It's Charlie Hebdo's right to draw Muhammad, but they missed the opportunity to do something profound
As the French magazine publish a comic depicting the Prophet Muhammad, could they have taken a different approach?
First things first – Charlie Hebdo are perfectly within their rights to publish a comic book retelling the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Even though Muslims find any depiction of Islam’s founder to be wrong, they have the right to draw pictures of Muhammad if they choose to.
They’re also entitled to be irreverent, shocking and – yes – even offensive. It doesn’t achieve much but if that’s what they want to do then that’s their prerogative because Charlie Hebdo publishes in a liberal democracy where free speech (which includes the right to be crass) is treasured.
In the run up to today’s publication date Stephane Charbonnier, the main figure behind Charlie Hebdo and the comic, appeared to downplay the idea that the strip would be offensive. It would be, he insisted, “perfectly halal” because it was simply a compilation of all that had been written about the prophet in the past by Muslim writers and they had "simply put it into images".
What they have instead produced is predictably naff. The few pages I have seen so far – and I must admit it’s not the whole book – clearly pokes fun at the Prophet as much as it supposedly informs the reader about his life.
As a baby, for example, he appears naked rather frequently and there’s one page where he is suckling on multiple breasts. Now Charlie Hebdo might argue, well, babies are often naked and the Prophet was indeed fed by multiple wet nurses. But you nonetheless get the impression they’re looking to get a rise (which, sadly, they may well get).
All this is a shame because Charlie Hebdo could have done something really radical. Had they simply produced a straight up comic book biography of Muhammad without being deliberately mocking they would have made a profound point. Just because Muslims refuse to portray the Prophet, there’s no reason why non-Muslims should feel compelled by the same restrictions and fear retribution if they go ahead with picturing Islam’s founder. Without being Islamophobic, they could have made a legitimate critique of the fear that depicting the Prophet Muhammad in non-Muslim cultures now causes post Satanic Verses and the Danish Cartoons.
(Incidentally, an inoffensive picture book portrayal of Muhammad might also have given non-Muslim children in Europe a way into discovering the history of Islam in a fun way - children’s picture books of the Prophet in the Muslim world will not portray him.)
Now Charlie Hebdo has a long and proud tradition of being offensive and outrageous. Whether the object of their satire is politicians, judges, bankers or religious founders, their pens are poisonous and that’s the way their readers like it. A healthy vibrant society boasts scurrilous, cheeky, irreverent and offensive publications. A stale society conforms and never says anything that someone else might find offensive (the Daily Mail’s ongoing campaign against comedians saying anything upsetting might take note).
So the fact that fact that Charlie Hebdo couldn’t help itself should come as no surprise. But it does point to a wider malaise within Europe over our ability to have a decent cerebral discussion about Islam. So much of what is written about the Prophet Muhammad – especially when it comes to depicting him – seems deliberately Islamophobic rather than Islamocritical. Take the crappy film last year of the Prophet Muhammad which was barely known until a bunch of political opportunists primarily in Egypt used it to whip up crowds of anti-Western protests that left scores of people (primarily Muslims) dead.
It makes me long for days of the Satanic Verses where the art – and its critique of religion – was at least profound and cerebral (even if the reaction to it wasn’t).
With a bit of luck people will either ignore Charlie Hebdo’s comic book or respond with decent criticisms and dignified protest. What I fear is a repeat of so many previous instances where political opportunists use its publication to whip up further hostility to the West and portray us as all inherently Islamaophobic. The vicious circle then continues as attacks on Islam in the West become more deliberately provocative.
Whatever happens, one thing is above all else is worth repeating. Responsibility for any violence meted out against Charlie Hebdo or its staff rests solely on the shoulders of those carrying out the violence. If there is a violent reaction against the French satirical magazine, whether you agree with what they have published or not, they will not deserve it.