Most Western Muslims were appalled by last month’s beheading over cartoons in France. Islamists, however, would side with the killer. Many Muslim fundamentalists would too. At least privately. And most Muslims outside of the West declare blasphemy an offense deserving of death.
The victim, Samuel Paty, was a popular middle school teacher in a suburb of Paris targeted specifically for showing his class two offensive cartoons originally meant to defame the prophet Muhammad. The news reports tell us that Paty’s showing of the cartoons:
- Occurred in his classroom discussion on freedom of speech
- Were included along with other cartoons offensive to other groups
- Came with permission for Muslim students in the class to avert their eyes if they wanted
Paty thus undoubtedly thought his handling of the cartoons was fair-minded. And none of the reports suggest that he was personally hostile to Islam.
But as Islamists see it, these factors in no way mitigate Paty’s guilt since nothing could possibly justify his crime. Most would say the Chechen assassin who posted a photo of Paty’s decapitated head on Twitter was martyred in the police shootout that followed his beheading. Conversely, the French view of Paty’s death makes him a virtual martyr in secular terms. So, the divide between France’s secularists and Islamists couldn’t be wider.
A hard time for France’s Muslims
All this is doubtless troubling to the majority of France’s Muslims, who are as appalled by last month’s murder as they were by al-Qaeda’s 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and other staff. Like all Muslims, they insist that the honor Muhammad deserves is only second to that of God. But while they’re offended by the cartoons that led to the violence, they are also aware of their need to integrate into French society. They are thus caught between two conflicting value systems, one making Paty’s free expression a virtue, one making it a vice.
But the situation defies simple explanations:
- The cartoons doubtless offended all French Muslims, but only a small minority carry out or actively support such violence.
- The response of many French Muslims suggests that they were more disturbed by the beheading—which will increase suspicion and prejudice against them—than the cartoons.
- Although the majority of Muslims worldwide support the sharia’s blasphemy laws, Muslims in the West are sharply divided over the sharia’s law of blasphemy.
- Islamists use threats, assassination and other forms of intimidation to enforce the sharia’s law of blasphemy worldwide, not just in Muslim countries.
- Many less traditional Muslims strongly oppose such coercion, sometimes arguing that the law of blasphemy is not Islamic.
- Less traditional Muslims see the sharia as necessarily mutable and want its law of blasphemy struck down, though the likelihood of that happening is very low.
While most Muslims cannot understand why Western countries support such offensive cartoons, most non-Muslims understand why the cartoons offend, but not why they incite violence. How, they wonder, could anyone’s showing or drawing cartoons—however rude or crude—be considered grounds for grisly murders? To unpack this conflict, we will consider the French conviction before looking at the issue from the radical Islamist’s perspective.
Why does France protect such derogatory cartoons?
Modern Western states recognize freedom of speech—including making satirical cartoons—as a basic human right. By it, people are freed to say nearly anything they can say, but not absolutely anything. For every nation draws lines restricting certain types of speech. For example, all Western nations forbid copyright infringement and libel, or the public defamation of a citizen’s character seriously damaging their reputation. Unfortunately for Muslims, libel laws do not pertain to the defamation of a historical figure like Muhammad. France has certain specific limitations on free speech aimed at protecting human dignity, but none relate to the defamation of historical or specifically religious figures.
Going right back to the French Revolution, France’s concept of free speech is very much tied to breaking the Catholic Church’s then iron grip on French society. For that reason, the French consider freedom to mock and denounce religion a key part of freedom of speech.
The Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo—a play on the French word for sharia—upholds that tradition whenever it publishes anti-religion and anti-establishment cartoons. The Catholic Church has sued Charlie Hebdo more than a dozen times for cartoons defaming the Pope or the Church. And according to French law, a lawsuit is an appropriate response to such defamatory cartoons, however useless it may be to restrain such defamation in the future.
The French consider the freedom to attack religion so integral to their culture that the French government posthumously gave Paty France’s highest honor, the Légion d’Honneur, last week. And it did so in a national ceremony at the Sorbonne University commemorating his life. Clearly, the French are not going to back down, given that they consider Paty a national hero.
