Should I Be Charlie Hebdo?

It’s been a couple of weeks since two Islamic terrorists attacked and killed 12 people for publishing cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. What lessons can we learn, when cooler headsB6wLoAvIEAAMZED prevail, from this horrific event?

The first lesson is theological. On that tragic and horrific day, Cherif and Said Kouachi, contrary to the most basic understanding of Islam, acted as gods. The first pillar of Islam is that there is just one God (Allah). And Allah alone has the authority to make ultimate decisions concerning human life. The Kouachi brothers, in assuming god-like authority over human lives, affirmed three gods – Allah, Cherif and Said.

In my book, Abraham’s Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict, Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, the first democratically-elected President of Indonesia, explains blasphemy within a similar context of murder and satirical cartoons. Wahid, the former spiritual leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (one of the world’s largest Islamic organizations, with close to 40 million members), promoted liberty and tolerance from within a Muslim perspective. In his essay, “God Needs No Defense,” he writes:

As K.H. Mustofa Bisri wrote in his poem “Allahu Akbar”: “If all of the 6 billion human inhabitants of this earth, which is no greater than a speck of dust, were blasphemous … or pious … it would not have the slightest effect upon His greatness.” Omnipotent, and existing as absolute and eternal Truth, nothing could possibly threaten God. And as ar-Rahman (the Merciful) and ar-Rahim (the Compassionate), God has no enemies. Those who claim to defend God, Islam, or the Prophet are thus either deluding themselves or manipulating religion for their own mundane and political purposes, as we witnessed in the carefully manufactured outrage that swept the Muslim world several years ago, claiming hundreds of lives, in response to cartoons published in Denmark. Those who presume to fully grasp God’s will and dare to impose their own limited understanding of this upon others are essentially equating themselves with God and are engaged in blasphemy.

In short, when Cherif and Said Kouachi shot and killed twelve people, allegedly for blasphemy, they themselves were the blasphemers and their actions nothing more than murder. In defiance of Islam’s deepest principles, they acted as gods.

Aspiring to be martyrs, they met Allah as blasphemers and murderers.

Would that the story ended there: with the world, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, understanding and jointly condemning the moral and religious failure of the murderers and blasphemers.

But no.

The response to the actions of a few Muslims has been predictable: blame all Muslims. Assaults against Muslims have shockingly risen. In Villefranche-sur-Saône, a bomb blew up a kebab restaurant near a mosque. In Le Mans, blank grenades were dumped and shots fired at a mosque. Gun shots were fired at a Muslim prayer room in Port-La-Nouvelle. In Paris, a Quran was publicly desecrated at a rally.

The Kouachi brothers likely hoped their actions would incite non-Muslims to hatred and even violence. Such violent responses may incite more terrorists to join the cause. Sadly, they lived just long enough to see their hopes realized.

By giving in to hatred and prejudice, the murderers and blasphemers win.

Finally, and this is a moral lesson, not everything that one has a right to is good. The cartoonists and editors at Charlie Hebdo had the write to print cartoons mocking the Prophet (and Jews and Jesus, for that matter). But just as Nazi cartoons enflamed anti-Semitism, so, too, the Hebdo cartoons enflamed Islamophobia. Hebdo’s stereotypical cartoons portrayed Muslims as Arab towel-headed terrorists. But fewer than 15% of Muslims worldwide are Arabs, fewer men cover their heads (and seldom with towels except after a shower), and the vast majority of Muslims denounces terrorism.

If Muslims are indeed towel-headed terrorists, then we should fear them, isolate them, and disempower them. But most of them aren’t and so we shouldn’t.

I strongly defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to portray Muslims (or Jews or Jesus) in any manner they like. The right to free speech protects all political speech even speech we don’t like. But while they had the right to portray Muslims as they did, doing so, in many cases, was not good.

What made their published cartoons not good?

France’s five million Muslims are a disempowered minority. Young Muslims are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-Muslims (in some neighborhoods Muslim unemployment is as high as 40%). The ban on head coverings disproportionately affects Muslims (in the free expression of their religion). Local communities refuse to authorize the construction of mosques creating a dearth of worship spaces. Muslims face housing discrimination and many live in utter poverty. Laws reinforcing secularism seem aimed directly at Muslims. In short, French Muslims are socially, religiously and economically marginalized.

