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France’s Satiric Cartoons: Another Casus Belli for Terrorists

19 Nov 2020
By Dr Shafi Md Mostofa
Parisian protest on February 11, 2006 against the publication of caricatures of Muhammad. Source: David Monniaux

Historically, Islamist extremist groups have imagined a divided world that is Islam vs West. The West is depicted by these groups as the crusaders, from which narratives calling for total destruction of the West are based.

On October 25, 2020, a statement was released from Wi-Kallat Thabat al-ikhbaryyah who sent an invitation to all Muslims “to a call to arms in France to confront the crusaders campaign.” This call to arms is not without historical precedent. French magazine Charlie Hebdo, for instance, has been attacked several times for its connection with publishing satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Western expression of anti-Islamic attitudes through satiric cartoons began with the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. Any time anti-Islamic cartoons are published, they are met with extreme reactions from extremist groups, such as the beheading of a school teacher in France and the mass shooting in Austria.

Islamists and Muslim populist leaders are also acting in similar fashion. Qatar, Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, and other Muslim states have strongly condemned the satiric cartoon published by Charlie Hebdo.  Turkey in particular has been overplaying this issue, considering the act a “Crusade against Islam.” Turkey is not only a vocal advocate for the Islamic cause, but an active one. It recently transformed the Hagia Sophia, which was originally a church, then a mosque under the Ottomans, then a museum since 1935, back to a functioning mosque. Many consider this to be part of a broader project to transform Turkey into an competitive authoritarian  state, a civilian regime in which democratic institution exists in form but not in substance. This could explain why Erdogan was so prompt in stirring popular outrage.

The cartoon also sparked street protests by Muslims from all walks of life, especially in South Asia. Both Bangladesh and Pakistan witnessed massive demonstrations. Peaceful protest is a right. However acts of some groups of Muslims turned violent. One such instance was in Pakistan, which saw a female madrassa teacher beheading Macron’s effigy in front of young female students. In a second, a mob destroyed and burnt down houses of  a minority family in Bangladesh who was alleged to support the French government on Facebook.

That said, is France’s satiric cartoon the only un-Islamic activity that has happened in the world? Is Erdogan’s Turkey free from all un-Islamic activities? Are Muslim majority countries free from corruption, killing, rape, and civic violence, which are deemed definitely un-Islamic? The simple answer is no. Then why aren’t Muslim groups protesting other issues of un-Islamic events across the world, including those in Muslim majority nation-states? The answer is that those issues have not been politicised and do not attract mass support. So, it does not, in fact, matter whether the acts are un-Islamic. What instead warrants attention is the fact people can be easily mobilised or even manipulated out of love and respect for the Prophet Muhammad. I call this phenomenon “Islamist populism.”

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said Islamophobic acts, such as the publication of satiric cartoons, can provoke extremism. Such portrayal in the media may lead Muslim youths to feel isolated, potentially causing an identity crisis. One of the factors allowing Islamist extremist groups to produce a strong identity narrative can be attributed to the West’s Islamophobic attitude. On this basis, the rise of Islamism can then be seen as a counter hegemonic force to Islamophobia. A myriad of literature suggests that Islamophobic acts like satiric cartoons can act a catalyst for radicalisation.

In the meantime, sensing popular support for the issue, Al Qaeda has urged all Muslims to kill anyone insulting the Prophet Mohammed, and has also threatened Macron over his comments on Islam. Al Qaeda upholds that “Killing anyone who insults the prophet is the right of each and every Muslim.” These terrorist organisations are dangerously quick to capitalise on Islamic grievances, often utilising such issues as a casus belli for carrying out more attacks and garnering popular support. In response to Charlie Hebdo’s recent cartoon, they have already carried out several attacks.

French President Emmanuel Macron has stated that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis today all over the world.” This statement has created sparked regarding what Macron means by Islam. Is he referring to Jihadism alone, or considering other forms of Islam? In the latter case, Macron’s statement might make Muslims feel isolated for being followers of Islam which is, in Macron’s words, in crisis. The French government has announced plans to introduce new counter-terrorism laws, one of which involves inquiring into the funding of mosques. Doing so will create further grievances and frustrations for Muslims at home and abroad.

The question remains as to why France is allowed to undermine a religion. The answer may lie in France’s structural secular principles, which do not allow the government to restrict people’s freedom of expression. France would be wise to deal with its internal issue using a hybrid peace approach, listening to marginalised voices – in this case, Muslim voices. Muslims should be integrated in the peace process rather than all being deemed terrorists. All Muslims should not be treated as one entity. If this happens, terrorists will have succeeded in using the Muslim masses for their cause.

Above all, France should show respect towards its minority Muslims, and at the same time, Muslims should act more wisely. Peaceful protest and freedom of expression are human rights. However, justification of extreme words and actions in the name of peaceful procession should be boycotted. Most importantly, people need to be aware of their leaders’ populist tendencies.

Dr Shafi Md Mostofa is an Assistant Professor of Religions and Culture of Dhaka University, Bangladesh and an Adjunct Lecturer of University of New England, Australia. His works are either published or forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, Routledge, Francis Taylor, Palgrave, and Springer.