Charlie Hebdo, again! | The Background

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

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Charlie Hebdo, again!

Najib Anwar

We all value the power of the pen. And especially, the Muslims have traditions to value it more than anything else. First of all, Islam came to an arid land to save people from bloodshed and the misuse of sword.

The British writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his historical play, Richelieu or The Conspiracy (1839) beautifully paraphrased this value in Act II, scene II. The main character, Cardinal Richelieu played by William Charles Macready had this dialogue, “The pen is mightier than the sword”. The phrase quickly gained currency and did not take much time to enter into the lexicon of idioms.

But this timeless phrase is thought to have originated, in the Assyrian wisdom and moral and value systems of Middle Eastern descent.

Prophet Mohammad (SAW) is quoted, in a hadith narrated by Abdullah Ibn Amr, “There will be a tribulation that will wipe out the Arabs, in which those killed on both sides are in the Hellfire. In that time, the spoken word will be stronger than the sword.”

Sadly, the moral, intellectual and ethical systems have been lost and more so in that Middle Eastern region. In the first three centuries after the Prophet’s death, the systems were by and large there but gradually these all have been subjected to obscurantist and literalist interpretations of revelation.

The first command which was revealed through revelation was, “Read (Iqra)”, “Read in the name of Thy Lord.”  It was not to fight or to kill or to combat.

In Chapter 68 of the Qur’an it opens with the verse, “By the pen and by what they (the angels) write (in the records of men). (Surat Al-Qalam or The Pen)

In Chapter 96 of the Qur’an one finds another reference to the high value placed on the might of the pen; “Who taught by the pen. Taught mankind that which he knew not” (96:4-5).

Islam never began with a holy war. The Prophet (SAW) knew when to retreat (via Hijra); he knew the values of solidarity, peaceful co-existence with all kinds of ‘otherness’ (in Yathrib, which became Medina after the Prophet emigrated there from Mecca). The Medina Declaration ( a constitution) is a pointer to this.

Indeed, the seventh-century Medina accepted Jews as equal members of the community (umma) under the Constitution of Medina drawn up by the Prophet (SAW) in 622 CE. One would also learn that seventh-century Muslims took seriously the Qur’anic injunction (2:256) that there is to be no compulsion in religion and that specific Qur’anic verses (2:62 and 5:69) recognize goodness in righteous Christians and Jews.


The news agency AFP reported yesterday that Paris based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo would republish Prophet’s cartoon.

The magazine made no secret of the fact that it intended to carry on provoking believing Muslims by targeting the Prophet.

Let it sound loud and clear. No amount of satires, lampoons, cartoons or criticisms could denigrate the grand stature of the Prophet (SAW) or for that matter could diminish the sacredness of the Holy Quran.

In 2005, Charlie Hebdo had reprinted the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons of Muhammad (SAW). It depicted the Prophet as a Pakistani immigrant. The Danish daily later admitted that it would not publish anything similar depicting Moses or the Jews. But it certainly published articles supporting the Third Reich!

In its defence, Charlie Hebdo defended the republican secular values criticising all religions. Occasionally they do attack Catholicism but hardly take on Judaism. The atrocities of Israel on the Palestinian people have given that magazine plenty of opportunities to do so. All the concentration seems to be on Islam and Muslims. The French laïcité (secularism) seems to stop at the doorstep of Islam only.

The secular liberals talk relentlessly on the freedom of speech. They became smuggy when cartoonists were killed inside the office of Charlie Hebdo in 2015. They cried, Je suis Charlie Hebdo (I am Charlie Hebdo). But the circumstances that led to the attack by the two brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi were the creation of the Western world itself. It was the result of the long colonial rule of their forefathers. It was also the result of what they saw- the footage of Iraq war and the torture taking place in Abu Ghraib and the cold-blooded killings of Iraqi citizens in Fallujah. Defending its right to publish is alright. But sacralising a satirical paper that regularly targets those who are victims of a rampant Islamophobia is plain foolishness.

In the garb of secularism, the attack on Islam and Muslims will continue. Charlie Hebdo will continue to act as a provocateur.  But the moral, intellectual and ethical systems, which had been lost for centuries within Islam, should be revived without further delay to combat this menacing force.  As the Qur’an (94:6) promises “Indeed with hardship comes ease,” this revival seems to be the need of the hour.

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