Forum Spring 2015

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Periodically CSRES invites notable scholars and newsmakers in the field of Religion, Ethics, and Society to reflect on a topic and contribute a piece to our forum.

What is the role of religion scholars in discussing the Charlie Hebdo attack?

In this issue:

"The Problem With The “Moderate Muslims” Label" - Nur Amali Ibrahim - Assistant Professor, Department of Religious Studies, Indiana University Bloomington

"Reframing the Question: How Scholars should talk about the Muslim Tradition" - Kevin Jaques -AssociateProfessor, Department of Religious Studies, Indiana University Bloomington

"Charlie Hebdo: Orienting Points- Alessandro Ferrari, Associate Professor, Dept. of Law and Economics, University of Insubria (Como), Italy

Current forum topic:

Fall 2015 - What are the main causal factors of the global refugee crisis and how should the world be responding?

Previous forum topic:

Fall 2014 - What does religion have to do with climate change?



Nur Amali Ibrahim - Assistant Professor, Department of Religious Studies, Indiana University Bloomington

Nur Amali IbrahimFollowing the recent gunman attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the continuing atrocities by ISIS on civilians and aid workers, and the abduction and massacre of ordinary Nigerians by the Boko Haram insurgents, manypopular commentators in the West are urging moderate Muslims to take a stand against these acts of violence. Such views have become commonplace since 9/11. It has seemed inevitable that each time an extremist kills in the name of Islam, a chorus of voices in the Western public will express anger, frustration, or even incomprehension as to why moderate Muslims have remained silent. Not only should moderate Muslims repudiate the extremists who have hijacked their religion, commentators like Rupert Murdoch and Piers Morgan also demand that they apologize for the aberrant ways of their brethren.

            The search for moderate Muslims has persisted despite plentiful evidence that Muslims overwhelmingly condemn violence committed in the name of Islam. Unsurprisingly, it has generated resistance. There are concerns that Muslims are being held to a different standard than everyone else. Why aren’t Jews asked to apologize for the behavior of Israeli settlers towards Palestinians, for example, or why don’t Christians have to take responsibility for Anders Breivik, a self-professed Christian and conservative who gunned down the participants of a youth camp in Norway? Critics have also questioned why is it that the two recent events in Paris where Muslims emerged as heroes—the first involving a Muslim cop who was shot when trying to protect the Charlie Hebdo office, the second involving a Muslim employee at a kosher deli who shielded Jewish customers during a hostage situation—have not managed to put an end to the search for moderate Muslims. Others claim that the sensationalist focus on moderate Muslims detracts from other urgent conversations that should take precedence in the Western public, like the reassessment of race relations in the US following police shootings of unarmed black men.

Like these critics, I am similarly concerned with the ideological work that is accomplished by the discourse on the missing moderate Muslims. To understand what is at stake here, we must start by asking who, exactly, are the moderate Muslims at the center of this public discourse. It is important to underscore that moderate Muslims do not constitute a self-evident or normative or stable category, which is to say that there isn’t a universally agreed-upon way to define moderate Muslims. Just as in Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism or any other religious tradition, who counts as good or bad or orthodox or deviant in Islam is determined through relations of power that occur in specific historical and geographical locations. The definition of something as moderate is thus always contextual and always contingent upon the parameters that are being used to make that assessment. What we should pay attention to, therefore, are the conditions that permit certain parameters to be selected in defining moderation. And since all standards of assessment will always be partial and carry certain assumptions and biases, we must also be aware of the blind spots that result from the selection of certain parameters to define moderation.

In the context of post-9/11 US, moderate Muslims are defined as Muslims whose “hearts and minds” we need to win. Winning hearts and minds is a rhetoric often deployed in the context of war to refer to the notion that victory should be attained not through brute force but by swaying supporters of the enemy through persuasion. This parameter for defining moderate Muslims is made very clear in a report produced by the RAND Corporation in 2007 titled “Building Moderate Muslim Networks.” I cite this report as a representative of the prevailing discourse because the RAND Corporation is a think tank that draws expertise from academia and exerts tremendous influence over US foreign policy, and thus shapes the terms of public debate. The report posits that victory in the War on Terror depends on the ability of the US to develop partnerships with Muslims who are “authentic moderates.” However, the argument goes, the US has not been successful in this regard because moderates are being marginalized and intimidated by the more well-organized radicals. To strengthen moderate Muslim networks, the report suggests that policymakers turn to the experience of the Cold War in which the US and its allies helped to build global networks of democratic institutions.

