These questions miss an important point. Intolerance of satire is not intrinsic to Islamic civilization. In fact, Islamic history bears its own tradition of irreverent writing on religious imagery. One of the most influential and lauded (though not uncontroversial) Arabic poets of all time, Abu Nuwas, regularly employed sexually graphic and borderline blasphemous imagery in his own brand of “Islamic satire” that resonates to this day.
Writing from Baghdad during the zenith of the Abbassid period — the Islamic empire that lasted from roughly the mid-8th to mid-13th centuries — Abu Nuwas drew on profane and offensive imagery as a way to subvert the authority of the caliph and mock the excesses of the court. Despite his critique of those in power, he himself was a court poet, providing him with an elite audience.
Often, his words directly targeted the institutions of Islam. In one colorful verse, for example, he calls sodomy the “true jihad.” Playing on the meaning of the word “Islam” as submission (to God), he draws on the word’s sexual connotations to suggest that Muslims should get non-Muslims to “submit” through sex.
In another of his verses, two young boys fall in love, and in lieu of praying five times, they fornicate five times a day when the Muslim call to prayer. Such a perversion of the religious pillars makes Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons tame by comparison.
A few centuries later, an Andalusian poet and disciple of Abu Nuwas, Ibn Sahl, composed a poem describing his conversion from Judaism to Islam as the choice to take a new lover. Seeming to violate the sanctity surrounding profane depictions of the Prophet, he writes, “I abandoned the love of Moses, to adore Muhammad.”
Is this depiction of prophet as lover less offensive than a cartoon promising readers “100 lashes if they don’t die of laughter”? Or a drawing of a woman running nude with a Burqa protruding from her rear? Both juxtapose religious imagery with the irreverent and profane in order to comment on the status quo.
But though these poets employed Islamic imagery, they weren’t attacking religious faith but rather the political and social establishment. Abu-Nuwas resided in an Abbassid court marked by its hedonistic excesses even as it drew on Islam to bolster its legitimacy. By subverting images of piety, he was exposing this hypocrisy, speaking truth to power. This feels, in spirit, much closer to the French political satire that lies at the roots of Charlie Hebdo — the famed scandal sheets denouncing Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution — than to the cartoons on Islam that grace the magazine today.
The Hebdo cartoons that take Islamic imagery as the butt of their jokes serve a very different purpose. Their goal is to provoke, to counter what they see as a problematic orthodoxy by mocking the beliefs that people adhere to. In doing so, they target not those in power, but France’s largest religious minority, one that has faced political discrimination and increasing xenophobia over the past decade.
There is absolutely no justification for what happened in Paris last month, and images should not be censored because they offend. However, while I believe entirely in the principle of free speech, I also believe free speech requires discernment from us, as readers. Rather than asking what it is about Islam, a more pertinent question to ask ourselves is what satire means in particular contexts both for those who consume it as well as those who serve as its targets.