The terror attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine last month gave rise to much debate and reflection that offered a multiplicity of perspectives. Here academic Mahmood Mamdani shares some interesting insights, in an interview with The Hindu.


Back with a Prophet Mohammed cartoon on its cover, Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, has resolved to take on Islamic fundamentalists, after a terror attack on its office premises in Paris last Wednesday claimed the lives of 10 staff members including that of its editor, Stephane Charbonnier. In an email interview to Vidya Venkat, Professor Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, author of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, explained the difference between critiquing a religion and ridiculing it, and why it is one thing to oppose censorship and quite another thing to reprint Charlie Hebdo cartoons in solidarity. Edited excerpts: In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, there is widespread condemnation of Islam itself.

George Packer, in his New Yorker article, for example, had held Islam and its tenets and those believing in them responsible for the attacks. Are we misdiagnosing the problem here?
In my view, George Packer’s is a knee-jerk response. It fails to recognise what is new about the Charlie Hebdo killings. The information we have so far suggests that it was a paramilitary operation. Though carried out by a local unit, decentralised in both planning and execution, the attack was strategised and sanctioned from headquarters.

The killings need to be seen as a strategic and organised military attack. As such, it is different from the kind of grassroots demonstrations we have seen in the past, such as in responses to the Danish Cartoons.

Proponents of the Charlie Hebdo brand of humour and satire see the need to share and endorse the culture of “free speech”. Your view?
I support the right of free speech as part of a right of dissent. But that does not mean that I support every particular exercise of free speech or dissent. It is well known that the history of free speech is contradictory. We recognise it by distinguishing ‘hate speech’ from other forms of free speech. Some states ban ‘hate speech’ legally, other states refrain from a legal ban and leave it to society to discourage it politically and morally.

When asked to comment on the Danish Cartoons on Prophet Mohamed, the German novelist Günter Grass said they reminded him of anti- Semitic cartoons in a German magazine, Der Stürmer. The New York Times piece that carried the interview with Gunter Grass added that the publisher of Der Stürmer was tried at Nuremberg and executed. Among those tried in Arusha following the Rwanda genocide was a radio journalist. Following mass violence in the Rift Valley in Kenya, the ICC issued a list of those charged with crimes against humanity; one of these was a radio journalist. In all three cases, the journalists were accused of spreading hate speech.

My own preference is for the political and the intellectual over the legal. I am against all forms of censorship. While I think you have a right to say what you think, I will not support anything you say or write. I also reserve the right to disagree with you, vehemently if necessary. It is one thing to support the right of Charlie Hebdo journalists to print the cartoons they did, and quite another to reprint them as an expression of support.

Blasphemous cartoons with a sexual theme, as some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were, are not new in Europe. But in places such as Britain such cartoons, for example, that of Siné published by Penguin books, have been removed having internalised legal restraint as civility. Is that kind of compromise of power even possible now with voices in the West strongly condemning the terror attacks and using it to channelise their collective anger against Islamic fundamentalism?
Western societies have worked out internal compromises over time in an endeavour to build durable political societies. The scope and nature of these compromises are politically defined. Their thrust is to call a ceasefire in struggles of great historical significance in the name of civility. In many Western countries, there are laws against blasphemy. But they are restricted to official Christian denominations. For example, Britain has laws criminalising blasphemy, as do several other European countries, but they do not apply to Islam.

Before the Second World War, Jews were the customary target of satirists of a particular type. Voltaire, popularly considered the founding father and grand defender of the freedom to satire, was an ardent anti-Semite, and a number of his satires targeted Jews and Judaism. After the Holocaust, Jews were brought into the Western political fold. It became conventional to speak of a Judeo-Christian heritage in the West, when it had been customary to speak of a longstanding conflict between Judaism and Christianity before. So, today the law in many European countries, including France, criminalises Holocaust denial. But no law criminalises the denial of colonial genocide, including widespread colonial massacres in Algeria, the country of origin of the largest number of French Muslims.

The political and social compact in Europe has been evolving historically. The state stepped in to moderate the conflict between ardent Christians and secular Christians.

Jews were included in this compact after the Holocaust. Muslims have never been part of this compact. The Muslim minority in Europe is the largest in France, around 10 per cent. In the Mediterranean city of Marseille, it is roughly 30 per cent. It represents the weakest and the most disenfranchised section of French society. There are more Muslims in the French police and security services than there are in al-Qaeda or other terrorist cells. But you would not know it. At the same time, the representation of Muslims in the French elite, whether political, economic or cultural, is nominal, the exception being the French football team, once led by the legendary Zinnedine Zidane.

Of course, it is possible to include Muslims in the social and political compact in France. But that will take a major political, intellectual and cultural struggle. Centres of power – and people – in France will have to accept that it is possible to be French and Muslim, that it is OK for a pious Muslim woman to wear a ‘hijab’, as it is for a Catholic nun – so long as this act of piety does not banish either from participation in the public sphere. In other words, we are talking of a political struggle for meaningful citizenship.

You have referred to the case of Siné published by Penguin Books. I wrote about it when discussing the Danish Cartoon controversy. The example goes back to 1967 when Britain’s leading publishing house, Penguin, published an English addition of a book of cartoons by France’s most acclaimed cartoonist, Siné. The Penguin edition of Massacre was introduced by Malcolm Muggeridge, and carried a number of anticlerical and blasphemous cartoons, some of them with a sexual theme. In the wake of complaints by a number of his bookshop friends that the cartoons were likely to offend practicing Christians, Allen Lane took precipitate action: He went to Penguin’s Harmondsworth warehouse with four accomplices, filled a trailer with all the remaining copies of the book, drove away and burnt them. The next day the Penguin trade department reported the book ‘out of print’.