How deeply ironic it is that the report advocates replicating Cold War policies to create moderate Muslims who will reject radicalism. As Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani argues in his important book, Good Muslim, Bad MuslimGood Muslim, Bad Muslim, the roots of contemporary radicalism lie in the politics of the Cold War. To counter the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989), the Reagan administration fostered the growth of jihadi radicals who will take part in a holy crusade against communism. Jihadi radicals acted as the proxy of the US, which was increasingly reluctant to send its own soldiers to fight Cold War battles following the heavy losses suffered in Vietnam. The US entered into an alliance with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to turn Pakistani and Afghan madrasas into training camps for radicals. CIA looked for a Saudi prince to lead this crusade, but having failed to find any, decided to settle for the next best alternative, Osama bin Laden, part of an elite family that is well-connected to the Saudi royals. While Muslims with militant interpretations of Islam have undoubtedly existed long before the Cold War, US foreign policy during the Cold War was responsible for plucking them out of obscurity, organizing them, giving them a purpose, and supplying them with weaponry. In fact, US foreign policy continues to foster the growth of radicals till this day. ISIS, for example, grew out of the American-run prisons established after the US invasion of Iraq under the Bush administration.

My point here is that we need to re-assess US complicity in the creation of jihadi radicals. Our collective future depends on it. However, the discourse on the moderate Muslims prevents us from carrying out this urgent task. The discourse places blame squarely on the ordinary Muslims who never asked the radicals to act in their names but who are expected to apologize anyway. Culpability is deflected from US foreign policy.

Defining moderate Muslims as those who are aligned with US interests implies that until they demonstrate their allegiance, all Muslims are by default regarded to be immoderate and against the US. Unlike the legal maxim “innocent until proven guilty,” Muslims are guilty until proven innocent. This was in fact the guiding principle behind the post-9/11 imprisonment of suspected Muslim radicals in Guantanamo, prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, and “black site” prisons in secret locations. Scores of these prisoners had been detained for an indefinite period of time without trial, without ever having their guilt or innocence legally established. The consequence of this viewpoint on ordinary Muslims is that to be regarded as Muslims who are acceptable to the US, any slight departure from American liberal principles cannot be tolerated. It is utterly unacceptable, for example, for Muslims to reject the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo satirists and at the same time reject having their religion ridiculed by cartoons. Piety is impossible for Muslims. Rather, proper behavior falls somewhere along the lines of the recommendation of celebrity atheist Sam Harris, who expects moderate Muslims to doubt the divine origin of holy scriptures to the extent of being willing to “flush them down the toilet.”

Some commentators have raised alarm that the moderate Muslim discourse will lead to hatred and bigotry towards Muslims in the US. It is so frightening that their prognosis seems to have already come true. On February 10, 2015, three young Muslims were shot execution style by their neighbor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in what many argue to be a hate crime. This tragedy has struck fear in many Muslims who realized that it could have easily been they who were targeted. Surely, there is no time more critical than now to extinguish the poisonous discourse regarding moderate Muslims, before it claims the lives of more innocent Muslims.

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Kevin Jaques - AssociateProfessor, Department of Religious Studies, Indiana University Bloomington


Kevin JaquesI have been a professor of Islamic Studies for over 13 years, having started at IU two weeks before the 911 attacks. Terrorist actions by violent Muslim revivalist groups have dominated my entire career. Following the attacks, I participated in over 70 interviews with media outlets from across the country, and even overseas. I noticed at that time, and have been struck since, by the tendency for the media and policy makers to ask black-and-white questions that are generally so deeply rooted in ignorance of the basics of Islamic history or an understanding of religion that there is no way to briefly answer the questions without deepening the ignorance that prompted the question. In almost every interview, it was necessary to back up and fill in basic ideas so that any answer I gave would have some context and provide an understanding and not just information, a “factoid” bereft of meaning. Media outlets and policy makers soon stopped calling.

Due to the adversarial nature of contemporary media and politics, reporters and policy makers often expect scholars to “take a side.” To be “pro-Islam” or “anti-Islam.” By this I do not mean that they expect us to advocate for terrorism (although I have had that distinct impression at times) but that in the black-and-white, yes-no, either-or world of media and policy, scholars are expected to be equally black-and-white. Either Islam is a “religion of peace” or it is an irredeemably violent religion.

