On religion and irreverence. Analyzing the response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre


It is rather surprising that the murder of cartoonists committed in the name of God has turned into an attack on irreverence and a claim for religion to be respected as a pillar of society. Three arguments have been produced, which run roughly as follows. Firstly, being irreverent is wrong because offending people can lead to violence. Secondly, satire is only fun when it attacks the top dog: there is no excuse for Charlie Hebdo ridiculing the religion of an oppressed minority, namely the Muslim community. Thirdly, religion is a force for peace and goodness and as such deserves respect. These three arguments having wide-ranging implications, it is worth examining them in details.

            Let us begin with the offence against the religion of the oppressed Muslim community. It might come as a surprise, but the distinguished historian Sami Zubaida denies that Muslims, whose beliefs and practices are extremely varied, form a community in any meaningful sense.[1] So why do we even speak of a ‘Muslim community’? According to Zubaida, the notion originates in a Western globalizing discourse on Muslims, which Islamists use to their advantage in order to unify diverse peoples under their banner. Samir Kassir (Lebanese writer murdered by terrorists in 2005) goes further: he claims that Islamists deliberately bank on geopolitical unrest to lead Muslims to perceive themselves as victims with no avenue for self-fulfilment other than martyrdom through Jihad.[2] You only need to see Islam Channel’s identity shots to understand what he is talking about.[3]

            Islamists are not necessarily terrorists – nor are they simply Muslims. Their aim is to lead Muslims to identify themselves primarily as believers and only secondarily a citizen. In France, this ideology was heavily criticized following the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Algerian writer Boualem Sansal exhorted Muslims to relentlessly oppose Islamists and feared that ‘passivity could be lethal.’[4] Fethi Benslama (Tunisian psychoanalyst living in Paris) says that Muslims need to find a distance from their religion, which by no means implies renouncing it, but rather opening a necessary breathing space that allows for criticism, ambiguity and, yes, humour. French philosopher Soufiane Zitouni (Algerian-born teacher at a Paris Muslim high school) stressed that humour is a necessary component of a healthy faith in an article entitled ‘Today, Mohamed is Charlie, too’.[5]

            Benslama, Zitouni and Sansal could hardly be depicted as members of a white, atheist ruling class bent on asserting its right to bully a religious minority. Neither do they deny, of course, the many instances of racism and discrimination suffered by minorities in France (whose members may or may not be Muslims). However, they oppose Islamists because they share a certain idea of happiness and blossoming: unsurprisingly, their advocacy of an open-minded religiosity goes together with their defence of humour and satire.

            Such voices are not often heard in the British media. Rather, we heard much from Medhi Hasan, whose every discourse opens with ‘as a Muslim’ and concludes with a plea for the offended ‘Muslim community’.[6] Could this be a natural consequence of British multiculturalism, as opposed to French integrationism? I am not sure. There is no reason to regard Hasan as the legitimate spokesman of every British Muslim, when many actually oppose his stance. Among them, Saif Rahman, the founder of the Cultural And Humanist Muslim Association, has denounced Hasan as a closet Islamist.[7] Rahman even claims that the notion of Islamophobia – Hasan’s stock and trade – is an Islamist tool to reconfigure issues of racism into religious issues[8]. What is Hasan’s reply to this? Nothing – he does not  even acknowledge it. Perhaps it is a strategic imperative of Islamist discourse that it blatantly ignores dissonant voices in its effort to project the image of a so-called ‘Muslim community’. 

            Why does Hasan’s voice dominate that of Rahman? I see two explanations. One is his popularity with the Left. When siding spontaneously with the architects of the ‘Muslim community’, the Left falls prey to its original weakness: the temptation to gather all victims into one idealized group. Their passion for ‘the Muslim community’ is just as heartfelt and as naïve as their former passion for ‘the Proletariat’ (although members of the proletariat probably had more in common than Muslims around the world: religious practices vary more than Taylorian factories).  Yet it is important to recognize that when embracing the vision of a ‘Muslim community’, we take sides with Islamists against secularist Muslims. Furthermore, we legitimize Islamists as representatives of individuals who are routinely assimilated to Muslims on account of their origins or skin colour, yet have no desire whatsoever to be used as building blocks of the ‘Muslim community’.

            Criticizing Charlie Hebdo for mocking the prophet makes sense. But what about Tunisian Jabbeur Mejri, who was condemned to seven and a half years in prison for publishing Mohamed caricatures on his facebook page? What of Yemisi Ilesanmi’s powerful indictment of all religions?[9]  Her article is insulting to Mohamed – and Jesus to boot. Is that acceptable coming from a Nigerian woman who can make all the justificatory claims to belonging to an oppressed minority? Must we shield Islam from the attacks of the white ruling class only, or also from those who regard it not as the religion of the oppressed, but as an oppressive religion?

