Invitation to Reflect on a Beheading
by Ahmad Sadri* 2November 2020
Maïmouna Doucouré won the 2020 Directing Award at the Sundance film festival for her debut feature “Cuties” (2020). Ironically, the movie has been reviled for what it is criticizing: the hypersexualization of children. The lead character Amy is a pre-adolescent Senegalese girl who joins a slightly deviant clique that is eroticizing their outfits and moves to win a contest. This brings them dangerously close to the worlds of pornography and prostitution. The camera is masterful (and in no way, prurient) in showing Amy’s struggle to fabricate a new identity in the midst of poverty, discrimination and the cultural anomie of her upbringing.
Would Islamic radicalization be an option had the protagonist of this movie been a boy? Muslim youths with similar backgrounds have been involved in acts of terrorism in France. Many of them have joined Jihadist insurgencies in the Middle East. Drying up the multigenerational swamps of despair in these alienated suburbs is the long overdue responsibility of the French state — whose history of colonialism, myopic immigration policies and massive neglect has created the hell from which Islamic extremists promise a delusional salvation.
Radicalization of desperate youths is not the only problem of the masses of immigrant Muslims in the Western societies. They should also acclimate themselves to the ethos of their new homeland. Challenging the hallowed collective beliefs is part of the function of artists and intellectuals in a liberal democratic society. Instead of asking them to pull their punches and respect the feelings of their fellow citizens, a modern polity advises the offended and aggrieved is to grow a thicker hide. Muslims should be persuaded to trade their zeal and obsession with honor for tolerance.
Zeal and honor were applauded in tribal societies of antiquity. The Old Testament praises Phinehas for taking a spear and running through an Israelite man and a Midianite woman as they copulated “because he (Phinehas) was zealous for the honor of his God.” That sentiment is no longer needed to preserve Judaism in the modern world.
In the tribal politics of seventh century Arabia poets were weapons of mass destruction as they could target the honor of the enemy. One eloquent satirical poem could destroy an entire tribe by mocking their leaders or their women. That is why an injunction against “cursing the prophet” (Sabb al-Nabi) appeared in early Islamic jurisprudence. This should be an episode in ancient Islamic history, not a chapter of its jurisprudence. A great number of bizarre acts ranging from the fatwa on Salman Rushdie to the beheading of Samuel Pati have been legitimized on this one, outdated Shariah ruling.
As a practicing Muslim I felt no rage against Salman Rushdie’s portrayal of the prophet of Islam — or at the cheap shots of Charlie Hebdo cartoons. I critically engaged the former and simply ignored the latter. Muslims should not plead for special consideration for their feelings. Critique of Islam by both Muslim and none Muslim thinkers is essential for the evolution of Islam in the modern world. Artistic subversion should also be both protected by the law and tolerated by citizens.
Although all minorities should be tolerant of critique and artistic subversion, they should also be equally protected against racist attacks and hate speech. Many minorities enjoy this privilege. After all, a German teacher would never display the antisemitic cartoons of the Nazi publication Der Stürmer in isolation of their history and only in the context of freedom of expression. While showing turn of the century cartoons of African Americans could happen in a class about racism, no sane professor would do so just to score a point against political correctness. The same rule should apply to displaying Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons on Muhammad in classrooms or billboards as a litmus test for the survival of French values.
Who is responsible for the ghastly murder of Samuel Pati? Everybody. Instead of the blame game that has now assumed international dimensions, the French state, civil society and Muslims citizens should all accept their share of responsibility for this event and remember the words of their late philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
*Ahmad Sadri is the James P. Gorter Professor of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College, Illinois, USA. He is the author of “Max Weber’s Sociology of Intellectuals” (1992), Oxford University Press, as well as “The Epic of Persian Kings” (2013), translated, abridged and edited with an introduction, W.W. Norton.