The inclination to expect such easy and useless answers has resulted in a tendency for well meaning, but mistaken and ultimately damaging statements by my fellow academic specialists in Islamic Studies that stray too far into apologetics or that reflect an “Islam” that they see as “authentic” or “ideal.” I commonly see statements about how "Islam forbids" terrorist acts like the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the recent decapitation of Egyptian Coptic Christians, or any number of horrible actions.  It is also common for scholars to provide interpretations of the Qur'an that they contend advocate non-violencethe rights of women, or other “acceptable” ideas. Such “easy apologia” are troubling because they only tell part of the story and are disconnected from historical contexts. They also create a monolithic view of the Muslim tradition that is just as disingenuous as the negative monolithic views of those who contend that “Islam is a dangerous set of beliefs totally incompatible with Western beliefs concerning freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association.”

Islam, like all religious traditions, is what its practitioners make it in all of their diversity. Sometimes it is beautiful and sometimes ugly. It is peaceful to the extent that Muslims, in their vast majority are peaceful. Most Muslims live in poor areas and are frequently disenfranchised from participation in their political societies. Regardless of their economic or social status, they want what almost all people want: security, food, jobs, education, and a better life for their children than they have. Just like people everywhere, most are kind, giving, loving people who would help you or me if we were in need regardless of our different religious commitments, nationalities, or ethnicities. Just as it does for most people, religion functions in their lives on many different levels, sometimes explicitly but often it is just a part of the background "noise" of everyday life, there in times of stress and trouble, but largely unconsciously or unintentionally practiced otherwise. Islam, however, is violent for those who, for various reasons, see violence as justifiable, appropriate, and sanctioned by their interpretation of the tradition. Yes, these folks are in the vast minority, but they are, from the standpoint of the academic study of religion, just as Muslim as the vast majority who do not act violently. As an academic, it is not for me to judge who counts and who does not but to explain as best I can why those who make recourse to violence do so, and to show how Muslims in various times and places have thought about violence and its value. Many have argued that violence toward the innocent is abhorrent based on their interpretation of revelation just as others have advocated it based on theirs. The Qur'an, like the Bible and other sacred texts, is replete with images of wonder and beauty as well as images that are ugly and troubling. It is unethical, in my opinion, to suggest which parts count and which do not. Our job, rather, is to show how Muslims have interpreted the text and how they have been able to look at the same passages and, in some instances, find diametrically opposing meanings.

Ultimately, we serve the public best not by giving rosy or one sided views that are easily countered by those looking only for the negative, but by giving people the tools to think critically about the tradition by giving a balanced account that explains why and how different people and groups come to their interpretations. Apologia and one-dimensional prescriptions of Muslim thought and practice without explaining the diversity of the tradition forces members of the public, media, as well as policy makers, to compare such statements with the plethora of counter views that only present Islam as a source of evil. Without context and critical-thinking skills, well-meaning people will tend to assume that the “real” Islam is that of the terrorists because it is that vision of Islam that is most commonly found on TV and in the papers.

We are in the midst of a war of meaning. As with politics, war makes for strange bedfellows. Violent Muslim Revivalists and anti-Muslim ideologues in the West, who portray the violent Muslims as the “real” Muslims, seek to destroy any view that runs counter to their narrative. Both groups seek to marginalize Muslims in Europe and North America, to cause them to feel isolated and estranged from their societies. Both relish the prospect that such isolation and alienation will lead to the growth of “home grown terrorists.” Violent revivalists seek this for obvious reasons. Western anti-Muslim ideologues cynically wish for it because arrests (real or manufactured) “prove” their claims that Islam is inherently violent. Both advocate Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations as the model of and model for relations between the Muslim world and the predominately Christian West. Both also want to de-legitimize any balanced account of the Muslim tradition. Scholars of religion and of the Muslim tradition must not play into their hands by going too far the other way. We do not “balance the scales” by only presenting the Muslim tradition in a positive light, or how we wish it were, because it is too easily destroyed by the next bombing or beheading. Every act of violence in the face of apologetic or prescriptive explanation chips away at the legitimacy of all academics who have the training and knowledge necessary to help people understand what is happening and why. We, in fact, cause irreparable harm by such presentations because it leads to a hardening of views and stimulates ever-increasing levels of hate and distrust that then explode into acts of violence against Muslims domestically, or to foreign policies that seem to assume that one can bomb an idea out of existence.



