A Clash of Cultures at Charlie Hebdo

by Joseph S. Spoerl (March 2015)

In a recent article, Cinnamon Stillwell documents the absurd lengths to which many American college professors have gone to shift blame for the Charlie Hebdo massacre from the Islamist murderers to non-Muslim Westerners.[1] A typical quote comes from Duke University professor of Islamic Studies Omid Safi: “The traumas of the French Muslim population today are linked to and an extension of the violence inflicted by the French on Muslims colonized for decades.” Safi conveniently overlooks the fact that non-Muslims have suffered, and continue to suffer, far more under Islamic imperialism than Muslims ever suffered under Western imperialism.[2] Like Omid Safi, too many American college professors blame Westerners themselves for the violence directed at them by Islamist thugs. They certainly do not blame the Islamic faith or its founder, Muhammad.

What professors like Omid Safi will never tell their students, however, is that violent intolerance for “blasphemy” is deeply rooted in the foundational texts of the Islamic faith and, thus, in Islamic societies across the world.

Western and Islamic societies have radically contradictory beliefs regarding freedom of expression and freedom of religion. In the United States, we take it for granted that our Constitution protects wide-ranging and even offensive speech and gives us complete freedom to argue for or against any religious belief system. Google the phrase “Jesus was a jerk” and you will find a rather irreverent critique of Christianity by an American atheist.[3] Atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens have published blistering attacks on Christianity and every other religion. No one in the United States dreams of prosecuting such authors for blasphemy. Moreover, we Americans are completely free to abandon religion altogether or to convert to a new faith.

In the Muslim world, the situation is very different. In most Muslim countries, Islam is the official state religion, and the law, shaped to varying degrees by Islamic law or sharia, privileges some version of Islam over all other faiths.

For example, in Morocco, the vast majority of citizens are Sunni Muslims and the constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and the king as “Commander of the Faithful and Supreme Representative of the Muslim Community.” As such, the king is charged with ensuring “respect for Islam.” Moroccan law forbids the importation or publication of writings that insult or infringe upon the Islamic religion. Moroccan law also imposes punishment on anyone who attempts to “shake the faith of a Muslim or to convert him to another religion.” Although voluntary conversion from Islam is in principle legally possible, authorities routinely harass “apostates” who leave the Islamic faith.[4]

In Jordan, where 95% of the people are Sunni Muslims, Muslims who attempt to convert to other religions commonly suffer violence at the hands of their own families, and, in sharia courts, they are stripped of their rights: they lose inheritance rights and custody of their children and have their marriages annulled. Jordanian law forbids publication of anything that contradicts “the values of the Arab and Islamic nation.” Jordanian journalists have been arrested and faced death threats for publishing cartoons of Muhammad, as have poets who combined words from the Koran with romantic themes.[5]

In Algeria, 99% Sunni Muslim, Islam is the state religion and the penal code imposes up to five years in prison for offending Islam. Non-Muslim houses of worship cannot operate legally without special permits, which are routinely denied. Algerian law stipulates that anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction tending to convert a Muslim to another religion” can be imprisoned for up to five years and fined up to one million dinars (about $16,000 dollars, a huge sum in Algeria). Christians have been imprisoned in Algeria for possessing Christian literature, preaching Christian doctrine, or giving Bibles to undercover police officers.[6]

Pakistan has a large Sunni Muslim majority and very strict laws against “blasphemy.” Pakistani law imposes the death penalty on anyone who expresses contempt for Muhammad and life imprisonment on anyone who desecrates the Koran. Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, and Shiite Muslims face harsh discrimination in Pakistan. Christians accused of insulting Muhammad or desecrating the Koran are frequently the victims of mob violence even before they can be arrested by the authorities. Ahmadis, who follow a prophetic figure who lived in the nineteenth century, run afoul of the Muslim doctrine that says there shall be no prophet after Muhammad, who died in the seventh century. Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, yet Pakistani law makes it illegal for them to call themselves Muslims or to do anything else that “outrages the religious feelings of Muslims.” Ahmadi literature is routinely confiscated, those who attack them are rarely prosecuted, they are denied burial in Muslim cemeteries, and police complicity in attacks on them is routinely ignored by the authorities.[7]