In that same piece, I cited an additional case which is also relevant to this discussion.

This concerns the Amos and Andy show in the U.S. It began as a radio programme in 1928 and graduated to prime time television in 1951 and then a syndicated show in 1953. Every year, the NAACP would protest that the show was a racist caricature of black people, implying that “Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb and dishonest,” that every character in the all-Black show “is either a clown or a crook.” The CBS turned a deaf ear to this, every year, until the Watts riots in 1965. CBS withdrew the show in the aftermath of the Watts riots. Even then, CBS’ official Amos ‘n Andy website said it hoped that Black people will learn to laugh at themselves: “Perhaps we will collectively learn to lighten up, not get so bent out of shape, and learn to laugh at ourselves a little more.”

That people “need to learn to laugh at themselves” is often a point made by publishers of provocative cartoons. You could place those same words in the mouth of the publishers of the Danish Cartoons or Charlie Hebdo, and it would reflect their views accurately, that the problem with Muslims is that they lack a sense of humor, and that the solution is for Muslims to learn to laugh at themselves. But laughing at oneself is not quite the same as being laughed at, especially as a group. Let me return to the question of what you call the ‘blasphemous cartoons.’ I think they should be called ‘bigoted cartoons.’

The problem with the ongoing discussion of Charlie Hebdo is that it tends to confuse bigotry with blasphemy. I am personally more favourable to blasphemy, but have no time for bigots or bigotry. Blasphemy is part of an important historical practice that involves critiquing a tradition from within. That kind of capacity for self-critique, for laughing at oneself, is absolutely necessary for the ongoing reform of traditions and cultures in the face of changing realities, changing mores and changing intellectual constructs. In Islam, the right to critique tradition from within is known as Ijtihad. It has a long and honourable history.

It is generally assumed that with the emergence of modernity, religion as a social institution loses its hold over people’s lives and over society in general. But given the emergence of fundamentalist forces, in renewed forms like IS, do we have to rethink the role of religion in shaping social phenomena?
You will excuse me if I disagree with the premise of your question. Durkheim defined religion as a mode of thought and practice that defines objects and actions as either sacred or profane. In this sense, the secular world can be equally religious: the state takes the place of an official religion, the flag or the national anthem becomes sacred objects, and so on.

Second, the notion that modernity will civilise the world by doing away with barbarism and superstition (‘pre-modernity) has turned out to be a superstition itself. The tendency of modernity has been to harness pre-modern practices and institutions to modern political projects, thereby politicising (and thus ‘modernising’) them. Both religion and tradition (in a secular sense) have become politicised. Just think of how the CIA militarised madressas in Pakistan to wage the Afghan jihad during the Soviet occupation.

We are going through a resurgence of politicised religion and politicised tradition.

Think of the parties in Europe that now organise in defence of ‘Europe’ and against immigrants (really Muslims). Think of born-again Christianity and its remarkable political influence in the U.S. Think of political Zionism, both in Israel and the U.S.

Think of the BJP and the myriad Sangh Sabha organisations in India who want a Hindu state as the surest guarantee for the defence of Hindu tradition. And think of radical Islamist groups that want an ‘Islamic state’ as a guarantee of a return to Islam.

My point is that we are seeing a resurgence of movements around the world that speak the language of nativism, tradition and religion. Not all of them are reactionary.

We should be careful not to judge the contents largely by the packaging. In my view, the debate inside tradition and religion is as important the debate between secular and religious traditions.

Soon after 9/11 happened, you wrote: “Ascribing the violence of one’s adversaries to their culture is self-serving: it goes a long way toward absolving oneself of any responsibility.” Do you see European policies on immigration and assimilation of minorities at home (or the failure to do that very well) as contributing to terrorism?
The French like to think of themselves as the custodians of the tradition of liberty, equality and fraternity. That is true but it is not the whole truth. The French also need to think of the dark side of their tradition: the colonial tradition, both in Indo-China and Africa. The French need to recognise that the Algerians, the North Africans and the West Africans from the former colonies are in France as immigrants, because the French were in their countries in the first place. These immigrants have run away from the consequences of colonialism. If the solution – France – has turned sour, where do these immigrants run to now? To an imaginary Islamic state? If a second or third generation North African is still considered an immigrant in France, should that not provide us a clue as to the nature of the problem? Where lies the problem, the promise of the Islamist state, or the reality of immigrant lives in contemporary France, or both?

Do you see an intensification of the post-9/11 type of Islamophobia emerging in these countries now that the murders have provided further justification?
9/11 was centrally planned, organised and executed. In contrast, Charlie Hebdo was locally planned and executed, even if the strategy and the sanction was central. This is one difference we need to appreciate. The response to the Danish Cartoons was in the main a street-level response of ordinary Muslims who saw themselves as being framed and set up by forces of bigotry.

The Charlie Hebdo killings were done by a military cell, coordinated and guided from a centre. This was a strategic strike, not a spontaneous demonstration. This is a second difference we need to appreciate. The tragedy is that neither the left nor the centre seem to take these differences as the starting point for their response. So long as a knee-jerk response is the order of the day, I am afraid we will concede both intellectual and political leadership to the right. If this trend continues, Islamophobia is likely to grow from an intellectual tendency to a hate movement in France and other sections of Europe.