The False Piety of the Hebdo Hoodlums

Fanaticism has an unerring ability to undermine its most cherished values. The fanatic’s fog of irrationality and rage typically renders him (and the most powerful fanatics are reliably hims) not only incapable of successfully pursuing imagined goals, but often only effective in damaging or destroying them. The thugs who broke into the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo yesterday and murdered twelve people in the name of God and religion no doubt imagined that they were “avenging blasphemy.” But in reality, they committed an act of supreme blasphemy. They insulted, traduced, and denigrated the Prophet Muhammad, Islam, and Muslims the world over as effectively as possible.

Like any good lampoon, in the course of satirizing everything it encountered, Charlie Hebdo had, on numerous occasions, depicted the Prophet Muhammad in its cartoons. Indeed, it reprinted the notorious set of cartoons first printed by the Danish publication Jyllands-Posten that touched off a wave of hysterical threats, unrest, and riots in several countries in 2006. In November, 2011, the Charlie Hebdo offices were bombed on the eve of the publication of an edition entitled “Charia Hebdo,” which claimed Muhammad as a “guest editor.” The magazine and its editors fielded numerous threats from Muslim extremists, and turned up on a kind of “most wanted” list published by the Al Qaeda magazine Inspire.

The idea that Charlie Hebdo was not only a legitimate target but also an important one was long- and well-established in extremist Islamist circles. For many traditional Muslims, especially in the Arab world and Sunni tradition, any depiction at all of Muhammad—even one that attempts to be respectful—is unacceptable. The caricatures in Charlie Hebdo made no effort to be respectful—that, indeed, was usually their point. The extremists sought to redact in blood what ink had portrayed on paper.

Sensitivity, indeed hypervigilance, about the Prophet is deeply rooted. A Persian saying advises, “Bā khudā dīwāna bāsh o bā Muhammad hoshiyār,” which more or less translates as “go crazy with God, but be careful with Muhammad.” The prohibition against representations of the Prophet has its origins in an effort to prevent iconography from diluting the pure monotheism of the faith. Tradition holds that Muhammad repeatedly warned that he should not be the subject of any veneration.

From this, the idea arose that representations of the Prophet were blasphemous, because they could potentially become an alternate source of devotion that could challenge the primacy of God and his literal word, the Koran. In many iterations of Islam, this prohibition has become absolute. The effect, however, has been precisely the opposite of its intention. Rather than keeping the Prophet life-sized, the prohibition of his image has served instead to sacralize, in very precise terms, the Muhammad of the Muslim imagination.

Moreover, as Islam has developed over the centuries in competition with, and along lines broadly parallel to, its monotheistic siblings, Christianity and Judaism, Muslims have developed a special sensitivity about Muhammad because what he represents is what uniquely distinguishes Islam from rival Abrahamic faiths. There isn't much in Christianity or Judaism that Islam does not incorporate in some way, but Muhammad cannot be anything other than a dividing line between the youngest monotheism and its predecessors. A perceived attack on Muhammad, therefore, seems to charge directly into the deepest chasm between them, and to tweak an exposed Muslim nerve—particularly in the era of postcolonial states in Asia and Africa and alienated, unassimilated immigrant communities in Western Europe.

The violent extremists, therefore, are irresistibly drawn to the bizarre quest to “avenge” Muhammad from supposed slights, especially satiric ones. In so doing they are besmirching his name and his memory in the most insulting manner. They are constructing the global image of a “man of God” who requires his followers to murder innocent people in broad daylight, including bystanders, in order to punish or prevent any form of disrespect. What they have painted in coagulate gore is the portrait of a tyrant who, even from the grave, dispatches his minions to enforce a totalitarian order centered around a narcissistic cult of personality expressed not in endless fawning icons, but even more powerfully in a complete prohibition against any depiction at all.

Sometimes, there is more at work in these violent outbursts than what first meets the eye. The first of these now depressingly familiar instances in which Muslim extremists employ terrorism to supposedly implement these strictures was the notorious 1989 fatwa by the Iranian dictator Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, urging the killing of author Salman Rushdie and all those involved in the publication of his satiric novel The Satanic Verses. At the time—and ever since—almost everyone had assumed that Khomeini was either cynically manipulating a “scandal” that began in Britain and India for both global and domestic political purposes, or was genuinely pursuing a fanatical interpretation of Islam that allows for no dissent, satire, or freethinking.

But another, even more cynical, interpretation is also available, although deeply neglected. It’s not enough to merely observe that Rushdie’s novel isn't blasphemous at all, and that this would be obvious to anyone who really read the book. More to the point, all who actually did read it carefully—and there is no doubt that the bookish Khomeini, or at least some in his inner circle, had done so—would immediately see that one of its most successful passages is an extended and brutally effective caricature of Khomeini himself. The character known as “The Imam,” a disgruntled exile in London who wants to turn back all clocks and reverse the passage of time, lampoons Khomeini politically and intellectually. Rushdie even mocks this Khomeini stand-in’s physical features and facial expressions. Rushdie’s book didn't ridicule Islam or Muhammad. But it did roast the Ayatollah in no uncertain terms.

It’s entirely plausible—and indeed, I think, likely—that a megalomaniac like Khomeini was motivated in large measure to extract revenge against Rushdie and all of his collaborators more on personal than religious or broader political grounds. No one knows if there is any connection between the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and an organization like ISIS. But, it is suggestive that the final tweet from the magazine before it was attacked featured a caricature of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The latest Muslim megalomaniac—so self-aggrandizing that he actually appointed himself the new “caliph,” a move suggestive of the classic French cartoon Iznogoud, in which the Grand Vizier’s catchphrase is “Je veux être calife à la place du calife” (“I want to be Caliph instead of the Caliph”)—or his followers may also have taken this personally.

Of course, such a personal slight isn’t necessary. For Takfiri and Salafist-Jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda or ISIS, as well as other violent Muslim extremists and their followers, almost no excuse for violence against anyone outside of their immediate circles is required before the trigger is pulled or the bomb detonated. The good news is that with the rise of ISIS, the sentiment against such extremists in the Muslim world, and especially the Arab Middle East, is rapidly expanding—particularly among governments and national leaders. The bad news is that their appeal is sustained, and perhaps intensifying, among a violent fringe alienated from mainstream societies in both the East and West.

Muslims are growing increasingly uneasy with the effort to dismiss, or otherwise explain away, the death cult that has arisen on the fringe of the faith as an aberration or an irrelevancy. Westerners, for their part, are growing tired of Islamophobic rhetoric that blames Islam as a religion or Muslims at large for violent Islamist extremism. One can dare to hope, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, that these parallel movements might lead to an effective coordinated response, bringing Islamic and Western traditions of free expression forcefully to bear against the bloody, self-defeating legacy of Islamist extremists. And a converging, cross-cultural defense of free speech and rational religious pluralism is the best sort of homage we can pay to the writers and artists brutally gunned down in Paris.

 Hussein Ibish is a weekly columnist for The National (UAE) newspaper and NOW media, and is a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs for a wide range of Arab and American media.