The massacre of artists and journalists at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris, for nothing more than their depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, has sparked the usual debate on the limits of free expression. NBC, MSNBC, and The New York Times all refused to show the cartoons. CNN pixelated them. A Financial Times columnist went so far as to accuse the dead of “editorial foolishness” and "just being stupid." This language has been removed from the original article but the sentences and their ironic atonement-by-censorship will be remembered as capitulation at a time of crisis.
We have come upon a distressing point as a liberal society when perceived hurt feelings and offense are the norms by which the dissemination of ideas is measured. What's more offensive and racist than any Hebdo cartoon is the subtle message that is sent by those practicing self-censorship: all Muslims are alike, will be offended, and a substantial portion may retaliate. The most reactionary Muslims are thus held up as a vanguard for the entire faith, a reactionary group elevated by the speech-policing left and obsessed over by the Islam-hating right. When the smug and self-pitying British “cleric” Anjem Choudary—who thinks that what the Islamic State is doing is not all that bad and that everyone should live under Sharia—is given primetime slots on American and British news channels, his bigoted kind win a victory no terrorist could achieve. Most Muslims are not like Choudary and his unlettered ilk, so we should stop treating Muslims like such emotional babies.
The insult is twofold. Self-censoring not only stereotypes Muslims in the West as crazed and sensitive, but impedes the progress of freethinking Muslims in the Islamic world who are challenging Sunni scholars who propagate the most conservative views, the Shiite ayatollahs who claim guardianship of their people, the Gulf financiers of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, and the militias and mobs who target comedians and liberal writers in the Muslim world each day. For my Iraqi and Pakistani and Palestinian friends bravely challenging established religious dogmas in their countries, the threat of a Paris massacre is a lived reality each day they sit at their desks, prepared to die for every sentence they write. What message do we send to them when we censor the publication of images because we do not wish to offend?
As always happens when the champions of satire and criticism confront the unsmiling and witless parties of violence, a dark irony appears—one that jihadists and their Salafist cousins who claim a monopoly on truth can neither appreciate nor understand. The Qur’an itself is silent on pictorial depictions of the Prophet. This is usually mentioned as a preface or a prelude, but the silence of a holy book on such a consequential topic should not be relegated to a footnote. The collected Hadith—the sayings and doings of the Prophet—ban depictions, though the Hadith are followed by varying degrees and an entire movement rejects the Hadith altogether because one of them recounts the Prophet saying not to write down anything he said. When Islamic civilization, already rich in philosophy and science in Baghdad, fused with Turkish and Persian and Hindu culture from the 8th century onward, a burst of creative energy followed, the poetic and literary results of which are still widely read today. One small part of this creative collision was devotional art in the form of paintings and pictures of the Prophet, still practiced by Shiite and Sufi Muslims. To this day, the Prophet is depicted along with other famous lawgivers in a frieze at the U.S. Supreme Court Building. Must this, too, be taken down because of hurt feelings? (The Council on American-Islamic Relations once asked for exactly that.)
Far too many words and far too much blood has been spilled since 9/11 to prove to Westerners the inherent pluralism of the Islamic tradition, that there are as many Islams as there are Christianities, and that a celebration of diversity is at the core of an individual Muslim’s lived experience. In suppressing this content, the censor reinforces the worst stereotypes about Muslims and strikes a blow not only to freedom of expression but the freedom that diversity engenders. In a grotesque kind of way, the self-censorship reifies—for the reactionary few who will be offended and may retaliate—the blasphemous line that may not be crossed. It betrays cartoonists, writers, and artists who are, as Edward Said once said of Salman Rushdie, the “intifada of the imagination.” And, with tragic consequences, it validates the self-righteous mentality that lets a mob execute political artists for perceived transgressions the Prophet himself—if we are to believe some of the stories told about him—would not have punished.