Cartooning Muhammad: War of the Hypocrites

The amateurish Youtube video insulting Islam’s prophet, followed by some new cartoons, have left their predictable trail of bloodshed. Maghreb Emergent points out the inanity of the cartoons beside the historical Muhammad, and the hypocrisy of his self-appointed defenders in the Islamic world.

Charlie Hebdo has once again published cartoons mocking the prophet of Islam, this time depicting him as a shameless lecher. For the editors of this once-satirical newspaper, audacity apparently no longer consists of provoking the powerful, but merely of trying to injure the sentiments of hundreds of millions of Muslims; they have become court jesters for closet racists. Unfortunately their only opponents are Uncle Tom ulemas who are more interested in defending the “person of the Prophet” from the West’s slurs than in struggling against the political and economical domination that this same “West” exerts on their countries.

Dismissed for centuries in the Christian West as huckster, Muhammad was the man who succeeded in ten years in unifying all of pagan Arabia under the banner of a new religion. Just a few decades after his death, an Islamic empire extended from the coast of the Atlantic to the foothills of the Himalayas. All serious historians acknowledge him a great political genius, one who surrounded himself not with patricians but with barefoot plebes from every walk of life.

Charlie Hebdo seems to know very little about the prophet of Islam and his life as a soldier-preacher, a life in which military conquests intertwined with political negotiations, and spirituality with the preoccupations of everyday life. For their “humoristic” portrait, they were inspired by a sham movie, Innocence of Muslims, and drank from the bottomless fountain of anti-Muslim stereotypes the West has inherited from the Middle Ages. Representing Muhammad as a shameless lecher is a stale cliche that dates back to the medieval wars of religion. Like the enigmatic director of what is now officially called “the anti-Islam movie”, the cartoonists of this formerly satirical French newspaper do not seem to have asked how a man so busy with the pleasures of the flesh found time to create a state that reached two and a half million square kilometers, a state that soon became the focus of an immense empire.

All this has a desperate air of deja-vu; the protagonists of the story have changed but the plot is the same as seven years ago. In September 2005, a Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, published cartoons depicting Muhammad as a suicide terrorist. In February 2006, “in solidarity” with the Danes, Charlie Hebdo republished those cartoons with their ancient anti-Saracen stereotypes.

Today, we can predict upcoming events. Thousands of Muslims will demonstrate everywhere on the globe wailing “Anything but our Prophet!” The major Western powers will play both sides; hoping to protect their citizens who live in volatile Islamic countries, they will “denounce the provocation,” but simultaneously they will try to “defend freedom of expression,” fearful of angering domestic islamophobes and other ex-leftist exponents of an abstract and aggressive secularism.

To “enlighten” the public about this inexplicable Muslim rage, some experts – forgetting all about the geopolitics of Islamism, and lacking the least knowledge of Turkish or Persian art, where even Muhammad was once depicted–will explain that Islam forbids the representation of living beings, even more so of God’s prophets. They will didactically remind us of, among the many recent Saracen outrages, the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhist statues in 2001. They will not, of course, wonder why, in more than thirteen centuries of Islamic power, these statues remained standing.

In 2005, it was explained to certain rather obtuse Danish cartoonists that drawing the Prophet of Islam with a bomb in his turban effectively suggested that all Muslims were potential Bin Ladens. They shouted – just as Charlie Hebdo‘s editor today shouts : “Freedom of expression!”. The cartoonists of Jyllands Posten would have liked to add that freedom should not be weighed down by the sensitivities of these myth-haunted nations, but then the Danish consulates were already burning. And of course they didn’t recall that just two years before, Jyllands-Posten had refused to run a series of cartoons ridiculing Jesus Christ: the editors had not wanted to offend Christians.

Do these tame court jesters ever wonder what would happen to their newspapers if they tried depicting Moses as a ruthless warlord leading the Jews to occupy the Promised Land? They would soon find themselves needing a good lawyer. But then they know from experience that while Muslims blow off steam by shouting and burning some flags, Jews have learned to react effectively to odious anti-Semitic attacks; attacks which are another proud legacy of European Christianity and its innumerable inquisitions.

The inept director of Innocence of Muslims and Charlie Hebdo‘s reckless artists – for whom courage only resides in caricaturing oppressed minorities- unfortunately find themselves facing no such organized opposition. Instead they confront a collection of backward ulemas, some of whom actually believe that the representational image is the work of Satan.

These ulemas denounce not only these rather feeble “anti-Islamic” works, but the whole “West”; they fulminate against “freedom of expression” as if it were not an advance for all of humanity but a suspicious product of western civilization. They are less preoccupied with the sufferings of the real Muslims, victims of ordinary racism from the left and from the right in Europe and the USA, than by “offenses against God’s messenger.” As if the prestige of this man – who suffered the most terrible humiliations from his adversaries but never stopped negotiating with them, so wise politically that upon defeating his adversaries he welcomed them into the community of believers, as if a man like that could really be diminished by the pseudo-artistic effusions of a few little men in whom creative genius has smaller space than financial …

Displaying so much deference to the Prophet allows these ulemas to justify their indifference to the “thousands of Muhammads who live like slaves under regimes who claim to worship the Prophet Muhammad” (to paraphrase the writer Kateb Yacine). It allows them to make people forget that they do not contest the American led Western hegemony on their nations and that they never whisper a word against foreign military presence in their lands. The occupation of Iraq has got their indignation less fired up than Innocence of Muslims, Charlie Hebdo or Jyllands-Posten‘s cartoons.

And yet in Iraq the Americans have killed Iraqis by the thousands. Instead of denouncing this very real hegemony that transforms countries into colonies, these servants of kings prefer to keep the believers busy condemning the depiction of a man who always reminded his companions precisely that he was “merely a man, who eats and wanders around in the markets”.

Like their anti-Western fervor, the conception of freedom of conscience in these dark minds is quite flexible. When you hear them demanding that the West respect Muslims’ sensitivities you might imagine that the states they serve are the last shrines of religious tolerance. But to their flocks at home they serve a totally different sermon: that in the land of Islam, only Islamic proselytizing may be tolerated, and that renegades have only one choice–exile.

In 2001, they did not denounce the destruction in Afghanistan of the ancient Buddhist statues that were harming no-one. Egypt’s Al-Azhar fiercely demands that Muslims’ beliefs be respected by others, but it never protested when a bunch of enlightened fundamentalists decided to judicially separate Egyptian freethinker Hamed Abu Zeid from his wife, on the grounds that an apostate has no right to live with a believer. This same Al-Azhar only half-heartedly disapproves of fanatics attacking churches in Upper Egypt or even when these same fanatics demand that the Coptic Christians demolish their churches with their own hands.

Just as these ulemas have no sincere belief in religious freedom, Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are not sincerely defending freedom of expression when they deliberately attack the sentiments of hundreds of millions of Muslims. The first dream of an Islamic world cleared of its all non-Muslims, whom they suspect of plotting against the “true religion” and of disturbing the lethargic tranquility of the Islamic world’s governors. The second dream of a Europe cleansed of Islam and its “fifth column.” Cheap ulemas versus bogus Voltaires, the war of the hypocrites continues.

Yassin Temlali Translated from French by International Boulevard