According to the Wikipedia entry on depictions of Muhammad “In Islam, although nothing in the Qur’an explicitly bans images, some supplemental hadith explicitly ban the drawing of images of any living creature; other hadith tolerate images, but never encourage them. Hence, most Muslims avoid visual depictions of Muhammad or any other prophet such as Moses or Abraham.” Let us call this what it is: a law.
It is a law whose sovereignty is based on adherence to faith, and its original policy was to fight the visual manifestation of superstition, i.e. idolatry. Anti-idolatry laws are not unique to Islam and can be found at the core of most monotheistic religions. One can find them in the Old Testament as well as the Gospel according to St. Paul. Without these laws, it is hard to sell an unseen, all-powerful deity. In contrast, polytheism (including post-Christ Christianity, which has prescribed worship of the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, and a host of angels and saints) has traditionally encouraged images of the objects or subjects of worship.
The graphic above, prepared by @LesCartons for people to publish on Twitter and other social media, inserts Delacroix’s painting of Marianne, a French symbol of liberty against tyranny and inhumanity, into the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie. Delacroix’s depiction of Marianne would not offend the injunction under Islamic law against drawing images of living creatures, because Marianne was never a living creature but an idealized figure. Ironically, such a figure is more of a candidate of idolatry, which was the real purpose for the injunction.
Marianne is also significant because her image is a symbol of French secularism, appearing on everything from money to postage stamps. One unintended consequence of secularism, the separation of church and state, has been the denial of the control that religion has over people. When a spiritual leader gives a sermon and tells the congregants how to lead their lives, he is interpreting law. Depending on the place of worship, the law can be a consensual relationship with one’s creator or it can involve punishment in fire and brimstone. This continuum of enforcement of theological doctrine is a common feature of faith as law worldwide.
The Supreme Court of Canada, in the 1985 ruling in R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., struck down the provisions of provincial Lords Day Acts requiring retail businesses to close on Sundays. Freedom of “conscience and religion,” under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is an individual right (“everyone“). The court’s recognition that sectarian injunctions (eg. stores closing on Sundays) can negatively affect individuals in manifold ways means the law of the land has a role in protecting all of us, including those vulnerable to radicalization, from the influence of those who turn scripture into fetish.
Anyone believing that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon depictions of the prophet encouraged idolatry is a fool, for failing to understand the law against creating images. A fool, in both the vernacular and the Shakespearean meaning of the word, is the butt of joke, an irony that only everyone else can see. The radicalized zealots who gunned down the staff of the satirical Parisian weekly in cold blood are such fools. The spiritual leaders who counselled the Paris gunmen, in prison or elsewhere, to commit the atrocities in the belief that the cartoons offended Islamic law are also such fools.
If a lawyer or licensed paralegal were to advise clients to hate their neighbours or to commit atrocities against civil society, based on a delusional interpretation of law, we have laws and regulations to stop them from practising law in that way. If it were a medicine man pretending to cure cancer with potions and chants, we would have little hesitation to take measures to stop him.
As we mourn and channel our anger over the murder of these brave journalists and artists, let us help the public see a religious injunction as a form of law. Who gets to interpret the law? What are their qualifications? The best way to combat and avenge the perpetrators is to liberate religion and the faithful from control by unregulated, often ignorant practitioners.