My former colleague, Christy Gruber, published an article in Newsweek on-line, entitled “The Koran Does Not Forbid Images of the Prophet,” which serves as an example of a well-meaning but overly apologetic or prescriptive academic presentation. Gruber is a specialist in Islamic Art and has published a number of booksand articles about figural representations of Muhammad. Her article provides an interesting account of the history of portraiture devoted to Muhammad. She states that she can find no Qur'anic passage that prohibits "figural images," that prophetic tradition (hadith) are "ambiguous" regarding art, and that she can find no "fatwa" (opinion issued by legal scholars, known as fuqaha) in the pre-Modern period that prohibits portraiture, "including that of Muhammad." She goes on to demonstrate that there were many pre-Modern portraits of Muhammad that depict all stages of his life story and that such images continue to be used in Turkey, Iran, and other areas. She argues, in fact, that while there was a decline in figural images of Muhammad that show his face following 1500, and a general decline in images after 1800, modern discussions of "banning" images of Muhammad come almost exclusively from "extremist and Salafi" Muslims. Gruber provides a number of beautiful imagines along with her discussion and it is well worth the read.

There are, however, problems with her account from the standpoint of the academic study of religion. First, she seems to suggest that the "classical" period of Islam (generally understood to be 632-1500) represents the "real" tradition and that contemporary Muslim views count for less because they seem to be rooted in something else, something less valid, than that of thinkers and artists of the classical period (this view that authentic Islam and modernity are somehow incompatible is also seen in the recent Atlantic article on ISIS). She implies this when she attributes all or most opposition to figural images to "extremists and Salafis." I suppose all readers know who the extremists are; they are those who murdered the people at Charlie Hebdo, who decapitate journalists, and walk into markets and blow themselves up. The term "Salafi" is a little less clear for most readers, but their coupling with “extremists” suggests that they are not one of the “good guys.”

The term “salafi” originates in the medieval period and is generally understood to refer to people or groups who claim to follow the practice of the "Salaf," the pious leaders of the past (individuals including Muhammad, his companions, many of their successors, and other generally recognized great thinkers and practitioners). The term “Salafi,” in the modern period came to describe a broad range of thinkers such as the Egyptian Modernist Muhammad Abduh as well as the revivalist founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, two men who had very different views of the world. In the academic context, the term generally denotes Muslim reformers who are critical of traditional religious authority and who claim that anyone, with the right level of education, piety, and good intentions can interpret the will of God on their own. They are thus the products of modernity and the European Enlightenment who combine this with ideas they identify as being based in the Qur’an and (for some) hadith tradition, as well as rooted in the interpretive authority of select pious ancestors.

Over time, however, often-authoritarian governments in Muslim countries and their Western Allies, who see contemporary reform movements as a threat to stability, have politicized the term. Thus, “Salafi” became synonymous with any non-traditional reform movement and when some of those movements used violence in opposition to authoritarian oppression, the term became a pejorative, so much so that it has become a common smear and a catchall for those who are deemed too "conservative," "illiberal," and "dangerous." It has become in Muslim and Western discourse a frequent club that is used on those with whom one disagrees, much in the way “Nazi” is used whenever one wants to denigrate another whose views she/he finds offensive.

I know many Sunni Muslims, however, who would be dismayed to be describe as Salafi who are, nevertheless, troubled by pictures of Muhammad simply because they have been raised in places, participate in social groups, or have otherwise come to see images of Muhammad as smacking of "graven images,” which they, contrary to what Gruber suggests, think the Qur'an condemns. These folks would in no way agree with the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and in general oppose violence. They are horrified, nevertheless, by the cartoons Charlie Hebdo published (as well as the earlier Danish cartoons) for the same reasons that many Christians  see certain depictions of Jesus, such as the infamous "Piss Christ" painting, as blasphemous. 