            My second explanation for Hasan’s popularity is that his arguments fit well with the trend of political correctness in Britain: if offence may lead to violence, we had better abstain from it. But was it really Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons that stirred violence? To put it thus is to conveniently abstain from analyzing what makes individuals take the leap from irritation to massacre. French scholar Olivier Roy provides an insightful perspective on the Jihad phenomenon, suggesting that ‘we simply ignore the profound continuity of Islamic terrorism with this young culture of violence and the fantasy of the all-powerful, that of the Columbine effect in the United Sates’.[10]  Nobody, as far as I know, offended the Columbine killers; and yet they killed.

            The hypothesis that irreverence causes violence is further refuted by the analysis of the Jihadist literature owned by the Paris killers, which was provided by the French online newspaper Mediapart.[11] It shows that Jihadists elaborately theorize their killings: should we kill secular Arabs in our homelands? We might alienate the masses by doing so. Shall we then kill Americans? Are Red Cross nurses off-limit? Would blowing up a French satirical weekly paper make for better advertising? One thing is clear: the Charlie Hebdo shooting was not the kneejerk reaction of offended souls. Charlie Hebdo’s irreverence made them fitting targets, but had they never drawn anything, someone would have been killed all the same.

           Now let us turn things around and consider the third argument. Does religion prevent violence? In both cases mentioned earlier, we must answer negatively. The Columbine killers lived, after all, in the Heavyweight Champion of religiosity: the United States Of America. They certainly knew that Thou Shalt Not Kill: far from restraining them from doing so, the commandment perhaps enticed them. Regarding Jihad, Olivier Roy does stress that it attracts ‘Westernised youngsters [who] often have as little knowledge of the Koran as their little or non-grasp of Arabic’. Could it be, then, that if they had really read the Koran, they would have followed the true precepts of a peaceful religion? The hypothesis is unconvincing. Judging by their readings, the Paris killers were well aware of theologians who condemn violence, such as Tariq Ramadan and the Wahhabi Sheik Mohammed Maqdissi. Evidently neither distracted them from killing.

            So what else is new? Ninety years ago, Sigmund Freud suggested that religions’ failure to pacify societies could be traced to their erroneous assumption that people can be indoctrinated into loving one another. Freud suggested that hate and violence were fundamental human impulses which could not be denied. Worst than this: unless they are provided with outlets in words, they are bound to manifest themselves in violent deeds. If this is correct, the crackdown on irreverence is not only ineffective but dangerous: the more society imposes strict standards of reverence and the more it will become violent.

            In Civilization and its discontent, Freud insisted that universal brotherly love was a hopelessly unworkable ideology. There are such things as tensions between races, religions and classes, as well as within them. If we are to resolve these tensions peacefully (by which I mean non-violently), we must give up the millenarian dream that they will be resolved lovingly. This is where politics comes in. Politics is not the art of making everybody agree, but of settling disagreements peacefully. As early as the eighteenth century, England taught Europe that the first step towards the peaceful settlement of disagreements is to make religious claims irrelevant. 

            Nobody should be bullied in school, beaten up by fascists, harassed by the police, insulted or discriminated over jobs and housing and the like. On these issues, Muslims deserve to be defended as much as anybody else. But the right to safely hold a belief does not imply that the belief one holds should itself be safeguarded from attack. On the other hand, religions overstep the mark every time they try to impose their sanctity onto anybody else but believers. Each and every time they do that, all citizens are entitled to oppose their move, and mockery is a rather benign response.


[1] Sami Zubaida: Beyond Islam : A New Understanding of the Middle East (2011)

[2] Samir Kassir : Being Arab (2013)

[3] The identity shots can be seen here: http://www.french-news-online.com/wordpress/?p=39492#axzz3Oq4GsuGF

[4] http://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/societe/boualem-sansal-a-ce-point-la-passivite-des-musulmans-est-mortelle_1640086.html#ygfyyMsHECC41LoD.99

[5] http://www.liberation.fr/societe/2015/01/14/aujourd-hui-le-prophete-est-aussi-charlie_1180802

[6] http://www.newstatesman.com/mehdi-hasan/2015/01/muslim-i-m-fed-hypocrisy-free-speech-fundamentalists

[7] http://my.telegraph.co.uk/saifrahman/saifrahman/129/mehdi-hasan-the-great-pretender-2/

[8] http://my.telegraph.co.uk/saifrahman/saifrahman/4/when-does-criticism-of-islam-become-islamaphobia/

[9] http://freethoughtblogs.com/yemmynisting/2015/01/12/the-charlie-hebdo-tragedy-the-five-crowds-that-are-getting-it-wrong/

[10] http://www.mediapart.fr/en/journal/france/150115/culture-violence-and-resentment-fuels-french-jihadists

[11] http://www.mediapart.fr/journal/international/170115/plongee-dans-les-lectures-des-djihadistes-des-attentats-de-paris

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