Thursday 21 November 2019

Cartoons of Mohammed doubly offensive to extremists

John Bingham takes a look at the roots of Muslim anger towards depictions of prophet

Stephane Charbonnier, also known as Charb
Stephane Charbonnier, also known as Charb

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 motivation was exactly the same.

The magazine's publishing director and cartoonist, Stephane Charbonnier (pictured right), better known as Charb - was on an al-Qa'ida "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.

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.

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 is 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 executive, 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."

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."

Irish Independent

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