Secondly, Gruber prescribes a normative view of the traditions when she claims that the Qur'an nowhere forbids or is critical of figural images. By asserting such, she implies that all criticisms of such images are illegitimate. It is true that the Qur’an does not specifically refer to paintings of Muhammad and instead mentions wooden, stone, or metal images used for worship. Muslims in various places and times, from the classical period forward, have debated whether passages interpreted to condemn such images (known as awthan or asnam) also refer to other modes of human representation, including figural representation in paintings. While there may be no "fatwa" that explicitly prohibits such pictures (we do not have a large number of fatwa collections from the classical period, especially prior to the 13th century), there are discussions in fiqhtexts (legal manuals that represent the views of an individual scholar) that argue for a general prohibition of figural images. These authors, and their modern counterparts, argue that the passages in the Qur'an and hadith that they interpret as prohibiting idols extend to any depiction of the human form, for many of the same reasons some medieval Jewish scholars argued against human depiction. Some were concerned about a slippery slope from painting pictures to worshiping them (this was in the context of encounters with Greek Orthodox Christian use of Icons in worship), while other scholars held that paintings possessed magical qualities.[1] There was, in fact, a well-documented debate about the permissibility of human images across the Sunni Muslim world in the medieval period. Those who opposed paintings did not prevent others who championed their use from painting and collecting such images, largely because there was no central ecclesiastical or political authority that had the power to enforce its will on either side of the debate. As with most things in the Muslim tradition, the permissibility of human images depended on whom you asked, where you lived, and when.

Gruber’s blanket statement that the Qur’an does not prohibit figural images, and her neglect of the nuanced and well-known debate about the relationship between idolatry and figural art, implies that all criticisms of such images are illegitimate. She is thus implying a normative depiction of Muslim thought and practice that places her interpretation of the Qur’an at the center of Muslim understanding. Gruber also implies that the proper and authentic method of interpretation is a hermeneutic of literalism; suggesting that because the Qurʾan does not refer to “figural images” directly, that those who have drawn a link between awthan and asnam and figural images are simply wrong. In doing so, Gruber draws boundaries around the Muslim tradition of her own design. She decides whose opinions count as “authentic,” and who, by extension, are the extremists. By speaking for the “good” tradition, Gruber creates more problems for understanding the multiplicity of Muslim views on the subject and, without intending to do so, puts all who disagree with her interpretation into the “bad Muslim” camp. This is often the problem with apologia and prescriptivity; it lacks the nuance and historical context that allows us to frame issues in their great complexity. Based on her article, any well-intentioned reader would assume that if they overheard a Muslim talking about their problems with pictures of Muhammad  they must be, by definition, extremists and Salafis.

Finally, one of the things that Gruber does not mention in her article is that the reaction against the Danish and Charlie Hebdo cartoons had nothing to do with depictions of Muhammad per se, but were about power and the implied objectification of Muslims. No group that rightly or wrongly sees itself as marginalized wants its symbols appropriated by outside groups that they interpret as oppressive. While there was a significant amount of political manipulation in the initial reactions against the Danish and French cartoons in parts of the Muslim world (governments in Yemen, Egypt, Iran, and other places clearly organized "spontaneous" demonstrations as a means of strengthening their own religious credentials), this should not distract us from the very real insult felt by many Muslims. In places such as Iran, where figural depictions of Muhammad are common, many people were offended because the Dutch and French artists depicted the Prophet as a dog, a terrorist with a bomb in his turban, and in other ways they considered disrespectful.

While Charlie Hebdo is famous for its anti-Catholic as well as its anti-Muslim cartoons, Muslims do not enjoy the same socioeconomic and political status that Catholics do in much of the world, especially in Europe. Not only that, but Muslims are largely disfranchised from any meaningful political participation in the most of the Muslim world, which many in the region (rightly or wrongly) attribute, at least in part, to European and American policy. In many European states, Muslims do not have the same rights as other communities, even if they are born in the country. They inherit a perpetual immigrant status, and in instances where they have many of the same political rights as other citizens, they are frequently stigmatized as outsiders and foreigners. In the Muslim world, people live under authoritarian regimes many of which are supported by American and European aid and military assistance. In this context, many Muslims interpreted the cartoons as a projection of power and dominance by European secularist and Christian elite groups intent on using the symbol of the Prophet to objectify Muslims, to strip them of their honor and self-worth. As Clifford Geertz pointed out in his “Religion as a Cultural System,” religious symbols lie at the very heart of a community’s self-image and are so powerful that they prompt people to think and act in the world in particular ways.[2] To satirize one’s own religious symbols, as is common in some parts of the Christian West, can still be seen as offensive, but it is nothing like having an outsider whom you see as oppressive and antagonistic to your religious tradition satirize your symbols. Instead of being part of an inner-cultural or inner-religious debate, it becomes an example of cultural and religious hegemony that reemphasizes the powerlessness felt by many Muslims in Europe and around the world. In fact, the cartoons have become a painful symbol in their own right of Muslim objectification and weakness; of the complete failure of the Western system of religious tolerance to see Muslim concerns and sensitivities as valid and worthy of respect.


