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Beyond Blame: Troubling the Semiotic Ideology of Muslim Passion

[Image by Chris Rojas via Flickr] [Image by Chris Rojas via Flickr]

In the months following the tragic murders at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery in Paris, reactions to the attacks predictably gravitated toward two polar positions. Pundits and politicians in Western Europe and North America—almost entirely non-Muslim—deplored not only the murders themselves, but also the ostensible incompatibility between Islam and freedom of speech and expression in general. Although this chorus of condemnation reflected recent geopolitical events—notably the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq—its tone and substance were nearly identical to earlier denunciations of Muslim intolerance in the context of the Jyllands-Posten Cartoon Controversy in 2005 and the Rushdie Affair in 1989. Notably, this current of criticism transcended the political divide between right and left, and was eagerly espoused by openly xenophobic groups such as the Pegida movement in Germany. On the other hand, Muslim leaders and intellectuals insisted that the murders in Paris had nothing to do with Islam, and that explanations must be sought in the alienation that plagues young, disenfranchised European Muslims with seeming inescapability. These attempts on the part of Muslim commentators to erect a firewall between their own faith and perverse violence committed in its name were laudable, but they failed to address the more knotted questions at hand. A few more nuanced interpreters interrogated the dubious connection between Islamic theological perspectives on visual depiction and the shootings, but these arguments remained negative, focused on denying the common-sense association among Islam, blasphemy, and violence that grounds too much public debate and discussion. More recently, an attack on an exhibition featuring cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in Dallas, Texas, which resulted in the deaths of both of the assailants, has sparked a nearly identical set of polarized responses. 

Inevitably, it seems, the same exaggerations, condemnations, and bromides will soon accompany another instance of political violence committed in the name of Islam. But what, after all, do Islamic theology and supposed Muslim sensibilities about visual images have to do with attacks such as those in Paris and Dallas? Both critics of Muslim sensitivities and defenders of Islam against Islamophobic censure ignored a basic, crucial feature of the Charlie Hebdo attacks: the violence against the journalists and the cacophonous debate that followed have much more to do with anxieties surrounding mass media representations of Islam than they do with Islamic theology. As art historian Finbarr Barry Flood points out in his analysis of the Taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, it is both historically inaccurate and politically dubious to assert a “monolithic and pathologically Muslim response to the image.”[1] Furthermore, and equally important, the discursive traditions of Islam, rooted in the Qur’an and the ahadith (the authoritative sayings and deeds of the Prophet), offer no precedent for comprehending insult and offense to Muslims in abstraction. This is because abstract insult and offense are uniquely modern political phenomena, unthinkable outside of the deracinated arena of mass media and the imagined communities that achieve consolidation within this arena.

Mass media, including Charlie Hebdo and the cartoons on display in Dallas, represent in two distinct, interrelated manners: semiotic and political. They represent their objects through semiotic forms—visual and verbal genres—and, by doing so, they represent a political ordering of the world. Commentary on the Charlie Hebdo attacks, like earlier responses to the Jyllands-Posten Cartoon Controversy and the Rushdie Affair, focused almost exclusively on matters of semiotic representation. Thus, the constant question of why visual depictions of the Prophet bother Muslims so much—as if this is a simple, uniform, and universal reaction on the part of Muslims. A powerful semiotic ideology is at work here. From the perspective of many non-Muslim Europeans and Americans, images of the Prophet Muhammad are taken to incite violent passions in Muslims, passions that liberal democracy and multiculturalism must tame. This semiotic ideology ignores all questions of context, especially political context—the image itself is thought to be the agent provocateur of Muslim passion. Yet surely the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the Dallas attacks, like the Jyllands Posten Controversy and the Rushdie Affair, are inseparable from political context. It is this context, not “essentialist conceptions of Muslim iconoclasm[2] (to invoke Flood again), that demands accounting. 

Rather than a semiotic effect, the offense that many Muslims experience in relation to caricatures of the Prophet is an effect of the political representation of Muslims that mass media organs such as Charlie Hebdo and groups such as the American Freedom Defense Institute, the sponsor of the “Muhammad Art Exhibit” in Dallas, promote. As J. M. Coetzee observes in his analysis of offense, “the powerlessness of the affected party (is) a cardinal element in the genesis of outrage.”[3] Charlie Hebdo’s satirical belittling of Islam both assumed and reinforced the powerlessness of Muslim residents of European liberal democracies. And while the situation of Muslim American citizens and residents differs substantially from that of European Muslims, the same holds true of the “Muhammad Art Exhibit.” The semiotic representation of the Prophet is also a political representation that aims to demonstrate that Muslims are intolerant, hypersensitive, and preyed by illiberal passions. Publications such as Charlie Hebdo and groups such as the American Freedom Defense Institute incite the very passions that their editors, audiences, and sympathizers condemn. In the language of linguistic anthropology, caricatures of Muhammad are explicitly performative: their meaning is inseparable from the effect of offense that they aspire to provoke. And, indeed, they succeed wildly in this aspiration.

In a reflection on the Danish Cartoon Controversy, Talal Asad insists that Euro-American obsessions over Islam’s preoccupation with blasphemy express “a number of moral, political, and critical problems in liberal European society.”[4] This point bears repeating here. The regnant semiotic ideology of Muslim passion and hypersensitivity preempts any political explanation of events such as the Charlie Hebdo murders and the attack in Dallas. Concomitantly, it casts Muslims in a rigid, subaltern position as the “Other” of Euro-American secularism, liberal democracy and multiculturalism. By doing so, this semiotic ideology also deflects attention away from the tensions and anxieties that haunt mass media, secularism, and liberal democracy in general. To adapt an argument made in a different context by anthropologist William Mazzarella, Muslims have come to constitute an “other whose reliable blameworthiness constantly fortifies the moral orders that (their) very existence seems to frustrate.”[5] Viewed in this light, Charlie Hebdo and its ilk appear as deeply reactionary vessels that cloak and dissemble the very passions they incite by locating them solely in the bodies and minds of Muslims. What, after all, did the Charlie Hebdo and Dallas attacks demonstrate if not the “reliable blameworthiness” of Muslims, and the consequent fortification of dominant moral orders in western Europe and America?

If we hope to move beyond a kneejerk reassertion of dominant moral orders, we must also interrogate the semiotic ideology that relentlessly depoliticizes Muslim sensitivities and passions, and thereby renders them devoid of political context. This resistance to depoliticization is an aspect of a broader project: the refusal to engage in essentialist “culture talk” about Muslim politics. Some will surely claim that this insistence against depoliticization risks blaming the victims, but blame is not the aspiration. Rather, beyond blame, we require an accounting of the dilemmas and pressures that shape all lives in European and North American liberal democracies, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. As of yet, it seems that the only lessons drawn from the recent attacks are that freedom of expression is under threat, and that Islam, yet again, constitutes this threat. Such hackneyed, predictable conclusions merely cater to dubious moral certitude, and foreclose the very questions that we must urgently pursue.


[1] Finbar Barry Flood, “Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 84, No. 4 (Dec. 2002): 641-659, p. 641.

[2] Ibid.

[3] J. M. Coetzee, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 6.

[4] Talal Asad, “Reflections on Blasphemy and Secular Criticism,” pp. 580-609 in Religion: Beyond a Concept, Hent de Vries, ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), p. 80.

[5] William Mazzarella, Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity (Durham, NC & London: Duke University Press, 2013), p. 214.

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