When a pair of Islamist militants stormed the offices of the satirical French paper Charlie Hebdo last week, it was a sadly predictable occurrence—as predictable, in fact, as the reactionary attacks on mosques that followed it.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen situations like the one in Paris often enough that it’s now a commonplace that the right to free speech necessarily precludes the right to not be offended. It is both strangely appropriate and darkly ironic that France, a nation that led the world in opening up religion to rational critique, has become the latest battleground in the war between free speech and a radical religious ideology that seeks to demolish liberty in the name of orthodox conformity. At the crux of the issue, though, is something even more psychologically fundamental than the fundamentalist tenets of a warped belief system—the power of images.
Images abound in the competing narratives cast by the terrorists and by the wide array of responses from journalists, pundits, and creators worldwide. Most prominent, of course, are the cartoons at the center of the controversy—drawings of the prophet Muhammad. While not unambiguously prohibited in Islam (and certainly not in the Qur’an), graphical representations, especially of revered figures like Muhammad, are a touchy subject.
In fact, though it’s not a topic that often comes up outside technical theological discussions, the three major Abrahamic faiths have historically shared a distaste for representative art, rooted in the prohibition of “graven images” in Exodus 20:4. Certain parts of Islamic culture have carried this distaste farther than most adherents of the three religions, but intransigent groups within each of them have been as violent in the past. The Iconoclastic Controversies within the Eastern Orthodox Church in the eighth and ninth centuries are distant cousins to the Charlie Hebdo attack, and though it very rarely erupts into violence, a concern to avoid even the trappings of idolatry lies deeply embedded within Orthodox Judaism.
It should not be forgotten, though, that the images in Charlie Hebdo were not taken as offensive solely because they depicted Muhammad, full stop. There may not be any such thing as an objectively offensive work of art, but the cartoons in question come close. As the staff of Charlie Hebdo would be the first to admit, cartoons like this, which have targeted nearly every religious group imaginable, were and are intended to shock, and to provoke a response. In that sense, then, they have succeeded, and in a tragic way that response has done more to degrade the West’s perception of Muslims than any drawing ever could.
When the paper’s offices were first attacked back in 2006, President Jacques Chirac stopped not too short of blaming the paper’s editorial staff for the violence, stating, “Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided.”
There is a certain kernel of wisdom in that statement—art created solely to offend is often less impactful than more thoughtful satire—but the chain of logic terminates in an appalling act of victim-blaming. At the most basic level, there are two ways to prevent violence carried out in reaction to “offensive” speech: for artists not to offend, or for the offended not to react violently. In a free society, only the latter can hold the force of law. The universal obligation to not commit murder outweighs the artistic obligation to make a well-reasoned point. There’s little sign of Chirac’s kind of thinking this time around, though whether that’s out of genuine respect for the artists or just another symptom of the worrying rightward shift in European discourse remains unclear.
In addition to whatever religious concerns may have motivated the attackers, one cannot discount the related, but much simpler, influence of anti-Semitism. Charlie Hebdo was not the militants’ only target: two days after the initial shooting a third attacker opened fire at a kosher supermarket. During the ensuing hostage crisis, the gunman pledged his loyalty to the terrorist organisation ISIS, and declared that he wanted “to kill Jews.”
As anyone familiar with the history of anti-Semitism knows, this particular disease is chock-full of derogatory images that still have the power to inspire hatred in the ignorant. From hook-nosed moneylenders to Christ-killing deicides, stereotyped images permeate and perpetuate this demented ideology more than any logical argument for Jews’ inferiority. That shouldn’t surprise us, either—perhaps the best way to inculcate an intellectually bankrupt brand of bigotry is by appeal to the simplest form of human perception. A rational argument must stand the test of sustained rhetorical proof, but an image, whether tangible or abstract, has the potential to bypass our faculties of critical thinking and implant a distorted view of reality that can justify everything from racial segregation to mass murder.
To cite a particularly vivid example, the medieval Christian myth of Jews baking matzos with the blood of non-Jewish children still survives in the more radical corners of the Islamic world. Though it’s not per se an image, from a theoretical perspective this canard has more in common with incendiary political cartoons than with any kind of polemical argument against Judaism on theological grounds.
A story like the blood libel is something less than a real story; it lacks a beginning, both in narrative terms as well as in the fact that its origins remain historically uncertain. It cannot reasonably be classified as fiction, as its purpose is to inspire hatred rather than to entertain or offer timeless literary truths. The blood libel is static in every respect, carved (or graven, if you like) into the minds of those who believe it, a mental image as real for them as any visual image: unmoving, unchanging. In this sense, prejudice becomes a demonic inverse of true art, encouraging repression and regression rather than expression and progress.
Like the blood libel, a host of images of varying sorts have come to characterise perceptions of Muslims in the West. Stereotyped portrayals of Muslims as violent or Islam as inherently militant find support in tragedies like the one in Paris, and given the complicity of the third gunman’s girlfriend, born into a family of liberal Muslims, the murders do much to fan the flames of the “they’re taking our women” trope born of American racism, now finding new life in European locales with populations of Muslim immigrants. These abstract images entangle and interact in a dance of almost quantum mechanical complexity, and this latter image is one that Islamophobia both draws on and augments.
Apart from the ongoing necessity of defending the freedom of the press, perhaps the most important takeaway from the atrocity in Paris is that a religion can never be held responsible for the actions of murderers—only murderers can be. Religion is just one among the many excuses human beings continue to use as pretext for murder and destruction; for eight years, a US-led coalition fought a war over flammable dinosaur fossils in Iraq—a war that President Bush himself called a “crusade.” Regardless of the true intentions behind it, that was a description that many Muslims took as much more than a Freudian slip. Whatever one’s opinion on the Iraq War, or on post-9/11 NATO actions in general, it is undeniable that right-wing religious rhetoric, while not inevitably leading to violence, has at least served to fan the flames of pre-existing cultural tensions in both the Middle East and the West.
It is clear that 21st-century Islam has a unique problem with violence. It is just as clear, however, that while many Muslims were offended by the cartoons in question, the majority of those offended would not condone murder as a legitimate response. The desire to paint Muslims in general as the grand enemy of Western liberal democracy, and even worse, acts of violence carried out on that premise, serve only to escalate a backs-against-the-wall mentality on both sides, and to heighten the perception of cultural imperialism that serves as a major (though certainly not the only) recruiting tool for militant organisations.
As a kind of postscript, I want to take a moment to note a shameful lack of coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attack from many comics news outlets, who seem to exist in a world where cartoons are not comics (they are) and where there is no overlap between creators of static, politically-minded cartoons and those of traditional narrative comics (especially in Europe, there is substantial overlap). The cartoonists who died last week were comic creators, and they died because they created comics that some people didn’t like. Any way you parse it, that’s a noteworthy occurrence for comics, for artists in every medium, and for all those who value free speech.