France’s Charlie Hebdo Mocks Religion

French Satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo recently published a spoof issue presenting it to be “guest edited” by the Prophet Muhammad to salute the electoral victory of a religious party in Tunisian elections.

On Wednesday its offices were fire-bombed when a Molotov Cocktail was hurled through the window by unknown assailants. The special issue for publication was called “Charia Hebdo”; in which the French word “Charia” referring to the body of Islamic religious law or “Shariah” was satirically used. The magazine is known for its provocative scurrility and obscene caricatures.

This is not the first time that European press has published satire and mockery aimed at the faith of the Muslims or ridiculed its revered personalities for entertainment purposes. The region has seen numerous such attempts since the Danish Cartoon controversy of 2005. Such provocative publications, that are certainly bound to rouse sentiments, have resulted in violent reactions from certain quarters. This should not come as a surprise.

As religious symbols are revered and held sacred by adherents, their deliberate public mockery results in strong reactions. People of various faiths have reacted in a similar fashion, and the Muslims are no exception.

Antonio Federici’s  a UK based ice cream company once launched an advertisement campaign which showed a pregnant nun eating ice cream in a church, together with the strap line “immaculately conceived”. As a result of outcry by Catholics, the UK Advertising Standards Agency banned the advertisement citing it to be a mockery of Roman Catholic beliefs.

Thousands of Christians protested the Jerry Springer Musical when it was played in the UK, and some of them even tried to go to court to prevent its screening as Jesus was portrayed in a manner that they found offensive.

Buddhists have taken offence to the comedy show South Central in which Buddha was depicted snorting cocaine and complaints have been launched from the Sri-Lankan government.

Hindus have fumed over the mockery of their deity Ganesha in the comedy show Saturday Night Live by actor Jim Carrey.

Sikh protests resulted in rioting and injury when the theatrical play “Behzti” held in Birmingham, UK was seen as offensive to their faith. The director of the play had to go into hiding as a result of the strong reaction from the Sikh community.

So we can see that it is not just the Muslims, but people of all faiths who are offended when their beliefs or sacred personalities are mocked upon and derided in public.

Incidents like the the above remind us that faith is a sensitive issue and should be handled with care. Publishers should know that provocative derision of personalities revered by a faith is bound to result in strong community resentment. Governments must ensure that such sensitivities are taken into account whilst promoting communal harmony.

Religion should not be immune to criticism, but its opponents should use rational critique instead of derision and mockery. There is a fine line of distinction between rational critique and derision of faith. The former is constructive while the latter is detrimental to community cohesion.

Hurling abuses at anyone or any ideology is not a civilised and rational mode of expression but one of hatred and disgust. Publishers should take into account that their actions do not hurt communal sentiments.

As the focus is on the Muslims, it should also be borne in mind that the violent reactions to such derision are personal acts and not religiously sanctioned by the Qur’an, which is the highest and definitive authority for Muslims in matters of individual or communal life.

The Qur’an has narrated numerous examples of unbelievers deriding and mocking the messengers of God and believers, and has exhorted that in the face of such, Muslims should exercise restraint and remain peaceful. The Quran gives protection to all faiths from being mocked and insulted when it instructs: “And revile not those they call upon besides Allah..” [6:108]. In contrast, when abused, Muslims are taught to: “Defend evil with goodness” [Quran 41:34].

The religious have every right to protest if their sentiments are hurt, but they should not exceed the bounds of law and morality. Muslims should protest within the domain of law and not get carried away if sentiments are hurt. This is the teaching of Islam.

It is worth mentioning here that the magazine Charlie Hebdo was previously published as “Hara Kiri” which was banned following a headline mocking French  General Charles de Gaulle. Would it not be a case of double standards on the part of the French to find a publication offensive if its satire is aimed at its own heroes, but perfectly acceptable if heroes of other cultures are targeted?