Je Suis Charlie: the moral duty to draw Mohammed

Je_suis_CharlieLike many people over the last few days I’ve been pondering whether free speech really should extend to insulting people’s deeply held beliefs. Would it be possible to achieve all the benefits of free speech while stopping short of being offensive? If it were, self-censorship might be the moral choice.

Free speech is not an end in itself, we value it because we use it to examine and criticize influential ideas. There are many good ideas: democracy and human rights, for example, and plenty of bad ones, such as fascism and totalitarian communism. We can only sort the good from the bad if we can debate their merits and we can only overthrow the bad if we can advocate against it. That’s why all totalitarian regimes control and repress speech. Satirical cartoons are a time-honoured and effective means of challenging ideas and prompting people to think.

The Islamic ban on drawing Mohammed is a theological taboo. The whole idea is to place Mohammed, and thus Islam, above human criticism. Drawing Mohammed is seen as disrespectful because it involves the drawer thinking for themselves about Mohammed and possibly coming to un-Islamic conclusions. Islam, which means “submission”, is a matter of accepting the Koran and Mohammed’s words and example as perfect and unquestionable.

Charlie Hebdo cover

Thus Muslims find drawing Mohammed offensive because the lack of unquestioning respect, the lack of total acceptance, is akin to a lack of belief, to apostasy. Muslims are brought up steeped in the notion that apostasy is the worst of crimes, and all major schools of Islamic jurisprudence regard apostasy as meriting a death sentence.

Thus, the Islamic taboo on drawing Mohammed is part of a totalitarian attempt to control thought. It is the same as sentencing a
Mauritanian blogger to death for apostasy. It is the same as sentencing Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail for the “crime” of hosting a website that questioned Islam.

Many of us see Islam as a hugely harmful idea system which represses thought and development to the extent that Islamic countries are nearly all politically, economically and scientifically backwards. In the era when Christianity was totalitarian and repressive, Islamic centres of learning led the world, but today there is not one university from an Islamic country in the world’s top 200.

Charlie Hebdo cover

Even if you disagree, the only way in which we can know whether Islam is good or bad is by asking the question and examining Islam’s merits and demerits. Yet, even doing that is “offensive” to any Muslim who regards unquestioning acceptance of Islam as the highest obligation to God.

I take the opposite line, and consider that we have a moral duty to examine ideas in order to sort out the good from the bad, and so seek the betterment of human society. That means we have a moral duty to question Islam, and that means a moral duty to flout the Islamic taboos that are there precisely to prevent us doing that.

So, no, we cannot gain the benefits of free speech without offending devout Muslims. It is the whole idea of using free speech to question Islam that conflicts with their deeply held religious tenets, and which thus offends them. It is not only cartoons, the scholarly examination of the roots by Islam by Tom Holland equally drew death threats.

The cartoons drawn by Charlie Hebdo are not offensive by any proper standard — they are mild compared to those directed routinely at Western politicians — they are offensive only by the standards of a taboo that is there to protect Islam from scrutiny.

We simply cannot accept this taboo, since it conflicts with the basic principles that have raised the free West to the highest standards of economic prosperity, political freedom, and quality of life that the world has ever known. It is impermissible to try to impose one’s own religious rules onto other people, by means of taking “offense”, since that is to subject others to one’s own religion, which is exactly what Islam would like to do.

The only good counter-argument is that these cartoons `target’ marginalised immigrant populations of Europe, and that ridiculing a powerless minority is not cool. Yet, we need to keep clear the distinction between targeting ideas and targeting people. We can criticise Islam without rejecting people who have been brought up in the Islamic faith.

Charlie Hebdo cover

There is another group who are even more a minority. These are the Raif Badawis. These are the
ex-Muslim
apostates. These are the people who were brought up in Islamic societies and now recognise its faults. These are the moderate Muslims who want to reform Islam and make it open and tolerant.

If we in the West accept Islamic taboos, and acquiesce to Islamic strictures, then how can the Raif Badawis be expected to challenge Islam? To refuse to publish Mohammed cartoons is to say that the reformers are in the wrong! Surely we should stand in support of those who want to reform Islamic society from the inside.

A refusal to re-publish Mohammed cartoons is not a concession to marginalised minorities, it is a handing of power to the Imams and self-appointed Islamic “community leaders” who wish to keep the Islamic communities under their thumb and under the control of unreformed Islam.

