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The Politic of anti-Islam Caricatures

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Message Abdus-Sattar Ghazali
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Beheading of the French teacher Samuel Paty has once again sparked controversy over Charlie Hebdo's anti-Islam caricatures as the French President Emmanuel Macron exploited the tragedy to push his long-sought agenda against Islam and Muslims.

Days before Paty's killing, on October 2, Macron had made a controversial speech. He declared that "Islam is a religion that is in crisis today all over the world."

In response to Macron's comments, Turkish President Recep Erdogan said he believes his French counterpart "needs mental treatment." "What is Macron's problem with Islam? What is his problem with Muslims?" Erdogan added. France recalled its ambassador to Turkey in response to Erdogan's comments.

Macron's anti-Islam comments were condemned widely by the Arab and Muslim countries while several Arab countries called for boycott of French products. President Erdogan also called Turks to join the boycott of the French products.

On Wednesday, Oct 28, Charlie Hebdo joined the fray by publishing a searing caricature of Turkish President Erdogan. Erdogan said he had not looked at the drawing and had nothing to say about the "dishonorable" publication. "My sadness and anger does not stem from the disgusting attack on my person but from the fact that the same (publication) is the source of the impertinent attack on my dear Prophet," Erdogan was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

He went on to criticize France and other Europe nations' colonial past saying: "You are murderers!"

Freedom of speech

After the beheading of Samuel Pary, President Macron declared France would "not give up cartoons, drawings, even if others back down." "We will defend the freedom that you taught so well and we will bring secularism." He was alluding to Paty's showing anti-Islam cartoons to his "freedom of speech" class. Paty was beheaded on October 16, by a Chechen refugee, 47 days after he had shown the caricatures.

To borrow Will Morro, it is difficult to describe the hypocrisy involved in the attempts by Macron to present himself as a bulwark for democratic traditions and free speech. His government is perhaps best known for being condemned by international human rights organizations for its police violence, and for video images of riot officers using tear-gas and shooting rubber bullets at "yellow vest" protesters. It is involved in imperialist wars across the Sahel and the Middle East, deliberately allowing thousands of refugees attempting to reach Europe by boat to drown in the Mediterranean.

Reprinting the cartoons is not about free speech

Charlie Hebdo, on September 1 reprinted the Mohammed cartoons in a special issue at the start of the trial related to the terrorist attack five years ago. "The hatred that hit us five years ago is still there," said Editor Laurent Sourisseau. "We will never lie down. We will never give up," he added.

To borrow Dr. Asma Barlas, a retired professor of politics in New York, European vilifications of the prophet and Islam have a much older pedigree than free speech and have nothing to do with humor. To be precise, they have their roots in medieval Europe and the changing self-conceptions of Christians over a millennium.

For instance, Tomaz Mastnak, a historian of the Crusades, argues that it was in the mid-ninth century when Western unity began to express itself as Christendom, that Muslims also came to be seen as the "normative enemies" of Christianity. Until then, they had been viewed as just another pagan group and generally ignored - even the Muslim conquest of southern Spain did not make it into leading chronicles.

Over time though, Europe's Christians came to see in Islam not just a "sinister conspiracy against Christianity [but] that total negation of [it] " which would mark the contrivances of Antichrist". This is how Robert Southern describes it in his book Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages and he attributes this suspicion to the "strong desire not to know [Islam] for fear of contamination".

Instead, he says, even the Christians who lived in "the middle of Islam" (Muslim-ruled Andalusia) looked to the Bible to explain it, which is how they came to consider it the Antichrist. In short, according to Southern, it was ignorance and the fear of contamination that made "the existence of Islam the most far-reaching problem in medieval Christendom".

Given this history, it is not surprising that medieval Christians would also portray the prophet as a heathen idol, the devil, an imposter, and the Antichrist. He appears in such guises from the Crusades to the Reformation, with his representation as a religious imposter, reaching its literary apotheosis in Italian poet Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, in which he is confined to the eighth circle of hell .

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Author and journalist. Author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality; Islam in the Post-Cold War Era; Islam & Modernism; Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America. Currently working as free lance journalist. Executive Editor of American (more...)
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