To sum up,
- The French consider freedom to blaspheme essential to freedom of speech
- Religious leaders like the Pope, Jesus and Muhammad are not exempt
- The Muslim community’s only recourse is to sue, though that is unlikely to be effective
Charlie Hebdo’s Defamation of Muhammad
In 2012 Charlie Hebdo published a series of vulgar cartoons, depicting the prophet Muhammad in various highly unflattering poses. Two of those cartoons depicted him naked and in poses meant to ridicule his followers and defame him by degrading his intelligence and moral character. This prompted al-Qaeda’s attack on the magazine’s office in 2015. It wasn’t the first Islamist attack on the magazine, but it was the worst, killing 12 staff members and injuring 11 others.
In September the long-awaited terrorism trial of those accused as accomplices in the attack began. Since Charlie Hebdo considers blasphemy central to its mission, it reasserted its defiance of Muslim scruples by republishing the offensive cartoons as the trial began. So, with that trial ongoing, we could say that last month’s beheading took place in the shadow of that court case and repeated blasphemy. And French society has rallied around the magazine’s insistence that freedom of speech cannot be compromised to protect religion or prophets.
Is the law of blasphemy truly Islamic?
Understanding the Islamic law of blasphemy is challenging, and all the more so when some Westernized Muslims deny that it is truly Islamic. American journalist Qasim Rashid, for example, makes two interesting claims in his 2017 article “This is what the Quran actually says about blasphemy.” He says the Qur’an prescribes no worldly punishment for apostasy or blasphemy. According to him, the world’s first blasphemy laws were enacted “in Christian Europe as a means to prevent dissent and enforce the church’s authority” and were exported from there to Muslim-majority nations via the British Empire.
Rashid is right about his first point. The Qur’an inveighs strongly against both apostasy and blasphemy and warn sternly of judgment to come. Those teachings came during the period when Muhammad was fighting a religious war in which he and his army were prepared to kill Meccans who persisted in rejecting his prophethood and did so. But having said that, the Qur’an does not explicitly command the death penalty for denying Muhammad’s prophethood. Nor did Muhammad slaughter all those Meccans who had rejected his prophethood. He simply forced them to submit to it.
Rashid is sorely mistaken about his second point, however.
- The Torah made blasphemy a capital crime, though the Jews seldom applied that particular law.
- For much of imperial Rome’s history insulting the gods or emperor was punishable by death.
- This was then taken into the Christianized Roman/Byzantine empire re blaspheming God.
For example, one law during the Roman Principate said, “Anyone who pollutes a shrine or temple shall be thrown to the beasts or put to the sword…” Thousands of early Christians were martyred as a result of such laws. When the Roman Empire transitioned from paganism to Christianity in the 4th century CE, blasphemy was redefined as sacrilege against God. But by the time the British and other Western colonial governments produced their legal codes, blasphemy had ceased to be a capital offense in Western nations. British colonial governments sometimes supported the enforcement of their colonies’ blasphemy laws, often applied to the Baha’i and Ahmadi sects deemed heretical by a colony’s Muslim authorities.
Far more to the point, though, the sharia, had both blasphemy and apostasy laws centuries before the Western powers colonized Muslim-majority lands. And the sharia is considered God-given by traditional Sunni and Shia Muslims. That those laws originated during Islam’s early period is clear from the fact that they are upheld by all of Islam’s major schools of law—both Sunni and Shia—although their punishments vary somewhat, depending on the blasphemer’s religion, social status and gender. Even Ibadi Islam has similar blasphemy laws, again, suggesting that Muslims deemed blasphemy a capital crime, if not before the Muslim community’s historic Sunni-Shia split, then at least early enough for easy sharing of ideas and practices.
The historical basis of Islam’s blasphemy laws
Islam’s blasphemy laws are based primarily on stories in
- The hadith, which most Muslims consider only second in authority to the Qur’an
- Muhammad’s semi-official biography, or sira
Both sources detail the assassination or execution of his most outspoken critics, especially those who publicly ridiculed him or his revelations. Besides being consistent with what we find in the Qur’an, those accounts are generally considered reliable by all Muslims who revere the sharia. The prevalence of blasphemy laws in Muslim-majority countries can only be explained by the sharia and its ample basis in the hadith and sira, not by the laws’ alleged colonial connection. As a trained attorney, Rashid cannot possibly be unaware of this fact. Thus, it is disingenuous of him to omit the blasphemy laws’ truly Islamic basis, claiming that they originated in Christian Europe via the British Empire.