Maajid Nawaz is a Muslim and former Jihadist who now wants reform. He re-tweeted a Mohammed cartoon saying that his God was above being offended by it. That got him death threats. In response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre he has tweeted:

Dear Muslims, now is not the time for defensive posturing. Now is not time for mere condemnation of `terrorism’. We must go further. No idea, not even our religion, is above scrutiny. This principle is non-negotiable because free speech forms the basis for progress. We Muslims know full well that blasphemy taboos exist within our communities. If we applaud non-Muslims who speak out against racism and anti-Muslim hate, then likewise we Muslims must also show solidarity & join wider society to challenge Islamist extremism & reform the blasphemy taboos entrenched among us. Kill blasphemy taboos. Don’t kill people. @MaajidNawaz

This is why Je Suis Charlie. This is why British newspapers that declare Nous Sommes Charlie are being hypocritical if they subject themselves to Islamic blasphemy taboos, giving the impression that compliance is normal and appropriate, at the same time as calling for reform in the Islamic world. We need to contribute to breaking the taboos of the totalitarians, publishing Mohammed cartoons in support of all those from Islamic communities who want to either reform their religion or to leave it entirely. L’humanité est Charlie.

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44 thoughts on “Je Suis Charlie: the moral duty to draw Mohammed

  1. Jeff T Haley

    It is the duty of ALL publishers to republish the Hebdo cartoons.

    Freedom of speech is essential to democracy. Thus, it is essential to ensure that legal speech is not chilled by threats of illegal aggressive acts. Whenever illegal aggressive acts are perpetrated against anyone as a result of speech, no matter who it offends, it is essential that the offensive speech be multiplied by a thousand.

    The reason for this is like the US and UK policies of never paying ransoms. If illegal acts to stifle speech are met with multiplication of the offensive speech rather than self-censorship, the threats will gain nothing and instead backfire.

    This is why the offensive Hebdo cartoons must be republished a thousand times. It is not because the cartoons are newsworthy. It has nothing to do with whether the editors think people should see the cartoons. The merit of the cartoons, or lack thereof, is irrelevant. The cartoons should be republished a thousand times simply because violence was perpetrated in response to them in attempt to stifle such speech.

    Do publishers – those with access to a publication platform – have a duty to republish the cartoons? Yes. If they don’t, who will? All publishers have to duty to republish the cartoons, including publishers who are offended by them, including religious publishers of all stripes.

    Any publisher that does not republish the offensive cartoons is tacitly supporting censorship, including all religious publishers.

    – Jeff T Haley https://marketingsecularism.wordpress.com/

    Reply
  2. colemining

    Wonderful points here- especially your discussion of taboo and its intention to protect from scrutiny. That is absolutely a required response- and is something we should be speaking about more freely.

    Reply
  3. Michael Hunt

    Very well put Coel. I agree whole heartedly. Noone has the right to not be offended, nor ever to use violence to impose their view.

    Reply
  4. Anton Szautner

    Yes, a moral duty to challenge, whenever one group demands compliance in anyone outside their group who do not subscribe to their doctrine, especially when such stricture to comply comes with the threat of physical violence. It is amazing that such religious groups seek to win the respect of ‘infidels’ by such intimidation. The hypocrisy and moral bankrupsy of the position boggles the mind. Yet I do not need to identify with Charlie H. per se in anything other than shared victimization.

    Reply
  5. Genghis

    Individual newspapers were reluctant to isolate themselves by reprinting the cartoons. All of the British media should have taken the decision to publish them in a show unity. Bullies and terrorists rely on intimidating individuals, when people stand together then their tactics fall apart.

    Reply
  6. SocraticGadfly

    Coel, here’s my personal take, on my blog, mainly at the mistruths that Charlie Hedbo is racist. As a newspaper editor, later in the week, I’ll have an adapted version of my newspaper column for this week, relating this to all five freedoms of the First Amendment in the US.

    http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-sjw-world-trolls-on-charliehebdo.html

    And, on Marko’s latest piece at Massimo’s site, so as not to waste a comment — I thought the issue on solar neutrinos had been clarified and corrected, I just forgot to look up what that correction was. I’ll speak more with my second comment.

    Reply
  7. PeterJ

    I am very disappointed by this. The promotion of intolerance via comedy attacks on people’s beliefs (but never disproofs of them of course) is unspeakably stupid and betrays the unthinking and closed mindset of the perpetrators. They have no idea what they are opposing, this much is obvious.

    While I’m here Coel, and because the thread is now closed. I’d like to say I completely agreed with your comment on scisal …

    “So who does have most expertise on “free will” if not the biologist or the physicist? The AI computationalist? The theologian? The philosopher? The trouble with limiting articles to those with the relevant expertise is that, often, who has the expertise is exactly the issue that is not agreed on.”

    I couldn’t agree more.

