French Satirical Cartoons Spark Ire in the Arab Spring’s Birthplace

Charlie Hebdo's offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad led to protests and fears of violence across the Muslim world, including the place where the Arab Spring's upheavals first began

  • Share
  • Read Later
Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters

Riot police stand guard outside the French embassy in Tunis, Sept. 19, 2012.

After a week of anti-American violence in several cities over the “Innocence of Muslims” video, the rage pivoted on Wednesday to another Western country—France—after the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo published cartoons lampooning a naked, clownish Prophet Muhammad, which seemed tailored to provoke outrage. Already on edge after the days of Islamic protests, including in Paris, the French government rapidly ordered shut its embassies and schools in about 20 Muslim majority countries.

In this North African capital, where the anti-American violence last Friday had already shut the U.S. embassy and the American school, French officials sent text messages at dawn to the parents of French schoolchildren, telling them to keep the young pupils away until Monday. On the very avenue where demonstrations drove out Tunisia’s dictator in Jan. 2011, inspiring the Arab Spring, the French Embassy remained shut, as officials feared they could be the next target; in the protests last Friday, militant Islamists stormed the U.S. embassy grounds a few miles from downtown Tunis, then ransacked and torched parts of the American school. By late Wednesday, riot-police vans and plain-clothed security forces surrounded the French Embassy, and a French official peering through the tall, blue gates of the mansion said all visitors were being turned away.

(PHOTOS: Protests Rage in Middle East, Sparked by Anti-Islamic Film)

Yet despite the past week’s events, in which several people were killed—including the US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens—for the editors of Charlie Hebdo, the cartoons of the Muslim Prophet were all in a day’s work. Brushing off concerns that they could ignite fresh violence, editor in chief Gerard Biard told BBC World on Wednesday that such drawings were a core feature of his publication. “It is our job,” he said. “We are a satirical, political magazine. We publish in France, which is a laïc [secular] nation. We are against all religions.”

Indeed, the magazine hardly spares Jews, either. The cover of the 16-page weekly shows a man in traditional black Hasidic garb, pushing the Prophet in a wheelchair under the headline, “Intouchables 2.” That is a reference to a hit French movie of earlier this year, which centered on the culture clash between a white paraplegic Frenchman and his black, Muslim caregiver. The magazine’s back page shows a naked Prophet Muhammad being filmed close up, asking: “You like my buttocks?” Eight smaller cartoons alongside it all depict the Prophet in various states of ridicule. Rare for France, they include too a close-to-the-bone reference to the Holocaust—typically off-limits for French satirists—showing a crouching, naked Muhammad, with the yellow star Jews were forced to wear under Nazi rule affixed to his crotch, under the caption: “A star is born.”

(MORE: Political Battles in Tunisia Shade Attacks on U.S. Embassy)

In Tunis, the response from Muslim activists was swift, as conservative Islamic sites lit up with enraged comments. On the Facebook page of a Salafist mosque outside Tunis, one person wrote that the ruling Islamist Ennahda Party should “do the same [to France] as you did with the U.S.: Kick out the Ambassador, tell them that we don’t need your investments.” After Friday’s attack, the State Depatment withdrew almost all its diplomats from Tunisia—a country that until now had been widely seen by the West as the one clear success story of the Arab Spring revolutions. Although many Tunisians have expressed outrage about the video, there are many too who fear that their country—the ranking democratic moderate in North Africa—might be seen by Americans, and now the French, as anti-Western. “”We are very open here,” said Nabil Mhamdi, 36, a theater technician sipping a glass of red wine (legal in Tunisia) in a downtown hotel lobby on Wednesday. “I don’t like the fact that people are reducing Tunisia to an extreme, closed minority.”

Some 20 months after the Jasmine Revolution here inspired the Arab Spring, the stakes are especially high for France, the country’s former colonial master until the 1950s. France has Europe’s biggest Muslim population, millions of them from Tunisia. For decades, it maintained close ties to Tunisia’s dictator, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, and French companies still have billions in investments here. When Tunisia’s revolution exploded in late 2010, the former French Minister of Defense Michelle Aillot-Marie offered to send French troops to help protect Ben Ali. And although she was fired in an ensuing scandal, many Tunisians say they still do not entirely trust France’s intentions.

(MORE: Did the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi Not Have Enough Security?)

Now French officials fear being the next target in the current wave of protests. In Paris last Saturday, hundreds of Muslims converged on the U.S. Embassy to protest the video, and Muslim groups said on Tuesday—before the Charlie Hebdo cartoons appeared—that they planned further protests in Paris this Saturday; Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Wednesday that the government would not issue permits for that demonstration.

Still, it could be difficult to halt demonstrations in this region. “Now we have a period of tolerance and openness,” says Mhamdi. “Before, under Ben Ali, these Salafists were all locked up and jail. Now, they can speak—and they are.”

MORE: Extradition of Gaddafi Deputy Plunges Tunisia into Political Crisis