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Charlie Hebdo Releases the Comic Book The Life of Mohammad: The Beginnings of a Prophet

01/17/2013

On Wednesday, January 2, 2013, the French satirical weekly paper Charlie Hebdo published the first in a series of comic books on the life of the Prophet Mohammad. Charlie Hebdo’s editor Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, the illustrator of this special edition to the magazine, has promised this series will be “perfectly halal” – in other words, permissible under Islamic law.  In an interview with CRNI Deputy Director Drew Rougier-Chapman in May of 2012, Charb said the then upcoming series, based on accounts from Muslim sources, would be “a sincere attempt to understand, not mock, the Prophet Mohammad.”   Charb said he took on this project because non-Muslims in France know little about Mohammad and Islam.  Despite Charb’s professed good intentions, reactions to The Life of Mohammad: The Beginnings of a Prophet have been swift and critical, even from one unexpected source.

Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that pokes fun of every major religion and politicians of all stripes, is no stranger to criticism.  Various Catholics and Muslims who fervently believe the power of the French state should be invoked to ban humorous critiques of their leaders, prophets and beliefs, have sued Charlie Hebdo, to date unsuccessfully, over a dozen times.  Just last month, the Algerian Democratic Rally for Peace Progress and the United Arab Organization filed a lawsuit against the weekly magazine seeking approximately $1 million in damages.  The two groups claim the cartoons in the satirical magazine incite religious hatred. 

In November of 2011, disagreement with Charlie Hebdo turned violent.  The offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed by Muslim extremists mere hours before the release of an issue of the magazine was to be published with numerous Mohammad cartoons.  (It should be noted that labeling the cartoons “Mohammad cartoons” may be a little misleading.  While featuring caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad, the cartoons were not so much critical of Mohammad as they were of Islamic based political parties that have, in the opinion of the Charlie Hebdo staff, hijacked the Arab Spring. )  Additionally, the paper’s website was hacked. 

Since the firebombing and website attack, the Charlie Hebdo folks have been criticized for not allowing violence or the threat of violence to alter their free speech stance.  For instance, following the outcry over the crude film the Innocence of the Muslims, the magazine included Mohammad cartoons mocking those who reacted violently to the film.  The cartoons were published as planned despite death threats and despite criticism from the French government and from many Muslim organizations.  The French government for its part was understandably concerned about the possibility of even more violence erupting. 

Photograph of Stéphane "Charb" Charbonnier by Drew Rougier-Chapman

You can learn more by reading our previous Charlie Hebdo posts.  In reverse chronological order those posts are titled New Mohammad Cartoons from Charlie Hebdo Spark a Debate, Charlie Hebdo Editor Charb Speaks Out Six Months After Firebomb Attack, Stephane "Charb" Charbonnier Editor of French Satirical Magazine Charlie Hebdo Six Weeks After Violent Attack on Magazine's Offices,  and,  Offices of French Satirical Magazine Charlie Hebdo Firebombed for Planning to Publish a Cartoon About the Prophet Mohammed

We at the Cartoonists Rights Network International have not yet received our copy of The Life of Mohammad: the Beginnings of a Prophet which we ordered directly from the Charlie Hebdo Boutique.  So we will withhold our opinions of this comic book until it arrives.  Other individuals, even some who have admittedly not read the comic book, have already passed judgment.  

Many Muslim organizations, some even before the release of the comic book, denounced it.  Some Muslims believe it is blasphemous for anyone, even non-believers, to draw Mohammad.  Others have correctly pointed out that the authority that Charb relied on to edit this biography is Franco-Tunisian sociologist Zineb El Rhazoui, a former Muslim turned atheist.  This particular criticism though is hardly fair.  After all, which Muslim expert on Islam is willing to risk his or her life to edit a comic book depiction of the Prophet’s life illustrated by the editor of Charlie Hebdo?  Given the numerous death threats, it is nothing less than remarkable that Charb found any expert on Islam, Muslim or not, courageous enough to work on this comic book series.  The position taken by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is typical of the responses from many Muslim organizations that have taken exception to this comic book.  Upon release of the comic book, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, urged the French government to take legal action against Charlie Hebdo.  Without specifying specific passages from the comic book, the Secretary General said in a statement, “Incitement and advocacy of hatred and intolerance on religious grounds signified by this publication was in contravention of international human rights laws and instruments.”  To his credit, Secretary General İhsanoğlu also called upon Muslims the world over “to exercise restraint.”  And so far there have been no reported incidents of violence connected to the publication.    

More surprising has been the critique from Jerome Taylor of the British paper The Independent in his January 2, 2013 article It’s Charlie Hebdo’s right to draw Muhammad, but they missed the opportunity to do something profound.  Taylor declared the comic book “predictably naff,” in other words, tacky and nearly worthless.  Even after admitting that he has seen only a few pages, Taylor also declared that the comic book “clearly pokes fun at the Prophet as much as it supposedly informs the reader about his life.”  While baffled by Mr. Taylor’s rush to judgment, we agree with his conclusion that “Charlie Hebdo are perfectly within their rights to publish a comic book retelling the life of the Prophet Muhammad. … [And, t]hey’re also entitled to be irreverent, shocking and – yes – even offensive.”