    But I couldn’t agree less about insulting people rather than making a case. It is disgusting, cheap, ignorant and thoughtless. It is also very revealing of the amount of study the perpetrators have devoted to the topic.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Peter,

      The promotion of intolerance via comedy attacks on people’s beliefs … is unspeakably stupid …

      See here: “Religions are entitled to tolerance, but not to respect“, for the difference between disrespect and intolerance.

      They have no idea what they are opposing, this much is obvious.

      That’s not obvious to me. It seems to me that the critics and satirists of religion do have a very good idea of what they are opposing.

    2. Ant (@antallan)

      You might class me as “one of them” as well, but … 

      The promotion of intolerance via comedy attacks on people’s beliefs … 

      It is not a given that comedy attacks are either (a) intended to or (b) do promote intolerance.

      Comedy attacks on people’s religious beliefs general ridicule ideas that the attacker believes to be ridiculous. That is not a disproof of course. But it does two things: Challenges the notion that unwarranted privilege of religious beliefs (which some believes see as making them exempt from rational criticism too) and prompts people to consider more critically the basis for those beliefs; e.g., why is any portrayal of Mo inherently blasphemous and offensive (esp. as this was not always and is not now universal in Islam)?

      I for one will certainly tolerate any Muslim and defend their right to believe what they like (as long as their concomitant actions do not harm others, including their own family) and would absolutely decry any discrimination against them because of their belief (with the same proviso), race (a distinct trait!), gender, sexuality, and so on.

      Stereotyping Muslims as murderous thugs is as despicable as stereotyping Jews as greedy misers; scoffing at the idea that Mo rode to heaven on a winged horse is no less acceptable than scoffing at the idea that Joseph Smith was visited by the angel Moronic.

      /@

  8. PeterJ

    Well yes, this would be because you’re one of them. But all I see is ignorance and dogmatism. I do not mean to be rude.by saying this.

    Reply
  9. stevenjohnson

    The purpose of drawing and sculpting Jesus (and “God” and Mary and the angels and the saints) is to provide a focus of veneration, especially one that depicts the divine in the socially dominant ideal form of the community, as in blue-eyed Jesus etc. Satiric portrayals are essentially negligible, and even those replicate the identification of the divine with the most commonly associated ethnic/national community. The moderately well-known Jesus and Mo cartoons feature a more or less nondescript Jesus with a distinctly “Arab” Muhammad, for instance. Anti-Zionist satirical cartoons are more or less unknown in the “West” but there appears to have never been a satirical cartoon depicting Yahweh. I think that’s because any attempt at a “Jewish” Yahweh would be deemed anti-Semitic, or at least using anti-Semitic caricature.

    Reply
  10. PeterJ

    “Comedy attacks on people’s religious beliefs general ridicule ideas that the attacker believes to be ridiculous. That is not a disproof of course. But it does two things: Challenges the notion that unwarranted privilege of religious beliefs (which some believes see as making them exempt from rational criticism too) and prompts people to consider more critically the basis for those beliefs…”

    Okay. But I believe it prevents people from undertaking any critical; examination and encourages them to just walk away, which seems to be the whole idea. Certainly I see cannot see how a critical examination can lead to such idiotic behaviour as vulgar cartoons. I do not see critical examination but a refusal to engage with the issues.

    “; e.g., why is any portrayal of Mo inherently blasphemous and offensive (esp. as this was not always and is not now universal in Islam)?”

    I wasn’t aware that any portrayal is considered blasphemous. Just a mistake. Religious icons are dangerous territory. Golden calves and all that. One reason for avoiding such portrayals is that an understanding of Islam requires that we venture beyond concepts and models, while portrayals tend to encourage us to think incorrectly about the true nature of such figures as Mohammed. It’s a common view, but probably arguable even within Islam. .It is a common view in physics that visual pictures can be very misleading and often best avoided.

    “…scoffing at the idea that Mo rode to heaven on a winged horse is no less acceptable than scoffing at the idea that Joseph Smith was visited by the angel Moronic.”

    I would strongly disagree, and would be happy to ridicule both ideas. A winged horse indeed. This sort of literalism makes such metaphors blatantly absurd and turns Islam into a straw man. . .

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Peter,

      Most newspapers (in the UK at least) routinely and daily carry political cartoons, satirising political leaders and political ideas.

      Would you say that these are also “idiotic behavior” that “prevents people from undertaking any critical examination and encourages them to just walk away”, and that they amount to “a refusal to engage with the issues” and that they are “disgusting, cheap, ignorant and thoughtless”?

