Charlie Hebdo’s Clash of Civilizations Script

Speech BalloonsThis week’s issue of the Germany’s prestigious Spiegel magazine claimed as a starting point for their discussion that “the attacks in Paris were targeted against Europe’s values.” Like so much of the coverage, this framing takes for granted that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on the free speech itself.

To violently attack journalists because you disagree with what they publish is reprehensible. But to understand it as necessarily a serious threat to free speech is a logical jump that I think deserves critical assessment. I think that part of the reason this logic appears so self-evident, is that the way has been paved for it by stories that have become part of collective consciousness in the West. As Anne Norton writes in her 2013 book, On the Muslim Question, these stories have a long tradition in the West since the seeds of the now ubiquitous Clash of Civilizations thesis were planted in nineteenth century Paris through the lectures of Ernst Renan and his challenger Jamal al Din al Afghani.

With Ayatollah Khomeni’s notorious fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the murder of filmmaker provocateur Theo van Gogh, and the protests against the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammad in recent decades, the script calling for the defense of the Western enlightenment value of free speech against violent Muslim intolerance is fresh in European and American public consciousness. But as Norton shows, our memory of how these dramas played out is often distorted to fit the script, leaving the public with a misleading perception of the players and even the facts of what transpired.

Take the Danish cartoon affair in 2006. The whole story started with a Danish man who wanted to write a biography of Muhammad for children had a hard time finding an illustrator who would draw the prophet. After a Danish newspaper published an article about the author’s difficulties, in September 2005 another paper, the Jyllands-Posten, published the now-famous collection of twelve cartoons along with an essay by cultural editor, Flemming Rose.

This publication did not raise any significant reaction. If Rose intended to celebrate free speech, he should have been pleased. But in the wake of the quiet reception, the paper did not dust off its hands and declare it as a successful test of free speech in Europe. Instead they actively circulated the cartoons, post-publication, to prominent local imams. Again, there was no reaction.

Months later the Danish imams included the cartoons in a dossier along with other antisemitic, anti-Muslim cartoons and presented it a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Mecca. The collection of cartoons was presented as part of a discussion about the rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe.

Contrary to the assumptions that were the premise of the cartoons, the issue of depicting the prophet is not a fully settled matter in Islam, and depiction practices have varied greatly over time and space. Today, for example, although in Sunni tradition there is a strong interdiction against producing images of prophets, it is quite common to find depictions of prophets in many Shia communities, particularly in Iran. Depictions of Muhammed are rare, but not unheard of. The idea that Islam putatively prohibits figural imagery is itself a Euro-Christian differentialist cliché (see Gruber 2013).

The main theological justification for discouraging depictions of Muhammed is that such depictions might inspire idolatry among the faithful. Similar to the denunciations of Protestant Christians of what they perceived to be idolatry in within the Catholic church, Muslim iconoclasm is primarily an internal theological question about the most appropriate ways to worship. Consistent with iconoclasm in general, the avoidance or ban on images stems from the concern that the image will supplant that which it depicts, the picture replacing the prophet. It follows that historically, depictions of Muhammed and other prophets in tended to appear in literary or historical texts and were generally excluded from religious practice. It also follows that the discussion of such depictions was more focused on the practice of the faithful than on the actions of outsiders.

For this reason, it is not surprising that the cartoons were not significant to the Danish imams as a threat to Islam, but rather as an indication of troubling sentiments against Muslims in Europe. They were not significant as blasphemous speech acts, but rather as a sign of the attitudes of European majorities about their Muslim minority citizens. The dossier of cartoons continued to circulate after the conference. Eventually, it found its way into less diplomatic and rougher forums where it was used as one propaganda tool among others to incite violent protests. As Norton wrote,

Politicians and media figures in the Islamic world did as Flemming Rose and Jyllands-Posten editor in chief Carsten Juste had done: circulating and supplementing the images in the hope of kindling a more outraged, more political, more violent, more newsworthy, and more profitable response. They got it – but not at home, not in Europe, not in the West. (26)

Violent protests of the Danish cartoons only broke out in late January 2006, four months after their initial publication. The deaths that can be connected to the cartoon affair occurred exclusively outside of Europe, in places where protests and politics more often have fatal consequences. When the cartoons finally incited the awaited violent response, news outlets across Europe “resisted” the censorship this response supposedly indicated by republishing and promoting the originally impotent cartoons.

