THE BLOG
01/08/2015 01:02 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

Why Cartoonists Get Killed

Once again, cartoons of the prophet Mohammed have spawned violence.

In the fall of 2005, the publication of twelve such cartoons in a Danish newspaper provoked not only death threats and Islamist demands for international sanctions against Denmark but also--in February 2006--the torching of the Danish General Consulate in Beirut, attacks on five embassies in Syria and Iran, and eleven deaths in Afghanistan.

Yesterday morning in Paris the body count was twelve.

At the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper that had repeatedly published cartoons of Mohammed, Muslim gunmen allegedly killed four cartoonists along with eight others.
In the Western world, the almost universal response to this massacre is not just to condemn its barbarity but to decry its assault on the freedom of speech, and in particular on the freedom of the press, which presumably includes the right to draw as well as say anything one wishes.

But not even France upholds that right.

Ever since 1990, the Gayssot Act has made it illegal in France to dispute "the existence of one or more crimes against humanity" committed by the Nazis--in other words, to deny the Holocaust. At the very time of the controversy over the Danish cartoons, in fact, French president Jacques Chirac condemned a French weekly's decision to reprint Iranian-sponsored cartoons mocking the Holocaust.

The ironies here abound. On one side, Muslims infuriated by the depiction of Mohammed as a prophet of violence (in one of the Danish cartoons his bomb-shaped turban spouts a burning fuse) express their fury by resorting to violence. On the other hand, "enlightened" Westerners who tell Muslims not to protest in violent ways are themselves incensed by a particular form of protest: anti-Semitic cartoons, which (let us remember) helped grease the skids for the Holocaust. And in 2002, the same Danish newspaper that published the cartoons of Mohammed rejected several cartoons mocking the resurrection of Christ because the editor feared they would "provoke an outcry."

So this latest chapter in the modern history of Islamist iconophobia cannot be written by simply calling the murdered cartoonists "martyrs for liberty," in the phrase that Secretary of State John Kerry borrowed from a French observer.

Before we "enlightened" Westerners voice any more shock at the violence ignited by the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo, we should remember that fear and loathing of images permeate the histories of all three major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The very first of the Ten Commandments that Jehovah gave to Moses on Mount Sinai explicitly condemns every kind of depiction: "you must not carve an image for yourself in the shape of anything that is in the heavens, or that is on the earth below, and or that is in the waters under the earth" (Exodus 20: 4-5). When Moses came down from Mount Sinai to discover that Aaron has led his people to make a golden bull, he smashed the tablets and pulverized the bull.

Like Moses, Muslims loathe idolatry. Though the Koran nowhere explicitly forbids the depiction of Allah or Mohammed, it does say that nothing like Allah can be found anywhere (Koran 42: 11), and it records that Abraham--whom Muslims consider the ancestor of Mohammed--warned his people against worshipping images (21:52-54). For this reason Islamic tradition forbids the depiction of Allah, Mohammed, and all other prophets of Judaism and Christianity. While the Shia sometimes allow depictions of Mohammed, and while Muslim artists have left us a small body of figurative art, Islam is fundamentally iconophobic, driven by the fear that images can become objects of worship--or weapons of ridicule.

In 726, less than a hundred years after the death of Mohammed, this fear struck Christianity with a vengeance. Impressed by the iconoclasm of the Muslim Caliph Omar II, the Roman Emperor Leo III published an edict that re-affirmed the first commandment by proclaiming that images were idols and ordering that all church icons--pictures and statues alike--be destroyed. As soldiers did his bidding, they sparked outrage throughout the empire, where destruction of a famous picture of Christ caused a riot (thus showing that image- smashing can be just as explosive as image-making). Only after sixty years of iconoclasm and persecution of icon-venerating monasteries did pictures and relics return to the churches under the Empress Irene. But 27 years later, the church resumed its iconoclasm, leading to almost thirty more years of persecution and ultimately to the great split between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Roman church.

To dismiss all this as ancient history is to forget the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation, which led to a further breakup of Christianity in the sixteenth century followed by more war and persecution in the seventeenth. And what of our own time? Why did the Bush administration ban pictures of the flag-draped coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why did the photographs of abused detainees at Abu Ghraib provoke such consternation? And can anyone measure their impact on recruiting for Al Qaeda?

It would be equally hard to say just how much graphic ridicule an "enlightened" citizen should be able to stomach without resorting to violence--or to laws against such ridicule. But what happened in Paris surely reminds us of one thing: pictures move us in ways that language cannot, and no matter how sophisticated we think we are, we will never fully control their impact.