      Or, would you say the opposite, that they perform a valuable role in scrutinising ideas and holding influential people and influential idea-systems to account? I’d go for the latter.

      One reason for avoiding such portrayals is that an understanding of Islam requires that we venture beyond concepts and models, while portrayals tend to encourage us to think incorrectly about the true nature of such figures as Mohammed.

      Your wording implies that there is a “true nature” of such figures that we learn about by “understanding” what Islam says about itself, and that our job is simply to assimilate that.

      How about the alternative, that Islam is a wrong and harmful idea-system that we want to criticise and oppose?

    2. Ant (@antallan)

      I wasn’t aware that any portrayal is considered blasphemous.

      Where have you been the past week or so?! This point has been reiterated in many print, online and broadcast news reports about CH. And often previously; e.g., re the student atheist society members wearing “Jesus and Mo” t-shirts.

      And I think you misread my last para about flying horses v. angels: no less acceptable! i.e., both ideas are equally ridiculous and open to ridicule.

      /@

  11. PeterJ

    Yep. I’d go for the latter also. Although I do think that political satire has mostly become cheap insults these days. And then, often satire is used as a form of defence and as an excuse for lack of understanding. The idea that we mock what we cannot understand is a very old one.

    Your last two paras sum up the decision we have to take. We will not take it at all if we just settle for cheap jibes. You read my implication correctly and you’re entitled to argue for the alternative view. I’ll debate the issue with you if you want. But we’re not talking about considered argument here, just idle mockery. I never have a problem with a considered argument, even if I disagree.

    The fact remains, however, that we cannot say in what way Islam is wrong unless we understand what it is saying. It can be seen from the ‘winged horse’ comment above that it is not quite as easy as just reading the Koran like a history book.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Peter,

      But we’re not talking about considered argument here, just idle mockery.

      What some regard as “just idle mockery”, others consider to be insightful and valid criticism. The problem is that religion itself is never a matter of “considered argument”, so why should criticism of religion be restricted to certain types of response?

  12. PeterJ

    Hmm. The two things are usually easy to tell apart.

    I agree that religion can seem to be devoid of considered argument, but only if we don’t look too closely. I could provide as much considered argument as anyone could want.

    The most famous logical proof in religion is probably Nagarjuna’s proof of the absurdity of all positive metaphysical positions. It is a refutation of an objective God, but anti-religion people rarely know anything about it because they don’t look. So they present much weaker arguments, or empty rants like the God Delusion. Or silly cartoons.

    For a decent investigation of Islam then Sufism would be unmissable. The teachings of Sufism are perfectly consistent with Nagarjuna’s proof and fall under the heading ‘perennial philosophy’. This is what would have to be defeated to really put an end to Islam, and no criticism of Islam will be telling unless it refutes the Sufi philosophy.
    . . .

    Reply
    1. Ant (@antallan)

      There’s no point bothering with Nagarjuna’s proof if it’s not something that would be meaningful to the majority of believers.

      For all Dawkins’s supposed theological naivety, TGD is not an empty rant, as the target isn’t sophisticated theology.

      If there was no Islam but Sufism, there’d be less need to put an end to it.

      /@

    2. Coel Post author

      So they present much weaker arguments, or empty rants like the God Delusion. Or silly cartoons.

      The God Delusion has sold 3 million copies and converted thousands to an atheistic view. It isn’t “empty”, it is effective.

      As for refuting Sufi philosophy, that would achieve little. People rarely become religious because they first consult the religion’s philosophy and are then persuaded by it, rather a religious philosophy is a rationalisation once they become religious.

      Plato’s Euthyphro refuted the popular Christian view of a moral god over two thousand years ago; does that put a dent in the popular Christian view of a moral god? Not really, no; Christians just rationalise it, or they just live oblivious to it.

  13. PeterJ

    Ant – So its angels now? You sure do have some fantasies.

    I do not recognise the current public debate as worth following. It is naïve and silly, so in answer to your question, I’ve been doing other things.

    .

    Reply
  14. Ann E. Michael

    “Plato’s Euthyphro refuted the popular Christian view of a moral god over two thousand years ago; does that put a dent in the popular Christian view of a moral god? Not really, no; Christians just rationalise it, or they just live oblivious to it.”

    This reminded me of the story that says Saint Jerome supposedly had to spend one year in Purgatory as penance for his excessive love of Plato’s writings. (How that legend got circulated, and how anyone would know, is probably anyone’s guess–though there’s a distinct whiff of scholastic Catholic dogma about it).

    Reply
    1. PeterJ

      Yeah. It’s true that many religious people don’t bother examining their views for philosophical coherence and tend to ignore logical argument. Unfortunately it’s just as true for opponents of religion. This is my complaint here.
      .

