When the French satirical and anti-clerical magazine Charlie Hebdo decided to make Mohammed its guest editor for a week in mock celebration of the rise of various Islamist parties throughout the Middle East, it can have expected the “offended” reply of a few first-time readers. But for those more inclined to believe that Islam is the solution aided by Molotov cocktails, the answer was simple: burn Charlie Hebdo’s office to the ground.
It’s gratifying to see the paper take a little firebombing in stride, dust off the ashes, and reprint the original piss-taking edition. Also encouraging has been the low-volume of they-had-it-coming noise in the media. Unlike the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy of 2006 -- a controversy that was completely invented at a meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conferences the previous year, using cartoons that weren’t in the original Danish newspaper, in order to coax the UN into sanction Denmark for allowing itself a free press -- this attempt to violently silence free speech seemed to be more roundly condemned with no excuses or yes-but throat-clearings. Perhaps commentators are beginning to realise that they aren't to blame for religious fundamentalists wanting to kill them. (That no other publication saw fit to reprint the Hebdo drawing is an act of undisguised cowardice, but in the list of moral failings cowardice still ranks above masochism.)
Then came Bruce Crumley into the pages of Time magazine to rewind us back to 2006:
”Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile. Baiting extremists isn't bravely defiant when your manner of doing so is more significant in offending millions of moderate people as well.”
I’m a moderate person offended by seeing Hillary Clinton paraded on the cover of Time as the embodiment of “smart power.” Curiously, this offence is not attended by flame-flecked fantasies about taking out Newsweek’s competition. And what of millions of Muslims who did not rush to Paris to make a bonfire out of a snark-sheet committed to laicite? Surely there devout Muslims who saw Charlie Hebdo parody their faith and simply rolled their eyes in boredom. Crumley takes a deeply condescending view of Islam to assume that this is an impossibility, a view rooted in his evidently Wikipedia’d assertion that depictions of Mohammed are “strictly forbidden” in the religion. As Ibn Warraq has pointed out, Islam is rife with visual representations of its founder:
There are illustrated Korans depicting Mohammed, some showing human beings with distinct lines drawn over their necks, symbolically defying them to come to life and thereby demonstrating the artist’s denial of his intent to compete with God. Some paintings clearly show Mohammed’s face; others draw his body but leave his face blank or veiled. The tradition of veiling Mohammed’s face may have nothing to do with any prohibition on representational art but rather refer to a belief that Mohammed needed to cover his face, since it radiated such light that it would blind a normal person.
Even if this were not the case, a secular Frenchman is under no obligation to abide by the tenets of any confession. At least Mohammed was offered a guest editorship; Pope Benedict and Jesus Christ have not fared so well on previous covers of Charlie Hebdo.
However, Crumley is more disappointed in France generally, decrying the democratically decided ban on the burqa as a form of “Islamophobia.” Strange then, that face-coverings similarly have no provenance in the Koran or hadith, and the campaign to ban them in France was led largely by Muslim women who saw the veil as an instrument of misogyny justified by the special pleading of little boys. Crumely keeps unsavoury company in advancing his theologically void argument. Not long ago, Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the now-electorally dominant Ennahda party in Tunisia and a man hilariously re-marketed as a “moderate” or “progressive” Islamist, accused a Tunisian feminist named Mongia Souahi of being a “kuffar” (an unpleasant term for “unbeliever”). What led to this practicing Muslim woman’s apostasy? She wrote an article pointing out the burqa fallacy.
In London, where I now reside, close to a decade was wasted by policymakers, intellectuals and activists who pretended that a liberal opinion had got to be run through a Committee of Public Safety before it could be loosed upon the masses. As a result, Islamist radicals who were simply exploiting the principles of liberal democracy (especially its over-generous libel laws) were mistaken for being upholders of those principles and, in many cases, given millions of British taxpayer pounds for their services. (That so many of these “grassroots” organisations were fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood means that Westminster has likely financed a few campaign headquarters now opening their doors in Cairo and Tunis.) Some of the folly of appeasing enemies of democratic society has begun to change at the level of government, thanks in large part to work conducted by my colleagues at the Centre for Social Cohesion, now part of the Henry Jackson Society. But at the cultural level, defending the rule, much less the universality, of British law has been a somewhat harder sell.
On a good day in Europe, Bruce Crumley would be just another Guardian contributor. So the fact that he’s come in for some deservingly derisive treatment from liberals and conservatives alike back home leads me to suspect that the First Amendment still means something, after all.