This in no way justifies what happened in France. A democratic society cannot survive unless all people have the right to offend. They should not fear death for what they say. These attacks were symbolic, as most terrorist attacks seem to be, and were done for multiple purposes and audiences. They were not defending the prophet so much as attacking what they understood to be a symbol of Muslim oppression. This gets to the heart of the problem with Gruber’s well-intentioned article: it answers the wrong question. As with almost all such scholarly responsa, the question should not be “Does the Qur’an ban images of Muhammad?” Just as similar questions such as, “Is Islam a religion of peace?” or “Does Islam advocate beheadings?” miss the point entirely. These questions are useless and their answers banal because they oversimplify the problems that Muslims confront and suggest that the phenomena that underlie violent revivalism can be distilled down to a string of misunderstandings or unauthentic interpretations. Ultimately, they presuppose normative definitions of “good” Islam and “bad” Islam based on whether or not the scholar agrees with the action or idea or sees it as promoting the interests of “Islam.”

There is a long history of scholars of Islam trying to save Islam by picking winners and losers based on the extent to which Muslim thinkers reflect modern academic ideas of rationalism and independent thought.[3] In the context of the post-911 world, the urgency of such programs of academic salvation have been taken to new levels because the stakes have been raised by the direct involvement of the West and the wider platform through which scholars can articulate their visions.

Over sixty years ago, W. C. Smith noted that scholars of Islam have special responsibilities in how we talk about the tradition because of the high number of Muslims outside the academy who read what we say.[4]Today the situation is intensified because, whether we realize it or not, the public has far greater access to scholars of Islam than in any time in history;they hear us on radio and TV, or read us on the internet every time some tragedy occurs. Many others read our academic work on a scale far greater than what most scholars would have thought possible before the internet. While I do not advocate the whole of Smith’s Dialogic Approach to the study of religion, his suggestion that scholars should base their interpretations of religious traditions within voices found in those traditions deserves more attention. By this I mean, and I think this was the core of Smith’s concern as well, that scholars should focus on understanding what members of the tradition think at various times and places, and not on creating understandings that project normative descriptions of something we wish existed. The value of this approach is that it limits the focus to a single thinker or groups of thinkers and does not, or should not, take the results of that analysis and apply it to the whole tradition. At heart, it is a comparative approach to the study of Islam that leads inevitably to looking at, and critically comparing multiple worldviews, ideas, and practices.

It behooves us, as scholars of Islam and Muslim thought and practice, to use critical comparison as the tool for reframing the questions asked by media and policy makers. When asked, “What does Islam say” about a particular issue we must resist the urge to come back with any response other than, “it depends on who you ask.” We then use that as a door to provide a more nuanced and accurate account of the entire tradition without just picking the side we like or wish existed. Only when we, as a community of scholars, self-reflectively and honestly begin to push against apologia and prescriptivity can we begin to have a positive impact on public understandings of events like the Charlie Hebdo attacks, or phenomena like ISIS.

[1] For an excellent overview of the various understandings of the permissibility of figurative images, see The Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd edition, s.v. “taswir.” Also see, Marshall G. S. Hodgson, “Islam and Image,” History of Religions, 3, no. 2 (Winter, 1964): 220-260 for an excellent overview of the various views on figural images in Muslim thought.

[2] Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a cultural system,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, New York: Basic Books, 1973, 87-125.

[3] See, for instance, Richard C. Martin’s account of such trends in his “Islamic Studies in the American Academy: A Personal Reflection, The journal of the American Academy of Religion. 78.4 (December, 2010): 896-920.

[4] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, "Comparative Religion: Whither—and Why?," The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology (1959): 31-58.

