Commentary | An ignorance that misinforms

A Muslim reflection on the Charlie Hebdo massacre

On January 7, the world was gripped with horror as two gunmen massacred twelve innocent people at an assault on the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, ostensibly to avenge the honour of their holy Prophet, peace be upon him. Muslims the world over have condemned this cowardly act as antithetical to everything their faith and values stand for, expressing their deep sympathies for the victims and their families. It goes without saying that while many Muslims, especially political and community leaders, took a vocal and public stance, countless other millions have done so silently in their hearts as they go about their daily lives. For many, while we unequivocally reject the senseless violence of those who happen to be nominally affiliated with our faith tradition, we feel no need to have to apologize for the violent crimes that are patently against everything we represent and stand for as peace-loving Muslims and as human beings.

In a show of solidarity with the victims and in the name of free expression, various newspapers, including French-Canadian papers and McGill’s own Le Délit, have published one or some of Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons. They did so, according to them, so as not to give in to fear, irrespective of the content of any particular cartoon. No matter how crass and inaccurate the portrayal, the argument goes, as citizens endowed with basic freedoms, our decisions must never be dictated by our fear of extremists.

It goes without saying that while many Muslims, especially political and community leaders, took a vocal and public stance, countless other millions have done so silently in their hearts as they go about their daily lives.

As Muslims, we are doubly troubled and distressed by the tragedy that has unfolded. First, we are deeply disturbed by this callous loss of innocent life and the sheer horror of the crime. No amount of words or consolation can undo the psychological trauma and deep wounds that the victims’ loved ones and the French people must endure in the immediate aftermath of such an atrocity, and for years to come. Second, such events done in the name of our faith only serve to further misinform the public, as well as to stigmatize and alienate Muslims living in the West, contributing to the general frenzy of Islamophobia, and a rise in hate crimes targeting Muslims and their places of worship. So let us hope and pray that an event like is a cause for our societies to reflect on how to make this world a better place for all, in honour of the victims’ lives.

While no cartoon or form of self-expression can possibly justify the taking of a human life, it is very clear why some newspapers and media broadcasters such as the CBC have refused to publish or air the cartoons. The fact is that Charlie Hebdo is a deeply racist and xenophobic magazine. To be clear, criticizing religion on the merit of its ideas (after accurately portraying the inevitable complexity of its doctrines, of course) is certainly a very valid exercise in free expression and ought to be encouraged. However, as a friend recently reflected, there is a very fine line between freedom of thought and freedom from thought, where insightful and reasoned reflection is shunned for cheap sensationalism and outright bigotry. These cartoons are far from innocent satire, and reflect the most crass of orientalist tropes when it comes to Islam.

I would argue that to honour such work is to suspend our ability to engage in more meaningful and civil dialogue that is based on higher ideals in favour of cheap and racist stereotyping. For instance, the magazine has been criticized for its anti-semitism in the past. In 2008, cartoonist Maurice Sinet published an anti-semitic article satirizing the French president’s son for his conversion to Judaism, and after he refused to apologize, he was immediately fired. One must ask: why then the double-standard when it comes to Islam, given that some of the cartoons over the magazine’s history have clearly linked Islam, and Muslims more generally, to the vile actions of terrorists?

There is a very fine line between freedom of thought and freedom from thought, where insightful and reasoned reflection is shunned for cheap sensationalism and outright bigotry.

Indeed, one need only look at the menacing and ugly features of the depicted Prophet to concretize the magazine’s underlying racism – a very far cry from his handsome and gentle countenance, with his unceasingly radiant smile that is likened to the splendour of the full moon by the Muslim sources. But on a more serious note, such images and portrayals are diametrically opposed to everything our Prophet, peace be upon him, ever stood for as a spiritual guide, which is why they are deeply insulting, and why the crime committed in his name is particularly heinous in the eyes of Muslims.

One need only reflect upon how the Prophet, peace be upon him, responded to his own opponents in the Qurʾān, who were vehemently opposed to his revolutionary message, and sought to persecute him and his followers with tremendous rage and cruelty. Indeed, the Islamophobia of today pales in significance when contrasted with what he had to face as a daily recurrence. To his enemies, he was a liar, a sorcerer, and a mad man who had to be exterminated. Despite this, the Qurʾān urges him, “And have patience with whatever they say, and leave them be with noble (dignity)” [73:10]; “Repel evil with that which is best [of noble conduct]: We are well acquainted with the things they say” [23:96]. And lest the demagogues have you believe that this was Muhammad’s policy when the Muslims were still vulnerable to attack in Mecca and that this all changed upon his migration to Medina, where he was far less militarily vulnerable, the Quranic revelation continues to exhort him and the believers with the same message in Medina: “Verily you will be tried with respect to your wealth and in your lives, and you will hear much hurtful insult from those who were given the Scripture before you, and from the idolaters. But if you persevere and remain God conscious, then that is of the steadfast heart of things” [3:186].

As Muslims, we can thus only hope and pray that events such as the recent tragedy can cause us to reflect a little more deeply and to renew our struggle against the perennial forces of ignorance and hate that seek to divide and misinform.

One would think that after facing years of severe persecution and hostility against him and his community by the people of Mecca, such a man would have had every right to triumphantly enter Mecca upon its conquest, parading his glorious victory for all to see. Instead, we know that he chose to completely forgive and release from blame all his former enemies. The images drawn from his biography depict a man re-entering the beloved city of his birth with his head bowed so low in a state of utter humility and gratitude toward his Creator that after all these years, his message of peace and love had prevailed over the forces of ignorance (Jahiliyyah) and hate. This is the Muhammad that I know; this is the Muhammad that peace-loving Muslims the world over know. As Muslims, we can thus only hope and pray that events such as the recent tragedy can cause us to reflect a little more deeply and to renew our struggle against the perennial forces of ignorance and hate that seek to divide and misinform.


Omar Eidabat is a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies. To contact him, send an email to omar.eidabat@mail.mcgill.ca.


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