What biographical stories and hadith do I refer to? Numerous accounts tell us how Muhammad
- Executed prisoners of war who had written satirical poetry about him
- Assassinated those who wrote satirical poetry about him
- Executed those who promoted rival prophets or places of worship
For example, Muhammad released all the Meccan prisoners taken in the Battle of Badr in 624 CE, except for two whom he executed. Both men—al-Nadr bin al-Harith and Uqba ibn Abu Muayt—had a history of mocking Muhammad’s claims to prophethood. Q 25:6 and Q 84:13 may refer to al-Nadr’s execution. Also, despite the general amnesty Muhammad offered when Mecca surrendered in 630, he ordered the execution of Fartana and Qurayba, two slave girls who had written satirical verses about him.
During the same period, Muhammad also called for the assassination of others who publicly insulted or mocked him or who rejected his prophethood:
- Asma bint Marwan for writing a poem criticizing the Medinese for submitting to Muhammad
- The Medinese Abu Afak for writing a derogatory poem about Muhammad
- Kab bin al-Ashraf for writing poems attacking Muhammad
- al-Aswad al-Ansi for being a false prophet
- Ibn an-Nawwaha for supporting a false prophet
Muhammad also ordered the massacre of the Bahila and Banu Khath’am tribes for supporting a kaaba in Yemen rivaling the Meccan Kaaba.
The vital importance of Muhammad’s example
We cannot overestimate the import of such accounts in Muslim thinking. The reason is that traditional Muslims regard Muhammad’s conduct as altogether beyond criticism. They also view Muhammad as the perfect man, the exemplar for all of humanity for all time. Thus, to say that most traditional Muslims worldwide view these accounts as trustworthy is ipso facto to say that Muhammad’s behavior is to be copied by everyone everywhere. That is why the Muslim community made these accounts the basis of the sharia’s blasphemy laws during Islam’s formative period and deem those laws immutable to this day. So, Islamic inertia weighs heavily against anyone who hopes Muslims will jettison such laws. For them to do so would mean entirely rethinking Muhammad’s place in their religion.
Many modern Muslims reject the blasphemy laws
Nevertheless, many modern Muslims now distance themselves from the law of blasphemy by separating Muhammad from the hadith and sira, questioning their reliability on such points. They also stress the gentler side of the Qur’an, verses that seem to allow freedom of speech. For example, the Qur’an says:
- “To you your religion and to me my religion.” (Q 109:6)
- “The servants of the All-merciful are those who walk in the earth modestly and who say ‘Peace’ when the ignorant address them.” (Q 25:63)
- “There is no compulsion in religion.” (Q 2:256)
To grasp what these statements are saying, we must know their historical context. Each of the various chronologies of the Qur’an locates the first two verses in the Meccan period when the Muslims were a persecuted minority. They locate Q 2:256 in the Medinan period, before the outbreak of war with the Meccans. Accordingly, some Muslims in the West liken their current situation to that of the persecuted minority in Mecca. Traditional Muslims, however, argue that the qur’anic revelations given during the Meccan campaign abrogated earlier revelations in the sense that they no longer function as the modus operandi of the worldwide Muslim community, or umma.
That is not to suggest that Muhammad permitted no freedom of religion or freedom of speech because that is not the case. But to dismiss all the passages that speak of violence and trumpet only those that speak of tolerance and freedom distorts the message of the Qur’an. From a traditional Muslim perspective, to disregard revelations that do not conform to modern values is to usurp the place of God. Muslims who do this wrench the Qur’an from its historical context also. Q 2:256 did not proclaim the twenty-first century Western concept of freedom. It specifically authorized freedom for Jews and Christians to retain their religion—not be forced to convert to Islam—provided they submit to Muhammad’s rule. That is, only conversion was at issue. Not forcible subjugation, which was another matter entirely.
