The new Charlie Hebdo cover — a cover arisen from ashes — surprised me: despite its crudeness, despite its attempt to exploit racial and religious division, in its starkness, it embodied rejection of all the rhetoric and violence that had come before.
It was a rejection, I believe, of not just the trauma that had come before, of the fear, the terror and deaths and the provocations. It affirmed to me that somewhere within us, somewhere within our innate moral compass and connection to our fitra, we share a common humanity that ultimately will reject the parochialism, prejudice and ignorance that daily envelops us.
The cover was a manifestation that the spirit of the revealed Word trumps both the power of the pen and the bullet. The illustration of a tearful Prophet Muhammad holding a sign Je suis Charlie, in front of a green background where was scrawled Tout est Pardonné, French for “All is forgiven,” brought a small smile to my face.
Faith trumps all!
Yes, it was confrontational. Yes, it was a visual portrayal of the Prophet, an act considered by many Muslims to be a blasphemous. Yes, it brought pain to many Muslim hearts.
I’m not new to witnessing images of the Prophet. In the 1970s, when I was printing my first book at Draeger Freres in Montrouge (outside Paris), another book was being prepared for publication: The Miraculous Journey of Mahomet. Draeger was reproducing a 15th century manuscript owned by the French Bibliotheque Nationale that described in text and illustration the Night Journey of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem to Heaven as described in Qur’an 17:1. In every illustration the Prophet was shown fully- featured.
There was no security at Draeger, no concern for radical hotheads, murderers and terrorists. It was 1976, three years before two confessional storms roiled the Middle East — the overthrow of the corrupt Shah of Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini (whose last four months in exile had been spent in France) and the attempted takeover of the Holy Ka’aba in Mecca by some seemingly unhinged unreconstructed Wahhabists who felt that the ruling Al Saud family were not fundamentalist enough in their guardianship of Islam.
Those upheavals, combined with events like the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, war between Iraq and Iran, Zia Al Haq’s dictatorship in Pakistan (1978-1988), and the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis traumatized the primarily Third-World Muslim World and created unstable and dangerous environments that were exploited by political opportunists and leaders — the results of which we witness today.
I know, too, that museums from Washington DC to Istanbul to Tokyo have manuscripts and artifacts that depict the Prophet Muhammad. I know that in the bazaars of some Muslim cities posters with depictions of the Prophet can be purchased. Outside a Pakistani Sufi shrine I visited two years ago posters were available with depictions of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad on them. I know that the United States Supreme Court has a sculptural frieze of lawgivers that include Moses, Confucius, Hammurabi and, the man standing next to Charlemagne, Prophet Muhammad.
Let me retell the story of a woman in Medina who would daily throw trash on Prophet Muhammad as he walked past her house. The Prophet never responded or retaliated. One day, when there wasn’t an attack, he went to her home to inquire and see if she was well.
I witness Charlie Hebdo’s cover as the Prophet arriving at our door to see if we’re well. The Prophet’s tear is for all who have misunderstood Islam — Muslims and non-Muslims both, cartoonists and clerics, agitators and atheists — so many of whom cling without question to narrow understandings of humanity and life — and of those who have acted in violence, literally and figuratively, based on ignorance.
“All is forgiven,” the Prophet says, a statement of love, an affirmation of the indomitable spirit of humankind and the last laugh on doubters and cynics; on the terrorists who carry guns and on those who terrorize the disenfranchised, regardless of the religion they embrace or the Scripture that inspires them.
This weekend America celebrates the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, a prophet martyred on America’s altar of conflict between elites and have-nots, between the privileged and the disenfranchised. He delivered my favorite MLK speech, which resonates still, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, on April 4, 1967 in New York. In a cry of the heart reaching to connect our common humanity, he said:
“These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We in the West must support these revolutions.”
“It is a sad fact,” MLK continued,“that because of comfort, complacency … and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries.”
“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores…'”
MLK offers a path forward, beyond Vietnam, beyond Ferguson, beyond the ghettos and banlieues défavorisées — a path leading out of the dark valleys into the light where cries for justice can echo still through the valleys and hills entrusted to humankind.
In this world the Creator of Life, who has created diverse peoples so they may know each other and endowed us with gifts to be generously shared, asks us to read, Iqra, to heed the Word. The Word is a gift we share and we can use that gift to support justice and freedom until perhaps, as Matthew says, the last will be first, and the first will be last.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.