The Politics of anti-Islam Caricatures

Beheading of the French teacher Samuel Paty has once again sparked controversy over Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Islam caricatures as the French President Emmanuel Macron exploited the tragedy to pushed his long-sought agenda against Islam and Muslims.

Days before Paty’s killing, on October 2, Macron had made a controversial speech. He declared that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis today all over the world.”

In response to Macron's comments, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday said he believes his French counterpart "needs mental treatment." "What is Macron's problem with Islam? What is his problem with Muslims?" Erdogan added. France recalled its ambassador to Turkey on Sunday in response to Erdogan's comments.

Macron’s anti-Islam comments were condemned widely the Arab and Muslim countries while several Arab countries called for boycott of French products. President Erdogan also called Turks to join the boycott of the French products.

On Wednesday, Oct 28, the French magazine Charlie Hebdo joined the fray by publishing a searing caricature of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The cartoon depicts Erdogan sitting in his t-shirt and underwear, drinking a beer, and lifting up a woman’s hijab to expose her bare backside. Drinking alcohol is considered haram, or forbidden, by most Muslims, and Erdogan has long condemned it. “Ouuuh! The Prophet!” the speech bubble from Erdogan’s mouth read, suggesting that Erdogan is only pretending to be a staunch defender of Islam. The headline published alongside the cartoon reads: “Erdogan: In private, he is very funny!”

The Ankara Chief Prosecutor's office launched an investigation into Charlie Hebdo managers over the cartoon, Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency reported. Insulting the president is a crime in Turkey punishable by up to four years in prison.

Erdogan himself said he had not looked at the drawing and had nothing to say about the “dishonorable” publication. “My sadness and anger does not stem from the disgusting attack on my person but from the fact that the same (publication) is the source of the impertinent attack on my dear Prophet,” Erdogan told his ruling party's legislators in parliament, according to the Associated Press.

He went on to criticize France and other Europe nations' colonial past saying: “You are murderers!”

Freedom of speech

After the beheading of Samuel Pary, President Macron declared France would “not give up cartoons, drawings, even if others back down.” “We will defend the freedom that you taught so well and we will bring secularism.” He was alluding to Paty’s showing the anti-Islam cartoons to his “freedom of speech” class. Paty was beheaded on October 16, by a Chechen refugee, 47 days after Paty had shown the caricatures.

To borrow Will Morro, it is difficult to describe the hypocrisy involved in the attempts by Macron to present himself as a bulwark for democratic traditions and free speech. His government is perhaps best known for being condemned by international human rights organizations for its police violence, and for video images of riot officers using tear-gas and shooting rubber bullets at “yellow vest” protesters. It is involved in imperialist wars across the Sahel and the Middle East, deliberately allowing thousands of refugees attempting to reach Europe by boat to drown in the Mediterranean.

Anti-Muslim hysteria in France

Macron is preparing to introduce a new law in December which would give the French government powers to monitor and regulate mosques and Islamic communities. The law was first introduced on October 2, but gained support after Samuel Paty's death.

The “separatism” law is only the latest in a continuing campaign of persecution by successive Socialist Party and Republican governments, which has cultivated a permanent xenophobic anti-Muslim atmosphere in France. This has included the ban on Islamic headscarves in 2004, and the burqa in public places in 2010, Will Morro said adding:

Macron’s comments were immediately used by the extreme-right National Rally and Marine Le Pen to demand harsher measures against immigrants and Muslims. Answering Macron’s comment that “they will not pass,” Le Pen tweeted, “they’re already here.” The entire political establishment, stretching from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise to the Socialist Party (PS) and the Republicans (LR), has joined behind Macron’s hypocritical call for “national unity.”

Prime Minister Jean Castex along with other government ministers joined a rally in Paris attended by several thousand people. Representatives of all the major parties attended, including LFI, the PS and LR. Other rallies from between several hundred and several thousand were held in major cities around the country, where many people attended to show their support for Samuel Paty.

The ruling elite is seeking to use the outrage in the population at the terror attack to build support for Macron’s reactionary program, whipping up an atmosphere of anti-Muslim hysteria.

Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and mosques have been shut down in the last two weeks, following the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty. France has decided to dissolve the largest French Muslim charity, BarakaCity, which helps nearly 2 million people in 26 countries. The founder of one of the largest Muslim charity foundations on Wednesday said he and his team wish to seek asylum in Turkey to continue their humanitarian work.

Reprinting the Charlie Hebdo cartoons is not about free speech

The French satirical magazine, on September 1, 2020 reprinted the Mohammed cartoons in a special issue at the start of the trial related to the terrorist attack five years ago. “The hatred that hit us five years ago is still there,” said Editor Laurent Sourisseau, according to the AFP news agency. “We will never lie down. We will never give up,” he added.

To borrow Dr. Asma Barlas, ,a retired professor of politics in New York, European vilifications of the prophet and Islam have a much older pedigree than free speech and have nothing to do with humor. To be precise, they have their roots in medieval Europe and the changing self-conceptions of Christians over a millennium.

For instance, Tomaz Mastnak, a historian of the Crusades, argues that it was in the mid-ninth century when Western unity began to express itself as Christendom, that Muslims also came to be seen as the “normative enemies” of Christianity. Until then, they had been viewed as just another pagan group and generally ignored – even the Muslim conquest of southern Spain did not make it into leading chronicles.

Over time though, Europe’s Christians came to see in Islam not just a “sinister conspiracy against Christianity [but] that total negation of [it] … which would mark the contrivances of Antichrist”. This is how Robert Southern describes it in his book Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages and he attributes this suspicion to the “strong desire not to know [Islam] for fear of contamination”.

Fear of contamination

Instead, he says, even the Christians who lived in “the middle of Islam” (Muslim-ruled Andalusia) looked to the Bible to explain it, which is how they came to consider it the Antichrist. In short, according to Southern, it was ignorance and the fear of contamination that made “the existence of Islam the most far-reaching problem in medieval Christendom”.

Given this history, it is not surprising that medieval Christians would also portray the prophet as a heathen idol, the devil, Mahound (as in Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses), an imposter, and the Antichrist. He appears in such guises from the Crusades to the Reformation, with his representation as a religious imposter, reaching its literary apotheosis in Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, in which he is confined to the eighth circle of hell.

Two centuries later, he reappears as an Antichrist in the work of German reformist Martin Luther, who of course, believed the pope and the Catholic Church were much worse. A century later, Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, lauded as the father of international law, was still calling him “a robber” and declaring that, in contrast to the Christians, who “were men who feared God, and led innocent lives … they who first embraced Mahometanism were robbers, and men void of humanity and piety”.

With the coming of the Enlightenment, the prophet’s critics also began assailing him in secular language, as the “worst type of … fanatic” (French writer Voltaire) and “the greatest enemy of reason who ever lived” (German philosopher Immanuel Kant).

This is why I see the cartoons of the prophet as a terrorist to be just a secularisation of the figure of the Antichrist.

Lastly, (free) speech is conducive not only to critique, humour, honesty, and dissent but also to assertions of dominance and enactments of power.

Borrowing from Hartman, I want to suggest that, today, some Westerners seek to demonstrate and reproduce their dominion over Muslims by caricaturing and maligning our sacred symbols at will. They are thus able to achieve epistemically what they cannot physically or legally. Even if this displacement from the physical to the psychological signifies the limits of Western power, speech is integral to its display. This is why derogatory caricatures of the prophet function as spectacles of mastery and as an ideological means to bolster intra-Western unity against Muslims.

— Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America ( email: asghazali2011 (@)