I have deliberately focused on Muslim countries that are often described as “pro-Western” or “moderate.” The situation is no better in Egypt, Bangladesh, Indonesia, or Malaysia,[8] and far worse in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan.[9] I have been quoting from Paul Marshall and Nina Shea’s book, Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide (Oxford University Press, 2011; the same information can be gleaned from the U.S. State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Reports). The focus of Marshall and Shea’s book is overwhelmingly on Muslim countries. Islamic law forbids apostasy for one simple reason: Muhammad commanded his followers to kill anyone who leaves the Muslim faith.[10] Islamic law penalizes “blasphemy” for the same reason: Muhammad routinely ordered the assassination of anyone who insulted him or his religion, especially poets.[11] One of the most respected Western scholars of early Islam, W. Montgomery Watt, notes: “Throughout his career Muhammad was specially sensitive to intellectual or literary attacks of this kind. They were for him an unforgivable sin.”[12] A recent editorial in a Pakistani newspaper[13] praised the Charlie Hebdo killers on the grounds that they merely imitated what Muhammad did when he ordered the assassination of a 120-year-old poet named Abu Afak. Abu Afak’s only offense was that he had composed a poem that criticized Muhammad for sowing division in Medina: “a rider who came to them split them in two (saying) ‘Permitted!’, ‘Forbidden!’ of all sorts of things.”[14] For this rather mild criticism, Muhammad condemned Abu Afak to death. There are many other examples like this in the earliest biographies of Muhammad.[15]

This Pakistani editorial illustrates that the precedents set by Muhammad still shape Islamic law, Islamic customs, and Islamic societies to the present day. Islamic doctrine holds that Muhammad was “the perfect person” who possessed God-given immunity from sin and error.[16] Dozens of verses in the Koran command Muslims to obey and imitate Muhammad.[17] Muhammad’s words and deeds are second only to the Koran as foundation stones for Islamic law and custom.[18] Laws against “apostasy” and “blasphemy” – the source of much oppression in the Muslim world – are thus deeply rooted in the Islamic faith.

When Muslims immigrate to countries like France from countries like Morocco or Algeria, they encounter behavior that they consider deeply offensive and that would never be tolerated in their homelands, including any criticism of Islam or Muhammad. This fact is essential for understanding the motives of the Charlie Hebdo killers. Instead of putting all the blame on Westerners – blaming Western insensitivity or the legacy of Western imperialism – we should admit frankly that the Charlie Hebdo massacre was motivated by an Islamic supremacist mentality that seeks to privilege Islam above all other religions. We should admit further that this supremacist mentality is sanctified by the example and teaching of Muhammad himself, and by centuries of Islamic legal thinking.[19] Moreover, since Muslim countries have launched a global diplomatic campaign to impose anti-blasphemy laws on the entire world,[20] we Westerners should affirm, emphatically and without apology, the moral superiority of our own culture in the vital areas of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and religious freedom.


[1] Cinnamon Stillwell, “Profs on Paris Attacks: Je Suis NOT Charlie!” FrontPage Magazine, January 26, 2015, http://www.frontpagemag.com/2015/cinnamon-stillwell/profs-on-paris-attacks-je-suis-not-charlie/.

[2] Bat Ye’or, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam, trans. David Maisel et al. (Rutherford NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985), Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Nashville TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), pp. 123-256; Robert Spencer, The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims (Amherst NY: Prometheus Books, 2005); Andrew Bostom, The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims (Amherst NY: Prometheus Books, 2005).

[4] Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 124-130.

[5] Ibid., pp. 122-123.

[6] Ibid., pp. 118-122.