Because they are prevented from fully integrating into their new country, French Muslims remain deeply attached to their home country and religion. Nearly half of France’s Muslims consider themselves Muslim first and foremost (do the math, more than half consider themselves French first).

Piling insults onto injustices perpetuates Muslim marginalization. Piling insults onto prejudices enflames Islamophobia. Increasing Muslim marginalization and enflamed Islamophobia seem likely to produce the kind of conflagration that only murderers and blasphemers could hope for.

Mockery is no substitute for taking the time to get to know people who are very different from ourselves.

So while I endorse free speech, I am not Charlie Hebdo.


  1. Jessica Elizabeth Peters says:

    Dear Dr Clark,

    I appreciate your efforts toward fostering interfaith understanding, as evidenced in this essay and in your other professional work. I myself graduated from GVSU, and Grand Rapids is, for all intents and purposes, my home town; I’m glad to know there are attempts being made to encourage robust dialogue on matters such as this. Toward the end of contributing to that dialogue, I wish to suggest a few amendments to, and concerns about, your positions as stated here.

    First, you state that the murderers “acted as gods”, because only God has the authority to make ultimate decisions concerning human life. This statement is actually not precisely accurate from the Islamic perspective, as it gives the impression that Islam, like Catholicism, opposes state-sanctioned killing. The shari’ah does in fact permit capital punishment for certain acts. Such a punishment must be carried out by the khilafah after due process has been observed, of course, and is not a matter to be carried out by vigilantes.

    Second, regarding the same statement: As Muslims, we believe in qadr, or divine predestination. This fundamental pillar of faith does not obviate free will, but it absolutely entails the conviction that nothing occurs absent the power and knowledge of God. “Everything is written”, or maktoub–whatever comes to pass only does so by the will of God, no matter how tragic it may seem to us from our limited human perspective. Thus, from the position of traditional Islam, while it is possible to act either in obedience or in disobedience to God’s commands, it is nevertheless impossible that any act occur which is contrary to what He has ordained.

    Third: Your speculation on the hopes and intentions of the Kouachi brothers is not only that–unsubstantiated speculation–but also furthers and facilitates the villainization and demonization of these two men. Call them criminals (they were), call them murderers (they were), call them troubled (they most certainly were)–but in your efforts to spread understanding, do not join ranks with those who reduce these men to mere terrorists, mere repositories for “our” righteous scorn and outrage. If the objective is understanding, all parties must be given the same benefits and the same balanced treatment, a primary requisite of which is that we speak of what we know, and decline to comment on that which we do not.

    Fourth: You state that Charlie Hebdo had (and presumably still has) a right to publish whatever they wished, but suggest that perhaps they should have restrained themselves. I don’t think free speech per se is either the most important or the most interesting point in considering these events, but it is worth commenting that it is not at all clear that a court would not have found for the plaintiff should the press have been sued for inflammatory or hate speech. Satire can be a powerful means of challenging power structures and institutions and political leaders, and of encouraging critical thought. But even here, we place limits. A satirical piece criticizing Obama’s foreign or domestic policy is useful; a piece portraying him as a monkey is overtly racist. A recent satirical cartoon of Netanyahu received criticism for the way in which the artist emphasized stereotypical Semitic features, because his ethnicity is not within his control, while his atrocious policies in Gaza and the West Bank very much are. Satirizing a religious institution can likewise be differentiated from satirizing a religion, or religious people. So I believe there is good reason to believe that much of what the artists and writers at Charlie Hebdo published may be found not only inadvisable, but in fact egregious enough an offense to put it outside the reasonable protection of free speech. But for that, we shall have to wait until the day the matter is brought to a court, should that day come. As Abdal Hakim Murad (née Timothy Winter) suggested in a recent article on the subject, it will be interesting to see whether Muslim citizens are practically afforded the same protections from bilious assault as other groups.