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Alessandro FerrariAlessandro Ferrari, Associate Professor, Dept. of Law and Economics, University of Insubria (Como), Italy


  1. Premise. Few things can justify the sacrifice of human lives. Among these things one cannot include the publication of cartoons in France in 2015. Human life is an absolute right which cannot be balanced with any other competitive interest. This may be in some cases disputed but, in relation to this particular case, I say it to avoid from the beginning any misunderstanding that what I will be saying is a sort of “justification” for what happened in Paris on the January 7, 2015. The first sentence is, rather, a starting point for a wider comment.
  2. Embarrassment. This was my first feeling as soon as I received the invitation to comment on this affair. It seemed to me to contribute in the fixing of another symbolic and snapshot date of a chronology where Islam continues playing the role of the “most complete negation of Europe” (Renan). Another date in a unilaterally globalized chronology. Why this and not another date? Innocent victims are not lacking in any part of the globe. We should be attentive to the role of chronologies. They are based on a selection of symbolic deeds, often based on the essentialization and stereotyping of the Self and the Other.
  3. Between cartoons and murders.  Between cartoons and murders there is no dialogue. There are no communities. On one side, there are cartoons that represent an ahistorical Islam; on the other, individuals who turn to a virtual community. The history, the everyday civic life are crushed into irrelevance and causality. There are no people or events “of the day” but, on both sides, isolated and decontextualized people and events or images of the past. We should ask ourselves about the role of history and memory in today’s fragmented society.
  4. Abuse of public space. When there is no dialogue, revenge compensates. A tragic revenge. As in Greek tragedy, the τραγος, the he-goat or, better, the scapegoat, is freedom of expression and freedom of religion: two fundamental political freedoms. When dialogue cannot shorten the distances we assist in a sacrifice of the public space as a place where private people can make public use of reason (Habermas).
  5. Freedom of expression Paragraph 3 of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) states that “the exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) “For respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals”. Within constitutional democracies rights are born indivisible but not absolute. Freedom is the rule and limits are the exceptions and they must comply with the canons of necessity and proportionality. Limits are to be restrictively interpreted and as clear as possible. Moreover, political speech is particularly protected, more, for example, than commercial discourse. Limits on freedom of expression come into play only when active incitement leads to violence or discrimination. The “legal good” protected by limits to freedom of expression has to be threatened by a concrete and present danger and the “legal good” itself has to be “concrete”, that is, as material and circumscribable as possible and with specific and identifiable holders.
  6. Religion. In general, in the contemporary “Western” legal tradition religion is not, per se, a “legal good” able to justify limits to the freedom of expression. The “legal good” is, rather, the conscience of the individual. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, especially after the cultural withdrawal following September 11th, has a different approach to such matters, aimed at obtaining a collectivistic protection of Islam as such. This protection is founded more on the exceptionality of Islam than of religion in general and on a sort of inscrutableness of this specific religious tradition due to its qualitative specificity or even superiority. In any case, it is not easy to draw a clear border between the two approaches: when a “religion” is offended many people can claim to be the holders of the religious sentiment offended. But, more widely, there is another question. Is religious discourse a political discourse with special protection not as a (specific) religious but as a (generic) political speech? If yes, satire and religion should be balanced as an expression of fundamental political and equal ordered freedoms.
  7. Borderlines speech. Both religion and satire produce political borderlines speeches. Borderlines because of their specific character only partially responded to the rationality usually asked of the political discourse. Satire, if doesn’t want to become the inoffensive speech of the king's fool, must necessarily move in the borders. Religion is in itself borderline, a sort of iceberg-speech with a pretense to a metaphysical and not fully debatable foundation.
  8. The ambiguity of the politicalness of religion. Within European legal space, consideration of the politicalness of satire and religion and, consequently, of their full admissibility within the public space, is rather ambiguous and characterized by a  “double standard”. First of all, the politicalness is granted more fully to the speech of traditional European religions, others being more easily classified as “commercial discourse” (cf. ECHR, Mouvement Raëlien Suisse vs. Suisse). Secondly, the politicalenss is only recognized for religious discourse that is clearly in tune with the secular rationality of the present secular public space: no Muslim discourse or personal interpretation can prevent the ascribed impolitic character of “Islamic headscarf” in French public space. Moreover, this ambiguity is expanded by the ECHR doctrine of the margin of appreciation that gives individual state authorities final competence on the evaluation of the necessity of limits to fundamental rights. The margin of appreciation gives strength to national identities and enables a different status for majority and minority religions. And this different treatment is also reflected in relationships between religions and satire. For example, the ECHR didn’t have any problem recognizing the legitimacy of censorship exercised in Austria against a film-club that projected, only for its adult members, a satirical movie mocking the symbols of the Catholic religion, the majority Church in Tirol (cf. ECHR Otto Preminger vs. Austria).
