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Clash Of Civilisations

...Brought To Light In This Week’s Edition Of Charlie Hebdo
Published: 
Sunday, January 18, 2015

This week’s edition of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo has brought to light once again the clash of civilisations. In anticipation of widespread interest and demand, the publishers printed five million copies in multiple languages. Only 60,000 copies are normally printed. Yet still, mere hours after newsstands pulled up their shutters, it was nigh impossible to secure a copy. Long lines snaked along the streets of Paris. The magazine was selling like hot baguettes.

An English translation is on sale in London. Copies are being scalped on E-Bay at exorbitant prices. The intense interest and support which the magazine has generated is, of course, not surprising. Last week, two gunmen invaded the magazine’s premises, interrupted an editorial meeting, asked for the editor and famed cartoonists by name, and shot them dead.

The undisputed motive for these summary executions was the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in a manner which was indisputably offensive, even to non- Muslims. Inclusive of two police officers, one of whom was Muslim, and four Jews gunned down by the gunmen’s confederate for no other reason, it appears, than that they were Jews, 17 people lay dead at the end of the killing spree. The message was that the ultimate price was to be paid for insulting the Prophet.

Led by members of the victims’ families and France’s President, linking arms with the British Prime Minister, the German Chancellor and 44 other world leaders, four million plus Frenchmen, women and children, of all races and religions, marched through the streets of Paris and other French cities. In a mark of solidarity with the magazine and the victims, many of them brandished signs bearing the words “Je suis Charlie,” “I am Charlie.”

The publication of this week’s edition of the magazine was therefore eagerly anticipated. Would the publishers understandably delay publication or temper their normal satirical and confrontational style out of fear of a further violent retaliation? Or would they remain un-cowed and defiant and thumb the gunmen’s sympathisers in the eye, in tribute to their fallen comrades and in honour of press freedom?

They chose the latter. The front page of the magazine has garnered an equal amount of praise and condemnation. It contains a cartoon drawing of a brown-skinned, bearded man with what appear to be racially stereotypical Arab features, donning a white gown and white Arab headdress. Shorn of context, you would have been forgiven for thinking that this was a caricature of a Saudi Arabian prince.

Your first reaction would not have been to suppose that the Prophet Muhammad was being depicted because you would not have seen a picture of him before. There aren’t any, and it is a fundamental Islamic edict that the image of the Prophet is not to be portrayed. We know better because the cartoonist responsible for the cover page has given a press conference in which he confirmed that, to his mind, this was the Prophet.

o a cartoonised Prophet Muhammad appears on the cover of the Charlie Hebdo magazine underneath a caption which reads, “Tout est pardonné” (“All is forgiven”), and carrying a sign which reads “Je suis Charlie.” A teardrop is seen falling from his left eye. One of the columnists who worked on the latest issue is reported as saying that the cover of the magazine was intended as a call for forgiveness of her colleagues’ murderers.

Her explanation of what was behind the “Je suis Charlie” sign was not reported, but it appears obvious that the cartoonist was portraying the Prophet as joining the millions of Frenchmen and women in their expression of solidarity with the murdered journalists, mourning their deaths (hence the shedding of a tear), and to this extent distancing himself from those who would find justification in Islamic doctrine for these cold blooded murders.

To be sure, not everyone has interpreted the cartoon in this benign fashion. One journalist thought the “Je suis Charlie” sign caricatured the Prophet as supporting the values of the magazine, which has a reputation for singling out Muslims for its most biting satire.

Whatever the more reasonable interpretation, from a Western point of view, the cartoon’s significance was in its defiant assertion that free speech will not be held to violent ransom, even if a misguided and offensive message is inadvertently supported. It is a fact of liberal democratic life that fundamental rights and freedoms are routinely defended in favour of the otherwise undeserving.

And it was of the highest importance to do so where free speech practitioners paid the ultimate price for exercising those rights. The President of the Muslim Association of Britain did not see it that way. Without saying exactly what he thought the cartoon meant, he expressed his disgust and annoyance. Prince Hassan of Jordan felt that it had added more salt to the wound.

It would have been different if the sign had read “Je Suis Ahmed,” he said, referring to the Muslim police officer who had been killed. Others made it clear that they were not at all concerned about the message which the cover of the magazine intended to convey. It is blasphemous to publish an image of the Prophet, pure and simple, even if the image is not in fact that of the Prophet. An intention to depict him is enough.

Doing so is supremely offensive to Muslims. The criminality displayed at Charlie Hebdo has nothing to do with Islam. Muslims in general ought not therefore to be attacked in retaliation. Pope Francis has joined this chorus. Freedom of expression is not absolute. It cannot be used to insult another person’s faith, he insists. This debate is an important one. There are limits to free expression. Speech can hurt, sometimes irreparably.

Where the lines are to be drawn is of immeasurable importance. I almost wrote that, in this charged emotional atmosphere, now is probably not the best time to attempt that debate. But the responses to Charlie Hebdo’s quite justifiable re-assertion of liberal democratic values are quite revealing. We live cheek by jowl in the common cause of humanity. But in a crunch, our very different worldviews are so easily put on display.

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