Prophet Cartoons and Free Expression

Posted November 5, 2020
By Abbas Kassam

France’s obsession with depicting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad is back in the news following the murder of middle school teacher, Samuel Paty last month for showing his students a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad from the French magazine Charlie Hebdo

Following the gruesome murder by an 18 year old Russian immigrant, French President Emmanuel Macron called the incident “a typical Islamist terrorist attack” and praised Mr. Paty as the "face of the republic" and a person who "believed in knowledge."

Our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to questions about the murder by saying, "I think it is important to continue defending freedom of expression, freedom of speech. Artists help us reflect and challenge our views and they contribute to our society and we will always continue to defend freedom of expression." But he went on to say, "Freedom of expression is not unlimited. For example, it's not allowed to cry 'fire' in a packed cinema … In a respectful society such as ours, everyone must be aware of the impact of our words and actions on others.”

Let’s be unequivocal here. The implication that Mr. Trudeau is inviting Canadians to draw – that cartoons of the Prophet are not protected under freedom of expression protections in Canada – is wrong. As many have pointed out, the cartoons would be protected expression in Canada. 

Furthermore, Canada recently repealed its blasphemy law. Previously, section 296 of the Criminal Code read "Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years". This was repealed in December 2018 and for good measure. There is no place for blasphemy laws in a liberal democracy where free expression is a paramount right and the lifeblood of democracy. 

While many may argue that blasphemous speech is used by bigots to disrespect religion or members of religious communities, such expression is protected for the simple reason that the state has no business being arbiter of what is disrespectful and curtailing expression on this basis.

Moreover,  blasphemy laws are invoked (in states where they exist) as a reason to suppress the expression of those who seek to criticize religious leaders. Commonly, those who seek to criticize religious leaders come from those very same religious communities that religious leaders ostensibly claim to represent. Blasphemy laws cannot and should not be used as a shield from criticism. 

This reasoning appears to be in line with the French notion of free expression. However, the French experience requires examination. It appears that the French cannot separate their views of free expression from their particular experience with religion, specifically the French Catholic Church. 

The French have a history with using cartoons and caricatures to call out the sins, hypocrisies and oppressions of the Church. This has proven effective in history. The French now appear to presume that these methods should prove similarly effective with Islam. 

There are a few crucial distinctions to consider. First, for the most part it was the French who suffered oppression from the Church that had the standing to call out the Church. This is not to say that others cannot call out the religions of others; it is a historical observation about the effectiveness of cartoons in the cultural and historical context of France. Who would know better the sins of the French Catholic Church than the French? 

Second, while there are many similarities in all organized religions, there are also significant differences with Islam. For example, the Prophet Muhammad has a special place in minds and hearts of virtually all Muslims regardless of sectarian differences. Muslims can, and should, make a distinction between the Prophet and the subsequent institutionalization of Islam in various forms following the Prophet’s death. Ridiculing the Prophet for many Muslims is a nonstarter. 

Specifically, with respect to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons displaying the Prophet as a terrorist or misogynist cannot be farther from the truth when examining the life of the Prophet. While there have clearly been Muslim terrorists and misogynists, including amongst religious leaders, it is nonsensical to the Muslim mind to blame the Prophet for the actions of these deviants. This would be akin to blaming Jesus, for the sins of the Catholic Church. 

More often than not, attacking venerated figures is done purposefully to offend those who venerate them. As a Muslim who loves the Prophet Muhammad, I would note that this tactic is as old as Islam itself. Chapter 15, verse 6 of the Quran notes some of the ridicule that the Prophet faced by others in Mecca: “Oh you [the Prophet] upon whom the message [the Quran] has been sent down, indeed you are a madman.” In fact, the Quran goes on to state “And there never came a messenger to them but they mocked him.” That is, all of the messengers sent by God, which would include the messengers of Judaism and Christianity, were mocked and ridiculed by people.  

God in the Quran notes the potential offense taken to being ridiculed and consoles the Prophet stating “You [the Prophet] are not, by the favor of your Lord, a madman … And truly you are of an exalted character”. 

The Muslim belief is clear on the point of the Prophet Muhammad’s character. As such, any mocking or ridiculing of the Prophet is not new and can probably be expected if history is any indication. Ridiculing the Prophet today is likely due to ignorance or hate towards Muslims. The Quran again offers guidance for Muslims in this regard: “Repel evil with that which is best.” Muslim commentators have interpreted this to mean in the face of lies, taunts and ridicule reply with words of peace and beautiful discourse. This is the appropriate response to the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.