On January 7, 2015 two masked gunmen carrying AK 47s entered the Paris office of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and opened fire killing ten staff and two police officers. It was reported that the gunmen were shouting "We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad" and “Allahu Akbar”.
The newspaper previously published cartoons satirizing Islam and the Prophet Muhammad and its offices were firebombed in November 2011 after it published a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad. The Paris attack occurred a few hours after the magazine tweeted a cartoon of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The massacre was a preplanned sophisticated military assault that involved an escape plan significantly distinguishing it from more typical suicide missions. The perpetrators spoke fluent French.
To fully comprehend the nature of this attack one has to understand the meaning of blasphemy for jihadists. The concept of blasphemy in general refers to speaking evil of sacred matters and exists in every culture. It is a profanation of the sacred, an affront to the deep-seated beliefs of worshipers and the basic values that a community shares. Blasphemy pollutes the purity of the community and requires punishment to set an example to others. Punishment propitiates the offended deity by avenging his honor, thereby averting divine wrath. Violation of the sacred in Islam is experienced as an insult to the honor of the Prophet Muhammad. This is a primary reason there are such disproportionate violent reactions to ostensibly nonthreatening things such as cartoons and films of Muhammad and desecration of the Quran.
The concept of the sacred is manifested in symbols, objects, times, places, people and ideas that a community of believers have assigned special meaning or reverence. The sacred in Islam includes symbols, places and holidays revered by all Muslims and places such as shrines that are specific to particular Islamic sects. Allah and Muhammad are holy personages; the Quran and Hadith are sacred texts; Mosques are sacred places; Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem are holy cities whose mosques have special status; and the month of Ramadan is sacred time.
In Islam desecration of sacred artifacts and irreverent behavior toward holy personages, customs or beliefs is designated as blasphemy. Blasphemy differs from apostasy which is a rejection of Islam; although some jurists argue there is no distinction. Although the Quran and the hadith do not address blasphemy laws it has become a significant part of Islamic Sharia law with penalties ranging from fines, imprisonment and amputation to death. Desecration of the sacred, particularly by unbelievers, is symbolic of unclean contact, a tarnishing of Islamic purity and the source of every Muslim controversy from Muhammad cartoons to Quran burning to Anti-Islam films. When the sacred is polluted by the impurity of unbelievers it is experienced as defilement, dishonor and disrespect.
Depictions of Muhammad in cartoons and film have provoked international demonstrations, protests, riots and violence. On September 30, 2005, a Danish newspaper published a set of editorial cartoons, many of which depicted Muhammad, that led to over 200 deaths, attacks on diplomatic missions, churches, Christians and an international boycott of Denmark. In September 2013 a 14 minute video clip on YouTube titled ‘Innocence of Muslims’ led to attacks on American and other embassies, worldwide violent protests and the deaths of over 75 people. The Quran, one of the few sacred objects permitted in Islam, has been the subject of several desecration controversies that have resulted in worldwide violent protests and deaths. The Quran and Muhammad controversies offend Muslims because desecration of sacred text and holy personages is the ultimate taboo and intrinsically intertwined with the concept of Islamic purity.
Publishing satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad is not only deemed an act of impurity but more significantly it symbolizes evil in the form of contagious pollution. Satirizing the sacred is not just an insult to Islam it is experienced as an existential threat to the entire belief system. Defiling the sacred is a violation of purity that unleashes spiritual pollution that disrupts the sacred order. Impurity signifies the ‘other’ and is experienced both physically and spiritually as a mysterious and harmful substance of the outside world which keeps attacking, contaminating, defiling and desacralizing the sacred world of true believers. True believers have to protect themselves and their communities against this threat of defilement and have to get rid of it once the contamination has taken place. Impurity is symbolically contagious.
Individuals have to cleanse themselves by means of various purification rites, cathartic practices, while communities cleanse themselves by excluding, expelling, or proscribing the things and people whose presence defiles the community. Jihadists expel impurity through violent ritualized attacks. The gunmen in Paris shout “Allahu Akbar” while killing to ritualize and theologically justify the violence.
The cartoonists were killed at Charlie Hebdo newspaper because they transgressed Islamic purity. They violated sharia law and broke taboos that required violence to restore the Prophet Muhammad’s honor. One cannot underestimate the power of impurity, it equates to the impact of evil. The concept of taboo is intrinsically intertwined with the idea of impurity, particularly the notion that breaking a taboo results in corruption, evil or illness. Rites of purity are intertwined in fears of eternal punishment and connect taboo to terror. Defilement of the sacred represents an existential threat because true believers sense that the nature of impurity is highly contagious and symbolic of unbridled evil. For this reason they experience desecration of sacred symbols not just as offense but as dread.
When the sacred is polluted by the impurity of unbelievers it is experienced as defilement, dishonor and disrespect. Jihadists inculcated with a hypersensitivity to disrespect of Islam experience blasphemy as debilitating shame. Islamic purity is the reason that blasphemy is such an effective jihadist strategy. Cartoons, films, books and any depiction of the Prophet Muhamad, particularly satirical or disparaging representations, are acts of blasphemy and are experienced as a personal insult to the honor of Prophet Muhammad and his followers.
Jihadists exploit blasphemy and desecration controversies to recruit sympathizers, incite lone wolves, convert moderate Muslims into radical Islamic extremists and motivate true believers to action. Jihadists understand that defilement of sacred objects incites strong emotions of uncleanness, hatred, humiliation and vengeance that resonate with lone wolves and true believers. This strategy of evocation and incitement succeeds because the sacred code is inculcated in childhood and aroused by the impurity of the act of blasphemy which elicits a natural urge to vengeance to restore the Prophet's honor and the dignity of true believers. Blasphemy is a successful jihadist strategy that evokes the tribal urge to restore honor and save face.
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