    Fifth: Though you very appropriately address the broader social context as an important consideration for understanding the events, nevertheless you constrain yourself to far too narrow a view, ie that of the French government’s policies toward Muslims and the experience of Muslims living in France. This is not a matter merely of religious intolerance, nor is it one of nationalism. There is no evidence I’m aware of that indicates a person’s identifying themselves primarily as a member of a religious community, and only secondarily as a member of a civic state, has any direct consequence for or relevance to their propensity to commit violent acts. This is the first point. The second point is that France’s policies toward the Muslim minority is not a matter (merely) of religious intolerance. The social, political, economic, and cultural marginalization of the Muslim community in general and the North African immigrant community in particular is part and parcel of an imperialist legacy which forcefully and often forcibly constitutes the Muslim, the Arab, the African, as an incomprehensible and inherently antagonistic “other,” an “other” whose identifiable presence within the dominant cultural setting is almost invariably troped as a threat to be repressed and contained. It is from within this vast historical panorama that the Charlie Hebdo publications can be seen, not merely as a function of local impropriety or discomfort with religious expression or even concern over the bogeyman of religious extremism, but rather as yet another manifestation of symbolic violence stemming from an overarching ideology of perpetual occupation.

    Lastly: You were no doubt being ironic, or perhaps flippant, in stating that most Muslims aren’t “towel headed terrorists.” I would remind you here that in fact there’s no Muslim on the planet who is “towel headed”, no matter the actions they undertake, not merely because most Muslims aren’t Arab, as you rightly state, but more precisely because Muslims are human beings, and not racist caricatures. And I would further remind you that repetition of such phrases, even in context of making a well-intentioned point, hurts, and does not help, efforts to undermine propagation of such damaging stereotypes.

    My hope is that these comments, all too brief considering the scope of the subject, may contribute something of value to the very important conversations you are initiating and facilitating both at the university and in the Grand Rapids area. I thank you for your efforts, and for your patience in reading through this, and I welcome any response you may wish to offer.


    Jessica Elizabeth Peters

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Jessica. Let me reply to a couple of your remarks.
    1. I was reflecting here the Quranic teaching that punishment for blasphemy is a divine prerogative. “. . . But they uttered blasphemy . . . if they repent, it will be best for them, but if they turn back, Allah will punish them.” [Qur’an 9:47] Of course, various Hadiths and sharia laws make different claims.
    3. I don’t think it inappropriate to speculate on the motives of the killers. Only then can we come to some understanding of the circumstances that drive non-crazy people to mass murder. I would have thought that everything I said about the marginalization of Muslims in France would be sufficient to rebut the claim that they were mere terrorists. There are real injustices perpetuated by French citizens and governments that need to be addressed. Moreover, there are real injustices perpetuated by the US government that need to be addressed.
    4. I’m no lawyer so I can’t comment, especially on French laws. But I suspect I have a more robust understanding of free will than you do. btw: Tim Winter is my friend and has had a big influence on my understandings of Muslims.
    5. There is a lot I would agree with here. And I have written other blogs on these issues. But one can’t say everything in every blog. One has to focus to make a point. Anyway, I concur with nearly everything you’ve said in this paragraph.
    6. I was being neither ironic nor flippant. I was trying to portray in a few words the vicious stereotypes of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons (the ones you call hate speech). And then I deconstructed those stereotypes in the subsequent paragraph.
    again, thanks for your thoughtful and helpful comments

    • Jessica Peters says:

      Thank you for that. I have a few thoughts which I’ll include following the same enumeration:

      1) Fair enough. However, as I’m sure you well know, the body of the shari’ah is vast and complex, and even the Qur’an cannot be properly understood out of context. My only purpose here was to counter the implication in your original essay that earthly punishment is outside the bounds of Islam; and this particularly for any of your readers unfamiliar with the tradition.

      3) I take your point here, but I have two concerns: first, that the speculation you offer is problematic in that you state the perpetrators “likely hoped” their actions would a) inspire violence amongst non-Muslims, so that b) more terrorists would “join the cause.” This is not only unsubstantiated, it is also not at all a value-neutral assessment, and underscores, even if unintentionally, the notion that those who do violence are intent primarily on spreading violence (as opposed to any number of other influences or motivations).

