Spanish bullfights: a Muslim perspective on reactions after the Charlie Hebdo attacks

Violent reactions from parts of the Islamic world to caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed in western magazines are against the essence of Islam and fuel a cycle of provocations and overreactions.

Bashir Ansari
27 March 2015
Jamat-ud-Dawah are protesting against publication of blasphemous caricatures in French Charlie Hebdo

Peshawar demonstration against caricatures in French Charlie Hebdo. Asianet-Pakistan/Demotix. All rights reserved.

In early February, not even one month after the terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and only two weeks before the Copenhagen terror shootings, former Pakistani railway minister Ghulam Ahmed Bilour announced in the country’s National Assembly a $200,000 reward for anyone who kills the owner of the satirical magazine. As a Muslim, I cannot conceive of a more severe insult to the Prophet Muhammed than to promote such violence in his name. When followers of our religion respond to criticism through violence rather than words, the very essence of Islam is distorted and compromised. What is more, these violent reactions to every perceived offense threaten to become a source of destruction for our religion.

For quite some time now, caricatures of the Prophet of Islam have been published in the west, especially some European countries. While many artists and writers portray them as an inventive contribution to an ongoing dispute, others perceive them as promoting a bullying racist agenda. Even so, the irrational reactions by some Muslim leaders and communities – whether in the form of violent protests or calls for murder – only fuel the continued publication and popularity of these offensive caricatures. The media and political pundits now increasingly describe these attacks as part of an ongoing struggle between the west’s freedom of expression and Islam’s lack of tolerance.

A Spanish bullfight  

My good friend Muhammad Al–Mukhtar Al–Shinqiti, a Mauritanian intellectual, recalls the analogy used by the renowned Muslim philosopher, Malek Bennabi, to describe this current dynamic between the west and the east: “the mass media leaders in the west tend to adopt a strategy similar to the Spanish bullfighting game with the third–world nations, whereby they show a red cape to anger the bull, usurp its power, and finally hound it to death.” Bennabi further compared the struggle between the west and the third world countires to Ivan Pavlov’s concept of ‘conditioned reflex’, whereby a reaction becomes more frequent and predictable in a given environment as a result of reinforcement.

We see this cycle of provocation–overreaction playing out over and over again. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the publication of Prophet Muhammed’s caricatures in a Danish newspaper in 2005, the release of a short film (“Fitna”) by a Dutch parliamentarian a few years later, and finally the recent caricatures published by Charlie Hebdo all serve to remind us of the Spanish bullfighting game and Pavlov’s experiments with dogs. As some Muslims reflexively respond to a perceived insult with habitual threats of violence, they fail not only to end the provocation; they become handmaidens to the destruction of the very Islamic principles they are trying to protect: principles of civility, rationality and peaceful resolution, which are at the core of the Quran and the Hadith.

Learning from the Prophet

The first question that we Muslims should ask ourselves is how the Prophet would have reacted to these incidents if he was among us. Reading the Quran and the stories of Prophet Muhammed’s life can provide us with the answer. From the beginning, when the Prophet lived in Mecca in hardship and deprivation, to the time he enjoyed military and political power in Medina, he encountered numerous enemies and detractors who called him “despicable” and described him as a “sorcerer”, “liar”, “betrayer”, “mad”, “ill” and “insane.”

Even as the Quran recounts the humiliation and offences instigated by the Prophet’s opponents, it never calls for a physical response, nor does it prescribe punishment for the offenders. From the perspective of the Quran, being insulted is one of the challenges that all messengers of god face: “Oh the regrets that human beings will have to bear! Never has an apostle come to them without their deriding him!” (36:30). As to what should be done in response to those who ridicule Islam, the Quran states: “indeed, we are sufficient for you against the mockers” (15:95). The Quran invites us to use these instances as an opportunity to call people to speak the Truth: “…so let them alone, and advise them, and speak to them concerning themselves far–reaching words” (4:63). It recommends indulgence, abstinence and optimism; and these were the principal elements of the strategy that the Prophet of Islam adopted in such circumstances. Mockery and insults were never used as an excuse for violence and retribution.

The Quran extends the virtue of tolerance and leniency to such a level that it even forbids mockery and insult to non–living idols, saying: “Revile not you those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they out of spite revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus we have made pleasing to every community their deeds. Then to their Lord is their return, and He will inform them about what they used to do” (6:108). We can infer a key lesson from this verse: We have no right to overreact to mockery and insult to Islam since judgment belongs to God, in the afterlife.