Taking Muhammad and the Qur’an in context
The Qur’an’s broader historical context confirms the traditional Muslim perspective. The Byzantines and Sasanians allowed limited freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Jews in the Byzantine Empire, for example, could practice their faith quietly as second-class citizens, but they had to keep their view of Christianity to themselves lest they invite persecution. Likewise, Christians living in the Sasanian empire had to keep quiet about their rejection of Zoroastrianism.
In this sense, Islam reflects the historical context in which it emerged. The early Muslim community under Muhammad granted Christians and Jews the same limited freedom of expression. The Muslims allowed them to keep their religion, but with restrictions. The sharia’s laws of dhimma eventually codified those restrictions in writing. Such non-Muslims were clearly second-class citizens, although at times they were treated very well, depending on which Muslim leader was in power. Had the Qur’an meant to overturn prevailing norms about religious minorities, it would have had to far much more emphatic statements calling for tolerance.
Anyone shocked by what the hadith and sira teach related to the execution of blasphemers should note that Muhammad’s Byzantine and Sasanian counterparts were equally ruthless in defending their authority and honor. The Byzantine and Sasanian emperors executed or massacred many religiopolitical dissidents within their realms during the period leading up to and including Muhammad’s prophetic career. All who challenged the emperor significantly were disposed of if the emperor ordered it. It was thus considered within the rights of emperors to kill unbelievers if they felt it in their best interest to do so. And that belief is clearly reflected in the Qur’an’s teachings on jihad.
Some moderates now want to divest themselves entirely of the hadith and sira and hold to a reinterpreted Qur’an alone. But dismissing most of the hadith and sira works only if they also wrench the Qur’an and Muhammad out of the early seventh century CE. They thus make the Qur’an a scripture and Muhammad a prophet reflecting their own twenty-first century Western values, not those of the time in which they emerged. Given their Western loyalties, doing this will predictably make their being Muslim in the West far easier. But it runs roughshod over the very prophet and scripture they claim to honor.
Mockery within honor-shame cultures
Non-Muslim Westerners nowadays have great difficulty understanding—let alone excusing—the executions ordered by Muhammad. While this is partly due to their commitment to Western human rights, another factor is at play here. It is that Islam emerged within an honor-shame culture and honor-shame values are part of the warp and woof of its worldview. Barring Western cultures, an honor-shame matrix is intrinsic to most cultures in the world. This is one reason Islam spreads so easily among non-Western cultures and why Western cultures have generally proven resistant to its spread.
The honor-shame matrix binds individuals to maintain and defend the honor of their community, tribe and family and to avoid at all costs anything that seriously detracts from the group’s collective honor. In an honor-shame matrix
- The group is indispensable, the individual often expendable
- Each member’s behavior adds either honor or contaminating shame to the entire group
- The group’s patriarchs are its final arbiters of honor and guardians against shame
Another aspect of the honor-shame matrix is that it tends to focus on external morality, especially core virtues and observable “watershed sins”—sins that make one a bona fide member of the group. Undying loyalty to Muhammad and the Muslim cause and community are core virtues. Blasphemy and denying Muhammad’s prophethood are watershed sins. Because the Muslim community is defined by its very honor of and obedience to Muhammad, an attack on the Muslim prophet is blasphemous and dishonors the entire Muslim community. And no good Muslim can sit idly by when he is dishonored.
While Western cultures consider the community as existing for the sake of the individual, honor-shame cultures see it the other way around. In the West, every individual’s actions are viewed as more or less independent of the community. Western parents may be disturbed and chagrined by their adult son or daughter’s misbehavior, but they rarely view it as bringing shame on the entire family. The opposite is true in honor-shame cultures. Every action taken and every word spoken by the individual either adds honor to or takes away honor from—adds shame to—the community.
Perhaps thinking of the community as we do of corporations is helpful here: ultimately, everything said and done by a corporation’s employees either increases or decreases the value of its stock. The Facebook employee who publicly mocks Mark Zuckerberg devalues the entire company and asks to be fired. But even that comparison falls far short of the situation here for Muhammad is utterly irreplaceable since he and his revelations are the Muslim umma’s raison d’etre. That is why blasphemy is intolerable, an attack on the person who defines the community and everyone in it. Unless we grasp the honor-shame component here—that blaspheming Muhammad represents the most extreme contravention of public morality—we are bound to view the sharia’s blasphemy laws as extreme.