Thus, outlets like Charlie Hebdo rushed onto the battlefield to heroically protect the right to publish the already oft-published cartoons. But was their publication was ever really threatened? It is true that the republication of the cartoons along with new additions by Charlie Hebdo was critiqued as islamophobic and even challenged in court. But it weathered the challenge and they continued unperturbed producing similar material. Free speech is not the right to speak without consequence or contestation. If sheer presence in the public sphere is an indicator of free speech, the attacks have acted as a multiplier of speech – at least in Europe. The cartoons – and the myopic focus on whether or not to reprint them – are made into a fetish that sidelines discussions of the interests of the involved parties.

If anything, the meaning of the cartoons requires that they provoke the expected violent response. As their original Danish publishers found, if your premise is that you are publishing something because it is dangerous, it had better incite danger. The cartoonists and the attackers depend on each other to create the meanings to support their actions. Without the attackers, the cartoon “provocations” would have to be judged on their aesthetic, intellectual and political content itself and, I think, would be found seriously wanting. Without provocative events like the cartoon affair, the attackers… well… the attackers would have had to look elsewhere for plausible evidence for their assertions that the West is out to destroy Islam, and they might have chosen a different meaningful site to stage their massacre.

With all this in mind, it is useful to look at the attack again and ask ourselves whether we should take the attackers at their word. Is it possible that they truly believed that by attacking Charlie Hebdo they prevent European publications from publishing blasphemous speech in the future? It is entirely possible that for them it really was this simple. But is this goal really plausible? Has such an aggressive attack against a hegemonic block by a subaltern group ever cowed hegemonic groups into submission? Relatedly, was 9/11 meant actually meant to intimidate Americans to withdraw from military action abroad? While mostly likely no one can answer the first question, I think that for even a casual observer the answer to the other questions has to be “no.” In each case such attacks serve to consolidate and unify different factions.

Beyond simply striking out at a group or institution to which they are fundamentally and irrevocably opposed, it seems unlikely to me that the attackers reasonably believed that their act would serve to censor the speech they opposed. To punish? Certainly. But to prevent? Given the reaction to the Danish cartoon affair, it seems clear that to attack only serves to empower your target. 9/11 did not stop Western military incursions in the Middle East, it sparked them. It fueled Western demagogues and Islamic demagogues alike.

Beyond merely punishing, it seems just as likely that the Charlie Hebdo attackers knew that their attacks would galvanize Western Europeans against them, possibly forcing their enemy to step out from behind anodyne universalisms to show itself as the antagonist that it really is.

To me, it seems much more likely that the Charlie Hebdo attackers and their brethren have an interest in drawing the battle lines and consolidating friends and enemies. With growing PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident) demonstrations in Germany, the minaret ban in Switzerland, the rise of the the ultranationalist Sweden Democrats, France’s right-wing National Front, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in Netherlands, and Jörg Haider and the Freedom Party of Austria, to name a few examples – the Wütburger (angry citizens) of Europe appear willing to oblige.

Gruber, C. (2013). Images of the Prophet In and Out of Modernity: The Curious Case of a 2008 Mural in Tehran. In C. Gruber & S. Haugbolle (Eds.), Visual culture in the modern Middle East: rhetoric of the image (pp. 3–31). Indiana University Press.

Norton, A. (2013). On the Muslim Question. Princeton University Press.

Der Terror der Verlierer. (2015). Der Spiegel, (4). Retrieved from

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