Ahmed Marabet, a Muslim police officer killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo, was caught in the crossfire of two different failures in communication. On the one end was Charlie Hebdo, which had abused free speech for blasphemy and racist mockery. On the other end were the gunmen who, instead of responding with more free speech, chose violence and murder.
As many Muslims know, Ahmed is a form of the name Muhammad, the prophet who those gunmen falsely claimed to honor and defend. When those who heard of his death began to cry “Je suis Ahmed,” the name of the Prophet was poignantly elevated from the muck into which the killers had dragged it.
I tasked myself, torturously, to look at some of these offensive images of Prophet Muhammad. I did not recognize him. Charlie Hebdo failed to capture the man beloved to a billion of the world’s populationbeloved to me.
Many think religious believers simply shouldn’t care when confronted with blasphemy. But a lackadaisical indifference to life is no more civilized than excessive or misplaced sensitivity. In the wake of this tragedy it has become clear that free speech is sacred to manybeyond reproach. For Muslims, the personhood of the Prophet Muhammad and all prophets of God are sacred, so how might we negotiate the sanctity of free speech and that of our religious figures?
There is a story from the Prophet’s life in which the tribe called the Quraysh sought to defame him by calling him “Mudhammam” which means roughly “shameful” or “reprobate.” This has roughly the opposite meaning of his real name, which means “laudable.”
The Prophet’s companions’ were perturbed at hearing this, but the Prophet modeled calm: “Is it not wondrous how God turns away from me the injuries of Quraysh? They revile Mudhammam, whereas I am Muhammad.” He refused to accept the terms of his scoffers.
Muslims responding to mockery today should do the same. We must not give scoffers the pleasure of defining ourselves in reaction to their taunts. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of Muslims, though offended by such images, already ignore them. They refuse to recognize caricatures invented in the mind of people who do not know and could not recognize those they mock. In doing so, they follow the directive of their prophet.
Faatimah Knight is pursuing an MA in Religious Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary and holds a BA in Islamic Law and Theology from Zaytuna College.