Ongoing conflict over France’s position
Thus, the French champion the rights of the individual in keeping with what they see as universal normative principles based on secular notions of international human rights. They view blasphemy laws and laws against defaming religion as perverting those principles. Muslims care far more about the community than the individual’s rights, while the French believe there can be no healthy community without granting its individual members freedom. Thus, the French view the individual’s freedom to defame religion, if they choose, as inviolable. And the conflict over what society must protect at all costs—religion in the Muslim or freedom of speech in the French view—is in effect “a clash of moral visions [both of] which are impossible to prove” from outside their given worldviews.
The great challenge for moderate Muslims in the West is to walk the tightrope between legitimate offense over insulting cartoons and their need to integrate into Western societies. France has made this much harder for them by refusing to back down—insisting that freedom to blaspheme is a constitutional right—since traditional Islam finds such blasphemy intolerable. I expect that more Westernized Muslims will hope that their fellow Muslims will simply loosen up a bit. But as we have seen, the clash runs much deeper than moderates want to believe.
On October 29th, celebrated as Muhammad’s birthday, three more Islamist assassinations took place in France, along with an attack on a French embassy employee in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. So this news story will likely play out for some time, with various Muslim leaders and groups taking different positions on the assassinations and cartoons, whether condemning one or both of them. This discussion is fraught with many potential misunderstandings, given the range of views we all bring to them. So, we must listen carefully and not assume that others mean whatever we want to hear.
The following week several Muslim-majority nations saw protests against France and a number of countries boycotted French goods. France’s Muslims have rejected this as unjustified. The problem might be solved if either the French or the Muslims could back away from the precipice, but as I have shown that is very unlikely. The French assume they just have to weather this storm, as Britain and Denmark have done before. Only time will tell how successful they will be at doing so.
The larger challenge facing us
But the larger clash of moral visions will not end any time soon. This clash puts Muslims in the West in a tight spot, even as it does Christian minorities in Muslim-majority lands. This is nothing new in the sense that it recreates the situation Jews in the Byzantine Empire and Christians in the Sasanian and other empires long endured. At least Muslims need not fear a law of blasphemy being used against them the West, as is often the case for Christians in Muslim lands.
To get a proper grasp of the global conflict on this issue, we need to take a broader look at blasphemy/apostasy in the Muslim world to see how it relates to the West. But that is another topic for another article.
https://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-beliefs-about-sharia/ Accessed November 14, 2020.
 Practically speaking, Muhammad is actually honored above God. For example, Muslims frequently use God’s name carelessly in ways they would never dream of using Muhammad’s name. And Muslims rarely apply the law of blasphemy to speech that disrespects God. They nearly always reserve it for disrespecting Muhammad.
 Like Canada, France has anti-hate laws designed to counter embedded racism and bigotry, but they do not relate specifically to religious figures. America and some other Western countries take an even narrower approach, concerned lest prohibiting “hate speech,” which depends on subjective interpretation, could end up encroaching on controversial speech in general, including speech that should be protected. https://www.loc.gov/law/help/freedom-expression/france.php Accessed October 24, 2020.
 https://www.economist.com/newsbook/2011/11/02/fighting-freedom-with-fire Accessed October 24, 2020.
 https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/samuel-paty-teacher-beheading/2020/10/21/b94fe7fe-123e-11eb-a258-614acf2b906d_story.html Accessed October 24, 2020.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Hebdo_shooting Accessed October 24, 2020.
 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/01/world/europe/charlie-hebdo-cartoons-trial-france.html Accessed October 24, 2020.
 Neville Cox, “Understanding ‘Je suis Charlie,’” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 105, No. 418, Freedom of speech: How far can you go? (Summer 2016), 199.
 https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/blasphemy-laws-stephen-fry-ireland-saudi-arabia-pakistan-muslims-islam-truth-quran-a7731896.html Accessed October 24, 2020.
