Murders in France over cartoons of Mohammed conjure up images of Europe in centuries past when people were put to death for blasphemy
By John Bingham, Religious Affairs Editor
8:36PM GMT 07 Jan 2015
It is 400 years since the prospect of people being put to death for blasphemy or heresy was a fact of life in Europe.
But in the minds of those behind the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, the motivation was exactly the same.
The magazine’s publishing director and cartoonist, Stéphane Charbonnier, better known as “Charb” – was on an al-Qaeda “wanted” list and lived under police protection.
That a cartoonist could be under threat of death is testament to the incendiary reaction satirical depictions of the man revered in Islam as the mouthpiece of God have elicited.
Public fury against the products of western popular culture have been a regular feature since the late 1980s when the Iranian fatwa was issued against the Salman Rushdie, for the Satanic Verses.
But while books and films have attracted protests and occasionally violence, cartoons have proved even more potent, offending fundamentalist Islam on two grounds: not only insulting the Prophet but depicting him in the first place.
Judaism, Islam and some strands of Christianity all, to varying degrees, share an aversion to visual images.
In the Bible, the Second Commandment forbids not only any depiction of God but “any graven image, or any likeness of anything” in Heaven or Earth.
It has not stopped Roman Catholic, Orthodox and, increasingly, Anglican churches being filled with icons and statues of Jesus. But the history of Christianity is peppered with examples of the destruction of images seen as idolatrous – from iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire to the Reformation in western Europe.
Many Islamic scholars forbid images of any living thing and few if any permit depictions of God or any prophet – including Mohammed, Abraham and Jesus.
But the cartoons have been viewed as doubly offensive because, rather than idolising Mohammed, their purpose has been to satirise.
Tensions over the issue came to a head in the UK last year after two atheist students at the London School of Economics were told to cover up t-shirts of the comic strip Jesus and Mo.
During a discussion of the issue Maajid Nawaz, the leader of the anti-extremism Quilliam Foundation, posted an image of the t-shirt on Twitter along with the words: “I’m sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it.”
He faced threats and a high-profile campaign to have him removed as a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate. It was led not by militants but moderates including Mohammed Shafiq, chief Eexecutive, of the anti-extremist group Ramadhan Foundation.
Mr Shafiq condemned the attacks in Paris but added: “In a democracy people are free to draw those cartoons but we are equally free to speak out against them.
“I think the cartoons that were depicted by this magazine were disgusting and deplorable.”
French cartoonist Charb, publishing director of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo
Tehmina Kazi, director of the group British Muslims for Secular Democracy, said: “I think a lot more people are sensitive to it that we would like to admit.
“We only have to look at the massive over-reaction to Maajid Nawaz re-tweeting an innocuous ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoon.”
Tom Holland, the historian, who faced threats and abuse in 2012 over a book and documentary questioning the historic origins of Islam, said the fury over cartoons summed up the clash between the ideas of the Enlightenment and much of Islam.
“Christians have had a long time to adjust so that the founding assumptions [of the Enlightenment] are less threatening,” he said.
“Muslims particularly coming to Europe are just not used to the Voltairean tradition.”
Salman Rushdie said that satire must be defended as a “force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity”.
“‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion’,” he said.
“Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”
Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, the UK’s leading satirical magazine, condemned it as a “murderous attack on free speech in the heart of Europe”.
“I offer my condolences to the families and friends of those killed – the cartoonists, journalists and those who were trying to protect them.
“They paid a very high price for exercising their comic liberty .
“Very little seems funny today.”
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