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When Blasphemy Goes Viral

The 'Charlie Hebdo' massacre marks the dawn of a digital age of irreverence and retaliation

ARIF ALI/Getty Images

It’s safe to say that, until last week, only a very small percentage of the world’s population had heard of Charlie Hebdo. But the January 7 massacre at the satirical French newspaper's offices, for which Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch claimed responsibility this week, turned Charlie Hebdo into a household name. 

The slaughter also raised an unsettling question: How does a terrorist organization in the Arabian Peninsula come to set its sights on a niche publication in Paris? 

To many, the murders encapsulate perennial differences between Asia and Europe, between antiquated dogmatism on the one hand and unshackled rights of speech on the other. In the words of a New York Times report, the murders “crystallized the culture clash between religious extremism and the West’s devotion to free expression.”   

But last week’s horror did more than elucidate differences. It also demonstrated some very old and profound similarities between the world’s cultures, while pointing to some new and perilous ways in which they are converging.

The impulse to commit sacrilege—and punish it—has marked nearly every society and every epoch in human affairs. People have always gone to great lengths to protect their sanctities. Examining the historical record, we find an aversion to blasphemy not only among the usual suspects, such as the resolute monotheists of ancient Palestine and medieval Europe, but in unlikely places and times: The ancient Athenians, those archetypal democrats who allowed citizens to criticize their cherished civic institutions, still forbade them from ridiculing the gods or the worship of them. 

And so it has been ever since. In each century up to the last, western governments and churches outlawed sacrilege against their deities and their faiths. Even in the United States, which has acquired a well-deserved reputation for protecting free expression, state and local authorities were once authorized to punish anti-Christian sentiments. A 1782 Massachusetts law prescribed severe punishments, including whipping, for anyone convicted of “denying, cursing, or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing, or reproaching Jesus Christ…” The Bible and the Holy Ghost were off-limits too. Periodic blasphemy indictments continued into the 20th century.   

By the latter part of that century, enforcement of blasphemy laws had tapered in Europe and North America to the point that most were simply ignored or forgotten. Elsewhere, however, blasphemy laws proved more resilient, and made a vigorous comeback beginning in the 1980s. Today in predominantly Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Iran, and Sudan, those accused of disparaging Muhammad are regularly punished for defamation. Sometimes they are murdered before any trial occurs. As terrible as these fundamentalist-inspired laws have proved to religious minorities and brave contrarians in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, their main impact has been domestic.

That may be changing. One of the more disquieting aspects of the Charlie Hebdo massacre is that it represented an attempt to regulate sacrilege across national borders, an aggressive effort by non-state actors to carry out an abiding impulse—ferreting out and eradicating the blasphemous—across cultural and political boundaries. 

The world received its first intimation that we might be on this grim trajectory in 1989. That year, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa to avenge the publication of The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s whimsical and derisive reinvention of Qur’anic themes. Stoked by the Ayatollah’s televised entreaties, obliging Islamic extremists proceeded to murder publishers and translators across the globe. 

Behind the scenes, among the world’s diplomats, a parallel effort is underway to police international sacrilege in less extreme fashion. Between 1999 and 2011, for example, the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) pressed the U.N. for a resolution defining “the defamation of religions” as a human rights violation (for now, they’ve settled on criminalizing the expression of hatred against religious persons). The OIC made progress on the world stage in part because European states, and to a lesser extent the U.S., have conceded that there should be some limits on what we say about other people’s faiths, in practice if not in law. Many western governments, including France itself, have recently enacted their own measures against religious and racial hatred.

These agreements would not be possible if Europe and the Muslim world did not share some underlying intuitions about communal responsibility to protect religion and its believers from insults. Nor, significantly, would such strictures seem as urgent in the absence of widespread awareness of the insults. Thus, if the Charlie Hebdo attack reflects divisions between the pious and the secular, it also makes clear that we are living in an era of heightened cross-cultural sensitivity when vigilance on behalf of the sacred can have deadly consequences, even in distant realms.

This week's print run of five million copies notwithstanding, Charlie Hebdo is a niche publication with a regular circulation of roughly sixty thousand. That makes it a lot like the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, which carried the infamous and widely reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005. Until that point, the paper was known well to Danes on the Jutland peninsula, and that was about it

Charlie Hebdo’s relative obscurity aligns it with another discovered outrage from the fringes of western culture—the amateur anti-Islamic film The Innocence of Muslims, which fueled weeks of militant outrage throughout the Muslim world in 2012. It’s not clear how many protesters watched the 14-minute YouTube trailer. What we do know is that a "feature-length cut of the movie, retitled The Innocence of Bin Laden, was shown exactly once, to an audience of fewer than 10 people." The very notion that a video depicting a depraved and murderous Mohammed had been produced and disseminated supplied protesters the pretense they needed to besiege American embassies and consulates throughout the Muslim world, including in Benghazi, Libya.

It is impossible to make sense of the Charlie Hebdo attack without considering France’s sizeable immigrant population, much of which has been drawn from North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Many of these migrants are not Muslims, and only a small fraction of those who are have embraced extremism. Nonetheless, the growing Muslim presence in France has created a critical mass of people inclined to take offense when Islam is mocked or otherwise insulted (on newsstands, for example), and close enough to exact vengeance when they do (as in the case of the Charlie Hebdo murderers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, whose parents were born in Algeria). 

Then again, experiencing insult in person is old-fashioned. The internet now connects people and cultures through crackling virtual networks of outrage. There is no bottom to the world’s reserves of offensive material; one need not search long for sources of provocation, or for places to express that outrage. Fugitive thoughts (say, on Twitter) and irreverent productions (in a niche satirical publication) are now more reproducible, more communicable, and thereby more aggravatingly conspicuous to anyone with an internet connection.

Together, large-scale human migration and digital culture enable the mutual surveillance of political and cultural niches that had once existed in isolation—very little in life remains offline. The sacrilegious now have a worldwide audience for their productions; while the self-appointed protectors of the sacred now know who the offenders are, and, on occasion, where they live and work. The two—the outraged and the outrageous—are thus bound together in a geopolitical version of what Jacques Berlinerblau calls a “profanity loop,” a circle of blasphemy and vengeance wherein one side metes out irreverence and the other death.   

Globalization, in its demographic and digital forms, has also given new significance to offensive imagery. It is no coincidence that the attack on Charlie Hebdo, like the protests that greeted the Jyllands-Postens drawings, were sparked by cartoons. While words are hardly exempt from accusations of sacrilege, the image is the 21st century’s most potent catalyst of outrage. Graphic, easily reproduced images require little in the way of linguistic or cultural translation; their potency derives from the ease with which they transcend difference. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons were intended to offend in the most straightforward and unambiguous way, avoiding theological subtleties and capitalizing instead on Islamic prohibitions against Muhammad’s representation. They succeeded. 

Today we confront the paradox that irreverent expression is both less inhibited and more endangered than ever before. Thanks to the fluidity of national borders and the internet’s reach, people and organizations now possess previously unimagined powers of dissemination. Never in human history has speech been so abundant and unruly, nor have artists ever enjoyed so much freedom to exhibit what churches and states would have once prohibited. And yet, never has there been such a systematic international effort to discover and avenge offensive text and images.

We may indeed be witnessing an historic contest between religious absolutism and free speech, but we should not lose sight of the fact that it is our shared regard for sacred things coupled with the increasingly multicultural intimacy of our social and digital lives that has gotten us here. In other words, if we want to better understand what happened last week, we need attend to the things—both enduring and modern—that connect the world’s cultures, as well as those that divide them.