As many of you know, I work with Sacred & Sequential on matters of comics and religion. Yesterday I took part as our group crafted an official response to the horrific acts of violence against the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, an event that has whipped the internet into a fervour in defense of art, satire, and free speech. We at Sacred & Sequential sought to make it clear that, as important as that conversation is to both the field of journalism and the comics/cartoon medium, just as vital is recognizing the impact that this tragedy is having on religion and the religious.
Nothing can justify the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015. Some of the cartoons published by the magazine were offensive and at times deemed Islamophobic, but that in no way legitimates violence. Charlie Hebdo had the right to publish what it did under the protection of free speech. Just as freedom of speech did not guarantee the victims of the attack immunity to criticism, the right to dissent does not include murder.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s killings, the response has been varied. New Yorkers took to Union Square to offer their support in an impromptu vigil. Cartoonists such as Sarah McIntyre and Carlos Latuff, politicians such as Barack Obama and David Cameron, and pundits across the planet have offered their support and condolences to the victims’ loved ones. Among those who have voiced their sadness and outrage are Muslim individuals and organizations from all over the world, such as the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.
Others’ responses have been of a more combative tenor. Internationally, and on a far too familiar pattern, an imaginary “Islam,” simplistically conceived as a monolithic, murderous, West-hating, and terrorist ideology, has been blamed for the attacks. In some places, the response has not been limited to words but has spilled over into violent acts perpetrated against a number of sacred spaces and places of worship. Several French mosques and Muslim prayer halls have been subject to attacks, placing many innocent worshipers in the line of retaliatory fire for the actions of a select few.
“Islam” did not do this; adherents to a particular, marginal, and extreme interpretation of what Islam is and what it means to be a Muslim did. They do not represent the planet’s more than one billion self-identifying Muslims. Neither the Qur’an nor the traditions attributed to the Prophet of Islam uniformly oppose illustrations nor modern comics and cartooning. Moreover, wherever and however they are published, comics as a medium has no innate aversion to religion but, instead, is a fertile site of opportunity and engagement with all faiths and beliefs. We must conclude that these events cannot be attributed to Islam as a religion nor to comics as a medium. Protecting this art and its artists is just as necessary as protecting Islam and Muslims from reduction to ideological extremism.
Art by Sarah McIntyre (http://www.jabberworks.co.uk/)