OPINION by Shafiq Morton
Such are the times that a French satirical magazine holding no sacred cows, and boasting a circulation of less than 50,000 in a country of over 60 million, can print 3 million copies after its editor and eleven others are brutally gunned down by two masked men during an editorial meeting.
The Charlie Hebdo magazine – the word ‘Hebdo’ meaning ‘weekly’ and ‘Charlie’ referencing Charlie Brown in ‘Peanuts’ and former president Charles de Gaulle – enjoyed a patchy existence, even decades before the infamous Muhammad cartoon saga began in 2006.
In 2011 the firebombing of its offices (in response to an edition featuring the Islamic prophet) had its editor, Stephane Chabonnier, being granted 24-hour police protection.
Originally launched in the 1960’s as Hara Kiri, and banned twice in the De Gaulle era, Charlie Hebdo – which first appeared in 1970 – is the successor to Hara Kiri. Charlie Hebdo ceased publication in 1981 and was re-born 10 years later. Since then, the magazine has mercilessly – if not crassly – lampooned religion and politics.
In 2008 it lost a curious anti-Semitism case concerning Jean Sarkozy, son of then president Nicolas Sarkozy, who embraced Judaism to marry his fiancée, a Jewish heiress.
Charlie Hebdo’s commentary – that Jean Sarkozy would ‘go far’ because of his engagement – saw its cartoonist, Maurice Sinet, being fired. He sued his employers and won over R1 million in damages.
In February 2006 Charlie Hebdo published a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad weeping and saying “ce’st dur être aimé par des cons” (it’s hard to be loved by idiots). The context was the rise of Islamic extremism.
The Paris mosque sued the magazine for slandering the Muslim community and indulging in racism by equating Islam with terror. Charlie Hebdo was acquitted on the grounds that Islamic extremism, and not Islam, was the editorial focus. The magazine sold 300,000 copies of that edition, which also included a panel of the infamous Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons.
In 2011 Charlie Hebdo published an edition entitled ‘Charia Hebdo’, a play on the word Shari’ah, or Islamic Holy Law. Claiming that the issue had been ‘guest edited’ by Muhammad, a cartoon had him saying ‘100 lashes if you don’t die laughing’.
In the dawn hours of 2 November the Charlie Hebdo offices were firebombed and its computer system hacked. Unbowed, the magazine published further cartoons of the Prophet in September the following year, this time featuring him unclothed – a major insult to the Islamic faith.
Since the Paris terror attacks – allegedly credited to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – there has been much conjecture. Whether it was a bona-fide Al-Qaeda operation or a false flag one (in retaliation to France supporting a Palestinian state as some claim) is not the question here, as was the begrudged presence of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at a march expressing solidarity for its 17 victims.
Nor is there space to discuss the sad fact that the world remained silent as another extremist Salafi-Wahhabi group, Boko Haram, slaughtered an estimated 2,000 innocent people and destroyed over 16 villages in northern Nigeria.
What is pertinent right now is to explain exactly why Muslims feel so outraged by Charlie Hebdo’s stubborn insistence on attacking their most sacred personality, and why it constitutes such a grave affront in the eyes of 1.6 billion people.
Firstly, the Prophet Muhammad was extremely lenient towards those who insulted or attacked him. The point is that the violent, bloodthirsty vengeance of contemporary extremist groupings doesn’t belong to Islam. Burdening ordinary Muslims with it, as some do, is grossly unfair.
Groupings such as ISIS, Jubhat al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda, who are – incredibly and shockingly – incapable of rustling together one qualified or credible religious judge between them, do not appear to comprehend that their attempted return to the era of the Prophet is, in fact, a major deviation from it.
They need to be reminded of the compassionate character of the person they so righteously claim to emulate at the pull of a trigger. In Mecca the Prophet Muhammad had a neighbour who would throw garbage on him whenever he passed by. He did not respond. Yet when she fell ill, he was the first to visit her.
When a Bedouin urinated in his mosque, he forbad his companions from punishing the man. He simply ordered them to rinse away his urine. When a Christian delegation came to visit him, he did not cut their throats like ISIS, but allowed them to pray in his mosque. The Prophet even tolerated, Hind, who’d eaten the liver of his beloved uncle, Hamzah.
Secondly, Islamic scholars have codified human rights into five key categories: the right to faith, the right to life, the right of family, the right of property and the right to intellectual expression. Imam Ghazali, the 11th century colossus, added another category: the right of human dignity, or character.
Therefore, to purposefully denigrate the Prophet Muhammad is regarded as hugely offensive in the Islamic realm because it violates the sixth principle. Incidentally, honour has to accrue to all divine messengers, including Jesus, Isaac, Ishmael, Joseph, Jonah, John the Baptist Abraham and Moses.
And whilst the Charlie Hebdo saga is said to revolve more around freedom of expression in France than the question of faith itself, its editors need to appreciate that not only 10 million French Muslims – but the whole world Islamic community – becomes deeply offended whenever its cartoonists lampoon the Prophet.
Part of the solution to all this, apart from the obvious suggestions of open dialogue and inter-faith understanding in a secular environment, is a question of constitutionality. At the bottom of the social ladder, French Muslims – and by extension their Islam – is perceived as a secondary or inferior social construct at odds with overall French identity.
In France today every faith needs to be constitutionally equal, not only in principle, but in practice. It is this question that needs to be urgently addressed to avoid extremist mischief makers, and ignorant editors, from pitting people against each other on the basis of their supposed differences.
Shafiq Morton is the anchor of VOC’s Drivetime show. He is a veteran journalist, broadcaster, author and media lecturer.