  9. A majority satire. Censorship in a majoritarian Catholic country against a movie blasphemous of the majority religion demands observation in relation to the “Charlie affaire”. In the Austrian case what was censored was a minority satire against the majority. In the “Charlie case” the situation seems different. In this latter case, the satire ceases to be the weapons of the weak, the last resource of those who have no other political means. Here the satire seems to have become, rather, a majority satire, an instrument that reinforces stereotypes and prejudices and revitalizes the “primitive forces” of the sacred. This approach cancels all eschatology and directly attributes to God and his Prophet the responsibility for what humans do—transforming the executioners of an individualistic idolatry into the real vicars of the offended rights of God and its community. But majority satire can’t reach its goal. Minority satire can bombard the divinities of the most powerful to resize the believers, obtaining, in this way, a therapeutic benefit against the temptation of the domain of the majority. But majority satire against a minority removes responsibility from the majority and, when the status of the minority is particularly complicated, as in the case of French Muslims, risks producing domination and discrimination, becoming the other face of the totalitarian religion. A satire against a minority should only be permitted when the latter is totally protected and recognized. It is difficult to satirize Islam in a country where the Muslims are 8% of the population but 50% of the prison population. Attention to real Muslim “integration” is necessary to avoid increasing their sense of frustration and the perception that the rights of other minorities are better protected. Satire against Jews, for example, is often treated by state authorities as a direct manifestation of racial discrimination, generating frustration and incomprehension among Muslim minorities.
  10. Responsibility. In a globalized society it is crucial not to enclose people in categories that reverse the burden of proof and disregard the principle of personal responsibility, automatically ascribing fault on the basis of racial, ethnic or religious categories. Responsibility and self-restraint are particularly important in relation to the identity construction of new generations of Europeans with different histories and cultural and religious backgrounds.
  11. The Paradox of a Secular Society. All this history seems also to highlight the paradoxes of the so-called post-secular society that  individuates in deeply secularized interpretation of religion and religiosity the deus – or the diabolon – ex machine, the key, able to explain and influence all societal phenomenon. Eschatological faiths are difficult but their immanent versions are “better”, multi-purpose, political instruments. The loss of the transcendent character of religion affects the European “constitutional covenant” signed between religions and secular powers after the Second World War, the Shoah and the beginning of the process of decolonization. This “covenant” was based on the conviction of a possible distinction between “temporal” and “spiritual” spheres and on the consequent idea of a public sphere also inhabited by (not secularized) religious groups able to contribute to the development of constitutional democracies but also to stop themselves at the gate of the institutional space. The contribution of Muslim lawyers in the establishing of such a society at the international level has been underestimated. Today critics against an only pretended universality of the “human rights system” are particularly severe. Is it a reaction to a hidden and inevitably radical Western imperialism or is it possible to relativize these critics and to address them “only” to the more contingent balance of power that has made concretely hypocritical, at a given time, the proclaimed universal rights?  Has secularization undermined this covenant? Has it become a homogenizing force without memory that makes ineffective fundamental rights when secularization meets a religious phenomenon which claims the protection of the hereafter? It is possible to see in this affaire one example of a too radical interpretation of Article 10 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen that declassified – and secularized - religions into mere opinions, deeply undermining a real “separation” by an excessive secularization and politicization of religions?
  12. Conclusion. European Muslims are today among the societal actors called to nourish what the constitutional lawyer Böckenförde has called the prerequisites of the constitutional democracy that state institutions alone cannot guarantee. The lack of words, of dialogue, gives this role only to the strongest traditional social forces ethnicizing the social contract and the laws. To injure religious sentiment undermines the organ with which each individual relates to values. It would be difficult to convince the younger generation of (permanent) minorities of being Charlie themselves. But it would also be difficult to find new Voltaires disposed to die for a freedom of expression that forgets complexity and concrete balance of powers and, above all, to die for freedom of expression and of religion that ascribes to abstract symbols human responsibilities.

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