OPINION: Why has France become so devoted to Prophet Mohammed cartoons and where will it end?

OPINION: Why has France become so devoted to Prophet Mohammed cartoons and where will it end?
French MPs pay tribute to late teacher Samuel Paty on October 20th, in front of the Palais Bourbon national assembly. Photo: AFP
A total of 13 people have now died in terror attacks in France linked to cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. John Lichfield examines how we got here and where we go now.

Who said this? “Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided.”

Clue: he was speaking just after Charlie Hebdo magazine published its first cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2006.

His name was Jacques Chirac. He was, at the time, the President of the French Republic.

The Mohammed cartoon saga is now 14 years old. It has already cost the lives of 13 people in two terrorist attacks, including the beheading of the teacher, Samuel Paty – 16 if you include the three terrorists who were also killed.

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Teacher Samuel Paty was murdered after a hate campaign against him on social media. Photo: AFP

Why such devotion to these drawings?

The saga is far from over. Two of the cartoons were projected on Wednesday night onto the exterior of the offices of the Occitanie regional council in Toulouse and Montpellier. Several newsapers and magazines have made a point of publishing them since Mr Paty’s ghastly death. They include the conservative daily Le Figaro – at the opposite pole journalistically to the anti-religious, anarcho-leftist Charlie Hebdo.

Why such devotion to these drawings? Why is it now impossible for any French political leader to say, as Chirac did in 2006, that it is not a good idea to “hurt the convictions” of people of faith?

The answer is partly that the drawings have been consecrated in blood as symbols of France’s commitment to freedom of expression and its status as a secular Republic. They have become (paradoxically) secular, religious symbols – far beyond their intrinsic worth as either drawings or jokes.

Like much of what Charlie Hebdo produces, they are not especially well-drawn or funny or wise. Their original power came from their willingness to defy a taboo (and a fatwa) and defend the boundaries of France’s right to freedom of expression.

They were then sanctified by the deaths of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and several others in the attack by the Kouachi brothers in January 2015. They have been re-sanctified by the beheading of Samuel Paty in Conflans-Saint-Honorine last week.

For most French Muslims the cartoons were originally a provocation and an insult but a provocation best ignored – as most of France ignores most of what Charlie Hebdo publishes most of the time. In 2012, after the publication of a second batch of Mohammed cartoons, attempts by radical Muslim leaders to foment street protests fell flat on their face.

Moderate Muslim leaders did bring a law case against the magazine for “fomenting racism” in 2007 but the courts decided that Charlie Hebdo was mocking not Muslims, and not Islam itself, but religious fundamentalism.

For the second, 2012, batch of cartoons the magazine made Mohammed its “editor” and presented him as a reasonable chap puzzled by the activities of his most extreme followers. Third and fourth batches of cartoons followed the murders at the Charlie offices in 2015 and the beginning last month of the trial of 12 people accused of playing some part in that attack and the related murders at a Hypercacher supermarket.

This, essentially, was the back-story which Samuel Paty told his 13 and 14-year-old pupils at the Collège du Bois d’Aulne in Conflans Saint-Honorine north west of Paris on October 5th and 6th. He was not – according to his own evidence to police before his murder – attempting to glorify the cartoons. He was asking the pupils in his civics class to consider the arguments for and against them.

Should the right to free-speech end at the point where the deeply-held convictions of others might be outraged? Why does France enshrine the principle of secularism – the freedom to believe and the freedom not to believe – in its constitution?

To illustrate his lesson, the teacher showed his class two cartoons, one of which showed a naked, kneeling Mohammed.

The 13-year-old pupil who complained to her father was not, it now turns out, even in the class. She was sick that day. She was excluded from the school the next day for bad behaviour. She covered up by telling her father a cock-and-bull story about being thrown out Mr Paty’s civics class because she was a Muslim.

The father, with the help of a radical imam, launched an incendiary and misleading campaign on Facebook and Instagram. He even exchanged messages with the future murderer on WhatsApp. Before he was shot dead by police, the murderer, Abdoullakh Anzorov, 18, boasted about his crime on Twitter.

Tributes outside the school where Samuel Paty taught. Photo: AFP

This was – quite apart from anything else – a very 21st century social-media murder.

Some French publications have always refused to publish the cartoons. Others have taken the view in recent days that they have a “duty” to do so to make a democratic point. So did the Socialist-led regional council in Occitanie when it decided to project them onto its buildings last night.

I absolutely understand why France is so devoted to its status as a secular state. I absolutely understand why Charlie Hebdo first felt the need to defend the frontiers of free speech in 2006 (after a Danish newspaper had been threatened with a fatwa for publishing other Prophet Mohammed cartoons). I believe that the memory of Samuel Paty should be honoured.

But I wonder and worry where all this will end.

For radical French Muslim activists the cartoons have become a political Godsend – an opportunity to stir up moderate, passive Muslim opinion and assert that France is a racist, Islamophobic and wicked country which encourages blasphemy against the Prophet.

For some French politicians and media, the cartoons have become a statement of No Surrender, something to be flaunted in the face of Muslim opinion – both moderate and radical – as proof that France will never compromise on its principles.

Is it not time for some kind of a circuit-breaker, a halt to this mutual escalation?

Yes. It is also impossible to see what that might be. That is close to the text-book definition of tragedy.


Member comments

  1. Religion is by its nature divisive and intolerant, and is the primary cause of a large majority, if not all, terrorist acts. “i’m nice, and my parishioners make jam/chutney” does not exonerate anyone from the license it gives to the murders and child-molestation of its more ‘devoted’ adherents. There is no doubt that the world would be a better place without the blind obeisance of the devotees of all these contrived religions. If there truly was a god, there would only be one, not hundreds.

  2. No such thing as “atheistic terrorism”? LOL, why, because you say so?

    Terrorism is defined as violence for a political motive.

  3. If it became the norm for everybody to condem religious violence then this might not happen.
    Irrespective of there not being a central authority for Muslims, it might be nice if all Muslims rose up and strongly decried this type of violence, rather than demonstrating their tacit approval by not saying anything.

  4. “Religious persecution” ??? Are muslims hunted down the streets of Lyon or thrown into the Rhône ? Are mosques burnt down ? Are Muslims emprisoned for being Muslims? Words have a meaning. I don’t deny that there might be anti-Muslim prejudice in France, most of the time linked to racism. These sentiments need to be fought. But individual racism, despicable though it might be, is not persecution (which has to be State-sponsored or tolerated, and France is not Myanmar), plus, the expression of racism is against the law in France, contrary to the US. Come what may, in general religions take way too much space and lives. There is no such thing as atheistic terrorism.

  5. As an ordained minister, I am very saddened by the deaths, in France and elsewhere, relating to showing images of the Prophet Mohammed. I am also saddened by the continuing religious persecution which those in minority religions face in France and elsewhere, as well as the tendency to paint all Muslims with the same brush. This is a complex issue, as much if mot more cultural than religious. Islam has no central authority, so there is no one who can speak for all those of the Muslim faith. As long as politicians have to pay a political price for seeming reasonable and reaching out to all parties, these incidents will continue to occur. May peace prevail on earth.
    Rev. Dr. Jim Lockard, Lyon

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