Last Wednesday, a comic-book biography of the Prophet Mohammed hit the newsstands in France. It was not the first time the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo tried to provoke the “anger of Muslims,” mostly for the sake of notoriety and profit. But chances are, that despite all promotional efforts, this latest comic book will cause less ripples than the publishers seem to hope.
In promoting this “special issue,” Stephane Charbonnier, the magazine’s publisher and cartoonist (better known as “Charb”), claimed the caricatures were based on Islamic compilations and on sound scholarly supervision. The purpose of the comic book, he said, was to make better known the life of the Messenger of Islam. “As much as we know about the life of Jesus, we know nothing about Mohammed,” he told interviewers. To justify the big noses and the naked bodies in the comic-book, he pleaded artistic license. “If content is Halal, the images are however my drawing. I have drawn Mohammed as I usually draw my characters. Mohammed is a man. I have drawn a man.”
For some reason, nobody seems to be buying into Charb’s arguments. Religion is based on spirituality as much as on icons and sacred figures, and Islam is no exception. “Transforming the life of the Prophet into a cartoon character is itself mistaken,” said Ibrahim Kalin, senior advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan. Even in Europe, writers have not been convinced by Charb’s defense. In The Independent, Jerome Taylor called the comic-book “predictably naff”, saying the publication “clearly pokes fun at the Prophet as much as it supposedly informs the reader about his life,” he noted.
The argument of the “scholarly supervision” of the book has not been convincing either, especially that the “Muslim authority” on which the publishers have relied is in fact a self-proclaimed “atheist”. The French-Moroccan sociologist, Zineb El Rhazoui, confesses to having “rejected Islam” a long time ago.
The calm which has prevailed in France since the Charlie Hebdo “special issue” came out, might be an indication that French Muslims have learnt that indifference is the best attitude towards attempts at provoking their wrath.
In fact, one does not have to be very cynical to understand that the main reason behind the latest Charlie hebdo media spinoff is commercial. The French weekly had sold more than 400,000 copies of a 2006 issue when it reprinted the Prophet Mohammed cartoons published earlier by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. More recently, its19th of September issue cartooning Islam’s Holy Prophet did not do as well, but it still sold nearly 200,000 copies. That was a major improvement over the usual average circulation of 45,000 copies, especially for a publication that has been having a difficult time balancing its books.
“Blinded by its pecuniary interests, Charlie Hebdo has shown up to now only a pronounced taste for provocation and an aversion to religions and to Islam in particular,” said the Union for Islamic organizations in France (UOIF). The organization however called on French-Muslims to show self-restraint and respect of the law.
Although driven by commercial motives, Charlie Hebdo has been surfing on enduring cultural and social trends in France. Long-time Paris-based American writer, Harriet Welty Rochefort, has noted that France is one of the European nations that are most attached to secularist and ant-clerical traditions. The shrunken place of the Church in politics and society is reflected in the absence of blasphemy laws.
But if French and western societies have atrophied the role of the “religiously sacred” in society, attacks on things sacred have become selective, argues French writer Eric Zemmour. He explains that, for instance, “nobody could make fun today of homosexual marriages or homosexual child adoptions”.
Muslim icons remain however convenient targets, especially that Islam itself is suspect in the eyes of an important segment of French opinion. A recent public opinion poll has shown that 63% of the French public believe the most important feature of Islam is its "rejection of Western values", followed by fanaticism (57%) and violence (38%).
Against such a complex domestic background, not surprising that attitude of French officials tends to be ambivalent. Asked about the issue, Najat Vallaud-Blekacem, French Minister of Women's Rights and government spokesperson, (herself of Maghrebi origin) simply said: “I think we're in a country where it is always necessary to ensure a proper balance between freedom of expression and respect for law and order, the need not to throw oil on the fire" she added.
But those who have to worry about the larger and more diverse populations of the Islamic world are less ambiguous in their reactions. "Incitement and advocacy of hatred and intolerance on religious grounds as shown by this publication was in violation of international human rights laws and instruments," said Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
The particularly worrying fact about religiously-provocative publishers in the West, is their lack of concern for the possible fallouts of their deeds on societies south of the Mediterranean and on already-turbulent Arab democratic transitions. Zineb El Rhazoui claims Charlie Hebdo and other similarly-inclined European publications cannot share any part of the blame for the violence that could be provoked by the publication of potentially offensive material. According to her, the violent incidents, which occurred after the publication of the Danish cartoons about the Prophet and the broadcast of the film-trailer “Innocence of Muslims”, were committed by people “who needed little reason to cut the throats of white men or westerners.”
It is hoped today that attitudes in the Muslim world will remain as subdued as they have been since the coming out of the latest “Charlie Hebdo” publication. Such as an outcome would go a long way discouraging future recklessness on the part of Western publishers who may be more interested in bringing the fanatic out of the Muslim than in building bridges between Muslims and the West.
(Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. A former Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University in Washington DC, he served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. Appointed as minister in 2009, he is known as one of the best Tunisian communication specialists. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst)