After the reaction to the anti-Islam film “The Innocence of Muslims”, it was only a matter of time before the next deliberate provocation added fuel to the fire. The French magazine Charlie Hebdo duly obliged, last week publishing cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammad on September 19 in what was considered by many Muslims worldwide as a further gratuitous affront to Islam. The magazine has previously engaged in incitement, when last year it printed offensive cartoons ridiculing Islam while then announcing that its edition would be guest-edited by the Prophet Mohammad, leading to its office being firebombed in November 2011.
It is far-fetched for French media like Charlie Hebdo to claim it is a bastion of absolute free speech when it previously condemned one of its own cartoonists, Maurice Sinet, for writing a biting article about Nicholas Sarkozy’s son which appeared to denigrate him for marrying a Jewish heiress for money. Sinet was subsequently sacked for refusing to apologize. So much for principles when domestic political sensitivities are involved – and yet showing sensitivity to a billion or so Muslims around the World is apparently an affront to their secularism.
It is the French government that has the most to answer for in creating this climate of hypocrisy and hatred, where Islam and Muslims appear to be regularly targeted under the banner of an illusionary “freedom”, and Muslims are then banned from protesting in response. When the French Prime Minister states that the magazine’s cartoons are “expressed within the confines of the law and under the control of the courts”, it can be pointed out that the French senate passed a bill earlier this year which bans denial of genocide recognised by French law, a clear indication of the willingness to restrict expression for political reasons. Ironically, the political target in this case is the Turkish government, and the event referred to is the killing of Armenians in 1915-16 during the final few years of the Ottoman State, the last formal representation of the Islamic political model of the Caliphate.
French interaction with the Ottoman State and the freedom to insult Islamic sensibilities has its own peculiar history. Towards the end of the 19th century, the French government banned the dramatization of a play entitled “Mahomet” in deference to the representations made by the Ambassador of the Ottoman Caliphate. Fearful of pushing the Ottoman Caliphate further into the arms of the German empire, France’s continental neighbor and competitor, principles quickly gave way to realpolitik. And in this event, one of the reasons behind the frustrations of Muslims who have taken to the streets can be understood. If today there was such a political entity which represented the Islamic viewpoint regarding these issues, Muslims worldwide could look to it to take firm stances in their interests, and it can be dealt with at a state level as history attests. In the absence of such a government, people take to the streets to express their anger, a sight that is likely to become more visible in the new Middle East without the same Western backed dictators such as Hosni Mubarak around anymore to keep them in check.
Dr. Reza Pankhurst is a political scientist and historian, specializing in the Middle East and Islamic movements. He received his doctorate from the London School of Economics. He was a political prisoner of the previous Mubarak regime in Egypt, spending almost 4 years in jail between 2002 and 2006. His forthcoming book is entitled “The Inevitable Caliphate?” (Hurst/ Columbia University Press 2012) and is available at Amazon and other retailers.