Charlie Hebdo’s latest cover isn’t objectionable; it’s brave and touching
You would think people would have the decency to let this go. You really would. But with the blood of much of its core leadership still wet on the ground, French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is in trouble with the devout and the sanctimonious, as always. I suppose they wouldn’t have had it any other way. Their latest cover has come under heavy fire from many quarters. It depicts a figure identified by many people, including some of those associated with the magazine, as representing the Prophet Muhammed. Under the banner “Tout Est Pardonné” (“all is forgiven”), the figure is tearful and holding a sign reading “Je Suis Charlie.”
It may be their finest hour. Somehow the usually puerile and intentionally vile Charlie Hebdo has managed, on its own terms, to be magnanimous and occupy the high moral ground while at the same time nonetheless infuriating the thin-skinned religious types that are its favorite targets. That’s an impressive circle to square. My friends and colleagues at The National newspaper in the United Arab Emirates have made the best case one could against Charlie Hebdo’s new cover, but I find it entirely unconvincing. Here’s why it makes no sense for anyone to be offended, annoyed or angry.
First, there is no consensus or blanket ban against representations of the Prophet in the vast spectrum of religious belief that constitutes Islam as a social text, both historically and in the present day. There have, in fact, been thousands of representations of Muhammed by Muslims that have been respectful and devout. Whenever this issue comes up, some historian of religion or art or something has to devote — and really we ought to be able to say waste, but unfortunately we cannot — some of their time to explaining how false and ahistorical the claim that there is an “Islamic” prohibition against representing the Prophet really is. The latest example comes from Christiane Gruber in Newsweek, but there are dozens of other similar articles that make this elementary, but somehow weirdly elusive, point for those who somehow still don’t or won’t get it. This oldie but goodie from a few years ago by my friend Omid Safi is always worth revisiting as well.
Second, several commentaries following the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices, including this one by Lucas Powers or this one by Jack Jenkins, have made the case that the problem isn’t with representations of the Prophet Muhammed as such, but is one of perceived disrespect. Let’s put aside for a moment that nobody has a right to expect their beliefs to be respected in a free society and especially by cartoonists and satirists. It’s extremely hard to argue that the new Charlie Hebdo cover isn’t respectful, if we assume it really is depicting the Prophet Muhammed. If that’s the case, he is being shown (and not at all for the first time by this magazine) as being much more humane and decent than some of his followers, particularly violent extremists. This time, the magazine has depicted him as being opposed to violence that has been foisted on his name and reputation by murderous gangsters (they did this before in their famous “It’s hard to be loved by jerks” cover a few years ago). In the immediate context of the massacre — and given the well-established beliefs of the iconoclasts, atheists and communists that make up the staff and leadership of Charlie Hebdo — clearly this cover is not only relatively respectful, it’s downright generous.
Third, it’s worth noting that there isn’t anything inherent in the image that necessarily identifies it as a representation of the Prophet Muhammed. If one believes such representations are “sacrilegious” or “blasphemous” and one looks at this image and concludes that it qualifies, to some extent it is the viewer themselves who imposes that reality on an image that could be interpreted very differently. Obviously, not only does nobody know what the Prophet Muhammed actually looked like, it can be confidently stated that this is not in any way a remotely convincing caricature of an inhabitant of the Arabian Peninsula in the sixth and seventh centuries. So, to a certain extent, to those who are offended by it, this cover is a trap. If there is blasphemy at work, the bulk, if not all of it, is imposed on this otherwise and on its own terms rather ambiguous image by viewers and readers who are insisting on seeing it in the most objectionable light possible. One could, after all, easily dismiss it as not really representing anything remotely like the Prophet Muhammed.
Those who claim to see genitalia or other provocative images buried or encoded in the cartoon are equally demonstrating their own proclivities. They are only there if you think you see them. I don’t, and for me they are not there. If you do think so, and see them there, that says a lot about you and nothing at all about the image itself. Dust off the Freud, read a bit and think again.
Fourth, what’s the alternative? What if Charlie Hebdo had, to the contrary, announced that it would never again depict an image that could be interpreted by anyone as representing the Prophet Muhammed? Would that not mean, simply, that the terrorists had won? that iconoclastic satirists had been cowed by terrorism, brutality and mass-murdered into silence? Is there anyone who respects the Prophet Muhammed or follows the traditional values of mainstream Islam and would not be horrified that a sudden “respect” for their sensitivities was not attributable to having been, in some sense, legitimately earned, that the power of the argument had carried the day, but instead that raw fear and terror had prevailed?
Even for those who disapprove of depictions of the Prophet Muhammed, isn’t murder far worse an offense? If the terrorists have created a binary between the two (as indeed they surely have), isn’t it worse for murder to prevail over iconoclasm? Is there really a good argument to be made that the correct response to this terrorist attack is for the magazine to surrender in the face of that assault? If so, what’s the limit? Who next should feel compelled to alter their behavior and abandon their values because they don’t want to be shot by violent extremists? And wouldn’t that imply, in the final analysis, a tacit endorsement of the effectiveness, if not the validity, of terrorism and murder as a tactic? If we really oppose violence, clearly we cannot seriously counsel capitulation to its coercive force.
Fifth, it is up to those who do not approve of depictions of the Prophet Muhammed on the grounds of the religious sensitivities of some Muslims to propose a practicable and viable way of balancing their disapproval with the requirements of any society that values freedom of conscience and expression. Of course they are free to disapprove all they want. Publications such as the New York Times can decide, as it did, that it did not want to reprint images that many people find religiously objectionable. That, too, is a free-speech right, and a perfectly legitimate decision. And so is the choice made by Charlie Hebdo today.
If publications are not free to make both the New York Times’ and theCharlie Hebdo judgments, then what sort of free speech are we really talking about? Ultimately, there can be no freedom of speech, or freedom of conscience and religion either, if there is no freedom to “blaspheme” in the eyes of others, and to engage in iconoclasm and irreverence towards faith, in general or in particular. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation continues, mainly through Pakistan (which, of course, is one of the worst violators of human rights via anti-blasphemy laws and usually unpunished vigilante actions), an outrageous “Combating the Defamation of Religions” initiative at the UN and other multilateral agencies. This effort to create a zone of impunity around religious sensibilities has been, and will remain, a complete failure because it’s an obvious and blatant attack on the fundamental and universal principles of freedom of speech and conscience.
The onus is very much on those who would go beyond countering speech with speech and look instead for governmental or even international authority to protect religious sensibilities by restricting speech to explain how any of that could possibly be consistent with freedom of religion, freedom of thought and conscience, and freedom of speech. Making the case about double standards and hypocrisy, which is sometimes accurate especially with regard to Europe, doesn’t bolster the argument for restricting speech. It makes the case for eliminating restrictions on indefensible exemption such as laws criminalizing Holocaust denial in a number of European states.
Finally, there is an objectionable quality to the way in which people engaged in this debate who are critical of the new Charlie Hebdo cover typically presume to speak on behalf of large groups of Muslims, whether in France or anywhere else. It’s typically said that “Muslims have been insulted” without any consideration that there undoubtedly is a significant constituency of Muslims who don’t care what Charlie Hebdo publishes at all, and hence have no objections. People are even attributing this sensitivity to Ahmed Merabet, the French police officer who was one of the first victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. With respect, no one knows how this victim of terrorism would have reacted to Charlie Hebdo’sresponse on its cover today. He might have been insulted. Or, like quite a few Muslims I know, he might have regarded it as a moving and touching, and entirely appropriate, reaction to a terrible crime and tragedy.