      Second, I think if you revisit the logic of the original essay you will note that your commentary on the marginalization of French Muslims follows not upon your discussion of the Kouachi brothers, but rather upon your claim that the Charlie Hebdo artists and writers perhaps did a wrong action, even if they had a right to that action. In fact, you don’t mention the brothers at all once having asserted that they “lived just long enough to see their hopes [of more violence] realized.” And following from your discussion of the marginalization of French Muslims is the additional claim that nearly half of French Muslims see themselves as Muslims first, and French second, which you mention as if it has consequences for the rise of extremism, when in fact I don’t think it’s at all clear that it does.

      As far as the existence of real injustices perpetrated by both French and US governments, and the need to address them, I’m of course in complete agreement.

      4) I’m not a lawyer either. I was simply responding to your statement that you believe the CH press is free to publish anything they like; I don’t think it’s manifest that that’s true in the legal sense. And as far as your supposition that you may have a more robust understanding of free will than I do–that may certainly be true, though I’m not in a position to say, but I’m missing how that connects to the question of the reasonable limits societies place on free speech.

      5) Fair enough.

      6) What I meant to convey, though I seem to have failed in that, was that I grant you were not assuming that phrase for yourself; in other words, I received the clear impression that you did not yourself view Muslims in this particular way. I also noted your inclusion of the statistics on the actual number of Arab Muslims, which, along with your other comments, serves as a counter to the phrase.

      But then you make this statement: “If Muslims are indeed towel-headed terrorists, then we should fear them, isolate them, and disempower them. But most of them aren’t and so we shouldn’t.” It is the “most of them aren’t” that I object to, implying as it does that at least some of them are. It was apparently unintentional, but turns of phrase such as this are problematic.

      Appreciate your graciousness in responding so promptly.

  3. Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. There are so many issues, sides, nuances. And so many chances for mistakes (you’ve found a few of mine)! I’m grateful that you are a gracious critic. Let me respond to you points.

    1) You are exactly right. I am generally reluctant to say what Islam says about this or that. There is no Quranic incitement to kill blasphemers. Indeed, the Quran seems to leave the punishment of blasphemers in the hands of Allah: “Verily, those who malign Allah and His Messenger – Allah has cursed them in this world and in the Hereafter, and has prepared for them an abasing punishment“ (33:58). I was reflecting that sentiment via Wahid in my comments.

    3) You are right again. I should have said, “might have thought.”

    4) Oops, “free will” came from hearing a talk last week on free will! I meant freedom of speech. My bad.

    6) Good point. My turn of phrase was not so fortunate. I should have been more careful.

    Again, thanks for the great comments.

    • Jessica Peters says:

      The pleasure was mine. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss such important matters with a thoughtful as well as sympathetic respondent. You have my very best wishes for continued and fruitful dialogue at GVSU and elsewhere.

  4. I invite the reader to consider what we do and do not know about the Charlie attacks. We do know that some masked men killed a group of people. We do know that at a later date and different location some men were killed by government forces. We are told by mass media that the men who died at the second event were the men who committed the initial crime.

    There has been no trial or presentation of substantial evidence to prove the alleged connection. What happened may have been as we were told, or it may have been different.

    There is a long history of false flag events being used to influence the public. A false flag event is when party A commits an act and attempts to attribute the act to party B. lists some examples.

    We do not know how many civilians have been killed in all the countries in which the American Empire has brought war in the past two and a half decades. Responsible and reasoned estimates of the number of dead exceed a million civilians. We do know that millions of families have been made homeless by these wars.

    The narrative that we are being sold by the media with respect to the Charlie attacks is that the attackers were so enraged by a magazine that they chose to kill those responsible for the magazine. Why are we so willing to accept this narrative, while overlooking that we reduced countries to rubble and destroyed people’s lives, families, homes and ability to scratch a living from the earth?

    As a child I was taught the nursery rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I am sure that you know this rhyme also, and I suspect that if you are a well-adjusted adult, you believe it. Of course, not every adult is a well-adjusted.

    We are sold (by mainstream media) the narrative that large numbers of people in the countries in which we bring war are people who are not well-adjusted, and therefore are dangerous to us. Also, we sold the idea that some Muslims living in western countries are not well-adjusted. While I have never lived in a war-torn country, I can imagine that being in such an environment would make it more difficult to remain well-adjusted. However, I am not sold on the idea that people who are intent on seeking revenge are more likely to be motivated by an inconsequential magazine than they are by the suffering and loss of life of their loved ones.

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