The cycle of violence and hatred

The actions of violent movements that have emerged in the past 50 years in the Muslim world do not use the methods employed and prescribed by the Prophet. Instead, these groups that claim to defend Islam appear closer in nature to leftist radicalism. The use of violence to destroy the “old” world and establish a new political system is characteristic of this extreme philosophy. This form of radicalism is similar to a Maoist–type cultural revolution in the name of Islam. They call for the unification of the Islamic world, but in reality they only further divide Muslims into smaller, adversarial communities.

Over the past few years, every violent reaction perpetrated by these so–called “defenders of Islam” against perceived enemies has harmed Islam and Muslims worldwide. They have caused much more extensive and severe damage to the Prophet and his teachings than that caused by any type of offensive film, caricature, article or story made by his opponents. In fact, one of the miracles of his messenger is that ‘his reputation is raised high’, as God says in the Quran: “And [We] raised high for you your repute” (94:4). Prophet Muhammed stands high among the greatest personalities of history, and his name is the most reputed of all, which no pen and no artistic exposition can ever obscure.

The violation that Muslim extremists have committed against the Prophet of Islam is, in effect, worse than any caricature. In the post–attack issue of Charlie Hebdo, a new caricature depicting the Prophet with his hands on his face, saying: “Mohammed overwhelmed by fundamentalists: ‘It’s hard to be loved by idiots!’” sparked diverse international reactions.

After the incident, the whole world looked at Paris. Millions of people marched in the streets in France, millions of copies of the magazine were sold; and millions of caricatures of the Prophet were distributed. Today, even those who were not interested in the caricatures published by the magazine are now shouting “We are Charlie!” The print run of the magazine skyrocketed from merely 60,000 to 8 million copies. The attacks popularised the artists who were once unknown to others; their names now appear in the headlines in magazines, newspapers and news programmes on TV, and their works and articles are published for free by all the media.

Moreover, the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo has provoked retaliatory attacks on Muslim mosques, discrimination towards Muslims who have migrated to Europe and America, putting distressed Muslims in a defensive situation, and closing down the open spirit of western people towards Islam. We see this rise of Islamophobia manifested in the deliberate killings of three young Muslim–American students in Chapel Hill, even if initially labelled as a ‘parking dispute’ by the police.

The way forward

It is important to recognise that satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. Molly Ivins, an American political satirist, explained, “I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel –– it's vulgar!” Today, Muslims face a major cultural assault. The question is how to respond to this assault. In answering this, one thing is clear: violence as a response to those who ridicule Islam is not only un–Islamic, it is also counterproductive, as it reinforces the position of those who criticise it.

Perhaps we can learn from the example of the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR). A few years ago, a Christian pastor in Florida set the Quran on fire and left all Christians in the world embarrassed. In response, CAIR distributed one million copies of the Quran in English. They turned the offence into an opportunity to show the true messages of Islam. Can Muslims learn from this experience? What we observe, in general, is that Muslims, in Muslim countries and in the west – are in a position to address the challenges of today’s world in a more rational manner.

The Islamic world has been overshadowed by violence and terrorism for several years now – a co–creation of poor western policies and even poorer internal dynamics in the Muslim world. These terrorist groups claim leadership of the Islamic world while senselessly inflicting endless miseries upon ordinary Muslims and the larger Muslim world. From the decapitation of humans to the revival of slavery, mass killings of religious and ethnic minorities from Afghanistan to Iraq, and the severe abuse of women, these so–called ‘Muslim warriors’ are no different than Genghis Khan and his troops, who looted and destroyed the tangible achievements of the great Islamic civilization in the 13th century. These terrorist groups are here to destroy and erase the intellectual and ethical values of Islamic civilization from the records of the history. I fear that these groups are causing the implosion and elimination of a great religion from within – a trend that is observable in the remote corners of the Muslim world as well as in the heart of the western world.

I believe the solution to this mayhem begins and ends with us, the Muslim community. Not until we acknowledge this fact and try to rectify the path we are travelling can we expect a better outcome for the future. In the past, the glorious civilization that has developed in Baghdad, Central Asia, Balkh, Andalusia, Istanbul and Cairo did not emerge as a virtue of an ‘emirate’ or ‘caliphate’, but as a result of the hard work of its thousands of scientists, scholars, artists, writers, statesmen and innovators who lived throughout their territories. We, as Muslims, must institute effective strategies and solutions to address the radicalism and violence of the so–called ‘Muslim extremists’. What took place in Paris is not only condemnable based on the ethical standards of today, but also by rational Islamic law, the Quran, and the instructions from the daily life of Prophet Muhammed. The renowned Muslim poet Rumi captures the essence of my assertion in his fabulous Persian poem: “I feel pity for the religion so pure…Exterminated by the unwise followers it owns.”

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