Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Muslim Responses to the Charlie Hebdo Attack

Iranians protest against the printing of satirical sketches of the Prophet Mohammed by French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, Tehran, 19 January 2015 / Photo Corbis

After the tragic event that took place in the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015, there has been a worldwide debate on what really constitutes freedom of speech. The satirical magazine had been previously involved in controversy for a contemptuous portray of the Prophet Muhammad that led to death threats against editor and cartoonist Stephane Charbonnier and to his being put under police protection. The publication of the 2012 caricatures caused outrage in Muslim communities around the world, prompting the French government to close its embassies in several Muslim countries. In the disastrous incident of 7 January, 12 people were killed by two Muslim men who took justice into their own hands.

Mosques and leading Muslim organizations around the world condemned the massacre in press releases. The Grand Mosque of Paris issued a statement on its web site, saying that their community was “shocked and horrified by the violence.” Many Muslim activists as well as community leaders and common Muslims took to social media to condemn the attack and express their condolences to the victims’ families, stating that murder in the name of Islam is more offensive to Islam than is mocking Islam and the Prophet. Hassan Nasrallah, the Lebanese Shiite leader of Hezbollah, said that terrorist groups “had insulted Islam even more than those who have attacked the Prophet.”

Condemnation has been nearly universal, but Muslim groups have stated that, although they do not defend the killing, they oppose the provocative caricatures that sparked the incident. That was also the sentiment of many prominent non-Muslim figures around the world, including Pope Francis, who, while condemning the attack, was also quoted as saying that, “You cannot provoke, you cannot insult the faith of others, you cannot make fun of faith.” Middle Eastern scholars of the famous al-Azhar University, in Cairo, urged Muslims to ignore new cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo after the killings.

The Arab League chief, Nabil al-Arabi, also expressed his condemnation publicly. Throughout the Middle East and Africa, sermons were filled with examples from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, asserting that, although the Prophet himself was mocked, spat at, and insulted, he never killed his mockers but advocated tolerance. Despite the calls for restraint, some demonstrations turned violent, as in Nigeria, where protestors attacked a French cultural center and several churches and Christian shops, leaving ten people dead. In Algeria, a former French colony, demonstrations also turned violent, leaving several police officers injured. For the most part, however, the demonstrations in the Muslim world were peaceful.

Muslim notables tried to educate non-Muslims about the position of Islam on the issue of blasphemy, arguing that the Quran prescribes no punishment for blasphemy. Fareed Zakaria, an American journalist, wrote an article in which he quoted the prominent Islamic Indian scholar Wahiduddin Khan: “In Islam, blasphemy is a subject of intellectual discussion rather than a subject of physical punishment.” Several Muslims have, however, reportedly been persecuted or even murdered for what many considered their anti-Islamic stance. For example, Mahmoud Taha, a Sudanese intellectual, was executed for apostasy, and Nasr Abu Zeid, an Egyptian Islamic thinker, had to flee Egypt after he was put on trial for his critical interpretation of the Quran.

These two cases reflect an internal conflict in Islamic theology and philosophy about a literalist interpretation of Sharia law under which Islamic judges have the ultimate authority to declare people apostates, ignoring the fact that the accused never explicitly stated that they had left Islam as is required by Sharia law in cases of apostasy.

The case of non-Muslims is, however, a little different. Muslims have been debating other religions for centuries; many books have been written against Islam, and Muslims have rebutted them—all of these in the context of intellectual dialogues have been accepted by the majority of Muslims. The use of mockery and insult in public discourse is, however, a red line that many Muslims believe should never be crossed. This is connected intrinsically to the great importance of honor in tribal societies such as those of the Middle East and Africa. The reactions of the Muslim masses have thus been predictable, as has the failure of the West to understand cultural differences.

Double standard

The use of freedom of speech as a pretext for mockery, insult, or the incitement of hate has never been traditionally accepted in Western countries. The West has for centuries banned books and has, since the Second World War, enacted laws prohibiting racial denigration and anti-Semitism. In other words, in many European countries, the mocking of people of colour and Jews and the denial of the Holocaust is illegal and punishable by incarceration. As a result, Muslims in Europe sometimes feel like second-class citizens, without any law to protect them from insults. This feeling of impotence has led a minority of fundamentalist Muslims to take the law into their own hands, as in the case of the assassination of Dutch film producer Theo Van Gogh, who was well known for his provocative stance towards all religions, especially Islam. The feeling of unequal treatment among European Muslims soared immediately in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, when the French government arrested 54 people for hate speech.

Two cases have been used extensively by Muslim groups to demonstrate the West’s double standard when it comes to freedom of speech. In 2009, Charlie Hebdo fired Maurice Sinet, one of its own cartoonists who had been working for the magazine 20 years. Sinet’s crime was a cartoon in which he allegedly ridiculed the relationship between the son of the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and a wealthy Jewish woman. Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Philippe Val, found the cartoon offensive and requested that Sinet apologize, but the cartoonist refused to do so and was not only fired from his job but tried in court.

The second incident involved the French comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, who was arrested for inciting terrorism because he dared post on his Facebook page a single sentence that was deemed hate speech. Dieudonne’s alleged crime was writing “Je suis Charlie Coulibaly” (I am Charlie Coulibaly); Coulibaly is the last name of Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed four people in a kosher supermarket in Paris. French authorities believe that Dieudonne’s post was anti-Semitic and incited hatred. Dieudonne claimed that, as a comedian, he has the freedom of speech to make fun of everyone.

Muslims have since pointed out in their rebuttals that there is an “unspoken standard” in major media outlets, implying that Muslims must raise their voices collectively to condemn the attacks. Islamic writers view the “expected” denunciation as a form of apology for Islam. They imply that it is not the responsibility of all Muslims, by virtue simply of their shared religion, to apologize for the crimes of other Muslims, just as it was not expected that Christians should apologize for the massacre carried out by Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011. “The implication that every Muslim is under suspicion of being sympathetic to terrorism unless he or she explicitly says otherwise” was the logic used by CNN host Don Lemon when he asked Muslim-American human-rights lawyer Arasalan Iftikhar if he supported the Islamic State, as if the “simple fact of Iftikhar’s religion made him a suspect.” Muslims have since countered the accusation and refused to apologize for Islam. This was the case with Dalia Mogahed, a prominent American scholar and president and CEO of Mogahed Consulting, a firm based in Washington, DC that specializes in Muslim societies and the Middle East. She wrote on Facebook:

JeSuisDalia. I represent a community of exactly one person. I answer for the crimes of exactly one person. I apologize for the actions of exactly one woman. I know the motives of exactly one individual. If for no other reason besides my faith and ethnicity you suspect me so much as to require me to prove to you that mass murder offends me—then it is you who owes me an apology.

The fact remains that, for Muslims, religion is an intrinsic part of their identity, so an insult to the Prophet is considered a personal attack on themselves. Mockery is a form of free speech that, unless applied consistently across all groups, will continue to be seen as targeting Muslims in particular.

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