 Olivia Robinson, “Blasphemy and Sacrilege in Roman Law,” Irish Jurist, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Winter 1973) 365.
Accessed October 24, 2020.
 What makes Rashid’s claim laughable is that Britain’s former colonies have had some 70 years to disown and dismantle the British legacy. Egypt, for example, has clearly retained its blasphemy laws for religious reasons, not because of its British connection. Unfortunately, this sort of disinformation is often disseminated by Westernized or, in Rashid’s case, Ahmadi Muslims.
 Sahih al-Bukhari 4:2934; Sahih Muslim 3:4422, 3:4424; Ibn Ishaq, pp. 308, 458.
 Sunan Abu Dawud 14:2677, 14:2677; Ibn Hisham and Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad: A translation of Isḥāq’s Sīrat Rasūl Allāh, Alfred Guillaume, trans. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1995) 550; al-Tabari, The Last Years of the Prophet, vol. XI, transl. Ismail K. Poonawala, (Albany: State University of New York Press) 148; The Life of Muhammad: Al-Waqidi’s Kitab al-Maghazi, Rizwi Faizer, Amal Ismail and Abdul-Kader Tayob, trans. (New York: Routledge, 2011) 406.
 On hearing her words, Muhammad asked, “Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?” Having volunteered, her assassin crept into her house that same night, stealthily removed the child sleeping at her breast and killed her. Ibn Ishaq, pp. 675-76 / 995-96.
 This was in response to Muhammad’s question, “Who will deal with this rascal for me?” Ibn Ishaq pp. 675, 995.
 Kab’s assassination was carried out in response to Muhammad’s question, “Who will rid me of [Kab]?” The next day the assassin reported to Muhammad that he had successfully completed his mission. Sahih al-Bukhari 5:4037; Sahih Muslim 3:4436; Ibn Ishaq, pp. 364-69, 548-53; al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, Vol. VII, trans., W. Montgomery Watt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), pp. 94-98, 1368-73.
 Sahih al-Bukhari 5:59:662, 4:56:817, al-Tabari, The Last Years of the Prophet, vol. XI, Isma’il Qurban Husayn, trans., (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988) 167.
 Sunan Abu Dawud 14:2756; al-Tabari, The History of al-Ṭabari: The Conquest of Arabia, vol. XI, trans., Fred M. Donner (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993) 107.
 Sahih al-Bukhari 4:52:262, 4:52:310, 5:59:641.
 The Ismailis and Ahmadis, the two largest Muslim sects rejecting the law of blasphemy, are deemed heretical by the majority of Muslims.
 M.F. El-Islam describes shame as a self-conscious emotion that includes “a powerful urge to hide—to hide the trigger of the emotion, to hide oneself during the experience of the emotion, to hide the existence of the emotion, and even to hide the fact that one has something hidden.” El-Islam, “Cultural aspects of morbid fears in Qatari women,” Social Psychology and Psychiatric Epidemiology 1994 (29) 139.
 On the percentages of Muslims that take traditional approaches to such issues as blasphemy and apostasy, see n. 1 above.
 Cox, “Understanding ‘Je suis Charlie,’” 153.
https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/29/saudi-wounds-french-consulate-guard-in-jeddah-knife-attack Accessed October 29, 2020.
 For example, when Muslims condemn the recent assassinations, it may seem to us that they are condemning the idea of all killing for religious reasons. However, they may simply reject the Islamist argument that Muslims no longer need a caliphate—that is, a centralized government that speaks for the entire Muslim community worldwide—or even a normal Muslim government in order to kill Islam’s enemies in God’s name.
https://www.france24.com/en/europe/20201103-not-in-our-name-french-muslim-leaders-call-anti-french-boycott-unjustified Accessed November 9, 2020.
 The British with Salman Rushdie’s publication of The Satanic Verses (1988) and the Danish with their own set of cartoons (2005).
 On the views of Christian minorities in Muslim-majority lands on the French handling of the cartoons, see: https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/november/france-muhammad-cartoons-arab-christians-charlie-hebdo.html?share=5ti3DxvYyFxUV%2f4dP6cVribWimwsO9rV Accessed November 14, 2020.