[7] Ibid., pp. 83-100. On the recent case of a Christian couple accused of desecrating a Koran and then burned to death by a mob of Pakistani Muslims, see Mark Woods, “Christian couple in Pakistan beaten to death by Muslim mob, burned in brick kiln,” Christianity Today, November 4, 2014, http://www.christiantoday.com/article/christian.couple.in.pakistan.beaten.to.death.burned.in.brick.kiln/42581.htm

[8] On Egypt, see Marshall and Shea, Silenced, pp. 61-82; on Bangladesh, pp. 151-158; on Indonesia, pp. 158-164; on Malaysia, pp. 164-170.

[9] On Iran, see ibid., pp. 35-60; on Saudi Arabia, pp. 21-34; on Sudan, pp. 140-148; on Somalia, pp. 138-140; on Yemen, pp. 130-131; on Afghanistan, pp. 101-116.

[10] Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih Bukhari, trans. M. Muhsin Khan, Volume 4, Book 52, Numbers 260-261, http://www.usc.edu/org/cmje/religious-texts/hadith/bukhari/052-sbt.php.

[11] Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955), pp. 364-368, 550-551, 597-598, 675-676; Rizwi Faizer, The Life of Muhammad: Al-Waqidi’s Kitab al-Maghazi, trans. Rizwi Faizer, Amal Ismail, and AbdulKader Tayob (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), pp. 85-87, 91-96, 406, 421, 422.

[12] W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 123. See also Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad, trans. Anne Carter (New York: The New Press, 1980), p. 170.

[13] “Pakistan’s Urdu Media Articles on Charlie Hebdo Attack: ‘There Was a Jew, Abu Afak – Very Dirty and Foul-Mouthed, [Meaning That He Was the] Charlie Hebdo of His Time,’” Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch No. 5950, February 3, 2015, http://www.memri.org/report/en/print8410.htm.

[14] Guillaume, Life of Muhammad, p. 675.

[15] See note 11, above.

[16] W. Madelung, “Isma,” The Encyclopedia of Islam, Volume 4 (Leiden: Brill, 1954), pp. 182-184. Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes, “For Muslims, the Prophet is a mortal man, but also God’s most perfect creature,” The Heart of Islam (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), pp. 28, 36.  Akbar Ahmed writes: “for Muslims [Muhammad] is simply insan-i-kamil, the perfect person,” Islam Today: A Short Introduction to the Muslim World (London and New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1999), pp 13, 25.

[17] E.g. Koran 3:32, 3:132, 4:13, 4:59, 4:69, 5:92, 8:1, 8:20, 8:46, 9:71, 24:47, 24:51, 24:52,  24:54, 24:56, 33:33, 33:36, 47:33, 49:14, 58:13, 64:12, 68:4.

[18] Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill, Islam: The Religion and the People (Upper Saddle River NJ: Wharton School Publishing, 2009), p. 26.

[19] On the centrality of Islamic supremacism to classical Islamic law, see Yohanan Friedmann, Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[20] Marshall and Shea, Silenced, pp. 4-5. This initiative is one of the top diplomatic priorities of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), comprising the 57 Muslim-majority nations of the world. Americans should pause and reflect on this fact: It is a top diplomatic priority of the entire Muslim world in effect to induce the United States to repeal the First Amendment to our Constitution.



Joseph S. Spoerl is professor of philosophy at Saint Anselm College.


To comment on this article, please click here.

To help New English Review continue to publish interesting and definitive articles such as this, please click here.

If you have enjoyed this article by Joseph S. Spoerl and want to read more of his work, please click here.


Join leaders of the American Middle Eastern community to endorse

Donald J. Trump
for President of the United States

and spend an evening with his foreign policy advisors featuring
Dr. Walid Phares
and other surprise campaign guests.

Monday October 17th

Omni Shoreham Hotel
2500 Calvert Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20008

cocktails at 6pm - dinner at 7pm
Business casual attire

$150 per person / $1500 per table

Sponsored by the American Mideast Coalition for Trump

Buy Tickets