By Syed Mohammad Ali
January 23, 2015
While the deadly attack on the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was widely condemned, the magazine’s subsequent decision to carry yet another illustration of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) on its front cover has sparked controversy within the Western world, alongside triggering indignation across much of the Muslim world.
Charlie Hebdo’s decision to bring out a ‘survivor issue’ which carried another illustration of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) on its front cover was apparently meant to signal defiance to its attackers, a move that has been endorsed by an exponential growth in demand for the publication’s latest issue. Subsequently, several Western media outlets have also decided to reproduce the new Charlie Hebdo images to express solidarity with the magazine, although many major media outlets also decided not to reproduce the image realising that it would needlessly offend Muslims.
Charlie Hebdo’s stance has certainly sparked renewed outrage across many Muslim countries against what is perceived as a conscious and continued Western attempt to hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims under the guise of free speech. Muslims are not alone in making such an appeal; the Pope himself is calling for limits to offending and ridiculing the faiths and beliefs of others.
The renowned academic Mahmood Mamdani has aptly described such satirical illustrations as being a sign of Western bigotry. He cites examples of bigoted images being used to demean other marginalised communities in the past including the Jews and African-Americans. For example, Amos and Andy, a popular US television show during the 1950s, used the garb of humour to justify racist caricatures of African-Americans. It was not until the race riots of the mid-1960s that the show was taken off air. Jews suffered similar prejudices through Nazi propaganda. It was thus poignant when the Nobel Prize winning German novelist Gunter Grass compared the earlier Danish caricatures of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) to anti-Semitic cartoons in the Nazi-era German magazine Der Sturmer.
Allowing the right of freedom of expression in secular societies to be used to ridicule the Muslim faith undermines prospects of conciliation between Islam and the West. It serves to anger many moderate Muslims, and such caricaturisation provides more opportunity to extremist groups to portray the West as being hell bent upon desecrating Islam.
The argument that Western values of freedom of expression must not submit to Islamic censorship demands is not constructive. It is the imperative of preventing bigotry on the basis of which such caricatured portrayals of Muslims, especially the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), need to be discouraged in the West.
The fallout of the controversy unleashed by injudicious expressions of freedom of expression is also creating widespread fear of reprisals against Muslim minorities in the West, in general, which are already facing the challenges of ghettoisation and social exclusion. Storming embassies of Western states in Muslim countries is not the answer either, as that will also fuel more Islamophobia in the rest of the world, and make life more difficult for Muslim minorities in the West, which already have problems adjusting into the mainstream of multicultural societies.
Syed Mohammad Ali is a post-doctoral fellow at McGill University