  15. PeterJ

    Coel,

    You say “As for refuting Sufi philosophy, that would achieve little.”

    I think you confirm exactly the point that Ann makes. Many people choose their religious views without taking any account of philosophical considerations. I’ll bet you have no idea what you’re talking about here, yet hold a strong opinion anyway since it suits. .

    It’s your choice. I won’t bang on.

    Reply
  16. Henrik Dalare

    I think publishing ridiculing pictures of Muhammed is immoral. I don’t think it serves the purpose of fostering good ideas, closing the gap between ethnic groups or making muslims think critically about their religion. If we could make an experiment and compare outcomes between two worlds – one where Muhammed pictures are frequent and one where they aren’t (everything else equal) – then I think the latter would have more potential for positive change.

    I grew up as a Christian. If atheists would have tried to “convert” me by drawing condescending pictures of Jesus it would certainly have had the opposite effect.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Henrik,
      I think you’d be wrong in your comparing-outcomes experiment, and that much more positive change could come in a world with lots of Muhammed cartoons, and lots of other questioning of Islam and open dissent from its ideas.

      That’s why the ex-Muslims and reformers in the Islamic world support the drawing of cartoons and other direct challenges to the authority of Islam, and why the Islamic establishment are so condemnatory about the cartoons.

    2. Henrik Dalare

      Hi Coel,
      Naturally, I do believe in open questioning. I do think that this is best achieved when done in a respectful manner, however.

      If ex-Muslims and reformists support the cartoons then I wouldn’t take that as a certain sign of the cartoon being good. Partly, it could also be a group insider-outsider thing; ex-Muslims taking sides with the Western world against the Muslim world (which they have left).

    3. Coel Post author

      Hi Henrik,

      I do believe in open questioning. I do think that this is best achieved when done in a respectful manner, however.

      But suppose some Muslims feel that *any* open questioning of Islam is disrespectful, indeed that the very idea of questioning what they take as God’s word is disrespectful — which is of course exactly how many feel, and why the Islamic world has draconian apostasy and blasphemy laws — then you have no choice but to be disrespectful. Either that or you avoid any questioning of Islam at all — which is exactly that they want and exactly that the taboos on depicting Muhammed (and similar taboos) are designed to achieve.

    4. Henrik Dalare

      Yes, absolutely. But I do think there is better and worse ways of putting your message out there. And I think cartoons are bad enough to defeat their own purpose. It’s the same with political satire. I don’t think that political satire is aimed at changing the minds of politicians firsly, but aimed at changing the minds of other voters. You wouldn’t try to persuade other voters by bullying them. And when this still has been done it has often times backlashed (like in Sweden with the Swedish democrats).

    5. Coel Post author

      What about all those in Islamic communities (both in the West and in the Islamic world) who *want* to start questioning Islam but find that near impossible in the stultifyingly totalitarian atmosphere of many Islamic communities? What about young people brought up in Islamic communities for whom the very idea that Islam can be questioned is near unthinkable? The mere existence of open flouting of Islamic taboos shows that it can be done. I think that we owe it to those people in Islamic communities and the Islamic world to help them by being openly disrespectful to Islam — just to show that one can think for oneself and need not find Islam worthy of respect.

    6. Henrik Dalare

      Yes. If the cartoons help just a little in bit in changing the situation of Muslims to the better then more cartoons are needed. But I’m not convinced that they do. To be convinced I guess I would like to see some examples from history where we actually know that ridicule has had this kind of positive effect.

    7. Coel Post author

      To be convinced I guess I would like to see some examples from history where we actually know that ridicule has had this kind of positive effect.

      I think that the power of cartoons to probe and provoke thought is demonstrated by the fact that all the main newspapers in the UK (and I presume elsewhere) routinely carry political cartoons, often in the most prominent places in the newspaper, alongside editorials and political comment.

      Here is an article on some notable cartoons from history. Further, I don’t think the Islamic world would react so vehemently against them if they didn’t feel they had impact.

    8. Henrik Dalare

      To Ant:
      Maybe “immoral” was a bad choice of word, since that can mean different things to different people. What I meant was just that I don’t think these pictures are a “force for good”. /H

    9. Henrik Dalare

      To Coel,
      I see. I agree that there are examples of political and religious satire that probably has helped change opinions to the better. So I feel I have a better understanding of how you think now. The idea that an increase in Muhammed cartoons would make the average Pakistani citizen happier (i.e. in the long run) has seemed rather farfetched to me. But maybe I’m actually wrong there.

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