Ahmed Merabet and Charlie Hebdo’s new cover: at whom are we poking fun?

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders, Ahmed Merabet’s brother Malek correctly declared: “My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims. … Islam is a religion of peace and love. As far as my brother’s death is concerned, it was a waste. He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity.

As the new edition of Charlie Hebdo hit the stands with another cartoon cover depicting a crying Prophet Muhammad under the heading “All is forgiven,” a critical question must be asked as to whom we are poking fun. The terrorists, or Muslims in general. How can we use the prophet as a signpost for making fun of terrorists while Lassana Bathily, a young Muslim immigrant from Mali saved a whole group of people in the kosher supermarket and provided police with the key to ending the hostage crisis at the store? Could it be that his inspiration and values are informed by the example of the prophet, did we ask how he feels about the new cartoon, and do we care to listen to the answer?

Who is being forgiven, the prophet, the terrorists or Muslims who believe in Islam and rightly hold the prophet in high esteem? By framing the response with the prophet cartoon, Charlie Hebdo is echoing the media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s tweet that all Muslims “must be held responsible” for the Paris attack. French President François Hollande in a ceremony honoring the three fallen police officers appropriately expressed the sentiments of many: “France is at war against terrorism, jihadism, radicalism. France is not at war against Islam and Muslims.” However, Charlie Hebdo’s new cover will complicate matters, and in a short time will manage to sideline many Muslims at a critical moment in this global struggle against terrorism.

Charlie Hebdo and the press have the right to publish what they like, but Muslims are free to be offended by what is published, and it is their right to be critical of such depictions. No one should tell Muslims what they should or should not be offended by, as it is up to them to determine for their community. By depicting the prophet in a cartoon, Charlie Hebdo chose racism and a Islamophobic discourse. This action transformed the discussion from one focused on terrorism, jihadism and murder into a narrow theological and legal debate concerning what can and cannot be represented in images of the prophet, an issue involving all Muslims, not only the terrorists. It was another wasted opportunity to build unity and bring Muslims into the effort to defeat terrorism, and Charlie Hebdo’s editors chose to remain in the quagmire of racism and Islamophobia. Some argued that they had no choice, since they needed to stay true to who they are by printing such a cartoon, but this would even be more the case if the terrorists forced the subject of the cover rather than the other way around.

Proponents of freedom of the press will celebrate the release of the new cover and view it as a triumph over terrorism by insulting all Muslims in another racist cartoon depicting the prophet as a hooked-nosed Arab-looking man. Let’s be clear that the overwhelming majority of Muslims will continue to uphold their tradition that it is impermissible to represent the prophet in the form of an image, while certainly few had the opinion in the past that it is not prohibited. This will not change anytime soon, and besides Muslims, it is no-one’s business to decide this matter. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon attempted to bring the prophet into the debate around terrorism and Muslim violence, which in my view, is a shortsighted strategy to deal with a most serious problem. By selecting the prophet as the topic of contestation, Charlie Hebdo took a page from the advocates of a clash of civilization and built a cartoon narrative around it. In doing so they joined the coalition of the global Islamophobic and neo-conservative networks that have been pushing this view for almost 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

We are in agreement that the terrorists claimed to act on behalf of Islam and the prophet, and as Malek Merabet said, his brother likewise is a Muslim and defended the magazine on ethical and moral grounds, ideals which I fully believe are informed and grounded in Islam. In deciding to print the new cover with the prophet’s image, Charlie Hebdo sided with the terrorist framing of Islam, and not with the Muslim police officer who lost his life defending them, and who might have been offended by the new publication himself. I believe that if Ahmad Merabet were alive today, he would still show up at the magazine to protect the individuals and their freedom to insult his faith while at the same time, being deeply aggrieved by it.

In this context, every time we make connections between terrorism and Islam, we are only validating the terrorist’s own epistemological understandings, and pushing 99 percent of Muslims away by insisting that we have the right to insult the prophet and, through it, their faith. One can have the freedom to say and do something while understanding the pain that it causes others if it is actually carried out. Today would have been a great day to have a cartoon of Ahmed Merabet smiling at the terrorists while defending the magazine and the cartoonists in the name of his religion. This is not giving in to the terrorists, but standing with Muslims in opposing terrorism, and by affirming the pain and suffering they experienced as a result of the heinous crime committed in the name of their religion.

Yet on a deeper level, the terrorists’ claims that they speak for Islam is a crime in itself that for many Muslims would be akin to accepting the Ku Klux Klan’s claims to be the authentic voice of Christianity. By framing the response to the terrorists through an explicit link to Islam, we are granting them the credentials for which they hunger, and directing more attention to their supposed religious cause. The proper response should have been to remove their Islamic claims and celebrate and embrace the real Muslim heroes that defended and protected lives at both Charlie Hebdo’s offices and the kosher supermarket.

At whom are we poking fun? Muslims, as a diverse minority in France living on the margins of society, are the object of the satire, not the powerful nor the terrorists. It is not the powerful but the powerless that are the object of the laughter. Freedom of speech is not absolute, responsibilities are attached to it, and more so when those living on the margins are subject to racism and discrimination. We should defend free speech, but do so while listening to the cries of the voiceless living in our midst and dying for “our” collective right to insult their faith.