have received and they don't deserve, because it is exactly what extremists from all sides want. And, as Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb, who is advocating a modern Islam, has remarked, “Someone who is sure of his faith would never react that way”. What has just happened can only have been designed by “idiots who are trying to trap other idiots”.