An anthropology of religious polemics

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Jeanne Favret-Saada. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.003


An anthropology of religious polemics

The case of blasphemy affairs

The 2015 Eugène Fleischmann Lecture, Société d’Ethnologie

Jeanne FAVRET-SAADA, École Pratique des Hautes Études

Translated by Eléonore Rimbault

In this lecture, I offer historical and ethnographic perspectives on affairs of blasphemy. My work, which is grounded in a detailed study of polemics sparked in Europe by accusations of blasphemy since the 1960s, suggests that this era witnessed contrasted attitudes regarding the cohabitation of the political and the religious aspects of public life. While Christians invested in accusations of blasphemy resolutely eat away the wall of separation between the political and the religious, even resorting to political tools to voice their religious indignation, Muslims involved in the development of public controversies associated to blasphemy have, since the Salman Rushdie affair, tended to globalize affairs of blasphemy towards audiences that do not defend the separation between politics and religion as a principle. Such polemics have mobilized actors invested in the defense of Islam from Islamic states that condemn blasphemous cultural productions with a previously unseen violence. I study this violence instilled in religious polemics in detail by retracing, in this article, the origins of a controversy sparked by the caricatures of Mahomet published in the Jyllands-Posten in 2005.

Keywords: blasphemy, freedom of expression, public polemics, Christianity, Islam, press cartoons, performativity of images

[30]Before we start, I would like to thank the members of the Société d’Ethnologie and the Maison de l’Archéologie et de l’Ethnologie who made this Eugène Fleischmann Lecture possible.1 And I thank you for coming to Nanterre today rather than going to the premiere of Star Wars 7 to hear me talk about contemporary controversies concerning blasphemy: it is a durable and problematic social reality and yet it remains, up to this day, a total blind spot in ethnology and sociology—and one which is utterly unjustifiable.

In 1992—twenty-three years ago already!—Jacques Cheyronnaud, Elisabeth Claverie, Gérard Lenclud, and I published a special edition of the journal Ethnologie Francaise, titled “Parole d’Outrage” [“Words of Outrage”]. Faced with the gravity taken by accusations of blasphemy in the recent past, we explored, in this issue, the potential interest of studying the situations in which such accusations occur and the challenges such studies might encounter. No anthropologist, however, took up our proposal, and only very few historians; some of them did, however, come up with important works.2

Maybe this has to do with the fact historians do not run the risk to see their position challenged by the “natives” when those are living in seventeenth-century Zurich or eighteenth-century France. But if the silence of ethnologists on the subject is only explained by a concern for safety, it would probably be best to say so and to make it an explicit policy, rather than letting it be said that whoever attempts to tackle contemporary accusations of blasphemy is de facto excluding herself from the discipline. By tackling such a subject, the rumor has it, one ceases to be a researcher to become a militant, a journalist, a media-friendly intellectual, a masochist, a freak—anything really, except a professional ethnographer. Consequently, the fallen ethnographer’s work stops being reviewed in professional journals, and her students lose the possibility of conducting research projects on this question.

In the limited time of this talk, I want to speak of three aspects of my work: its general orientation, the historical perspective it authorizes, and what happens when the blasphemy is made of press drawings.

Blasphemy affairs: From cases to series of cases

Since 1989, I have been studying ongoing controversies on blasphemy in the general framework of public polemics on religious issues. I have examined several cases that occurred from the 1960s onward; they took place in states holding the separation of political and religious affairs as a fundamental principle. These cases can be classified as having to do with two distinct religious ensembles: various forms of Christianity, on which I am currently writing a book, on the one hand and on the other hand, various forms of Islam. I already published some work on the latter, [31]which has to do with the Danish affair of 2005–2006. My obvious intention compiling blasphemy cases is to develop a comparative and historical perspective based on the series of cases I manage to examine.

All the situations I describe unfold according to a similar pattern. A novelist, a filmmaker, a press cartoonist, produces a representation of something held as sacred by Islam or Christianity: the devotees of that religion consider the given representation to be blasphemous; they protest, soon supported by the faithful of other religions, while the supporters of the artist retaliate in the media. Such public controversies make the headlines for months in the national newspapers, they are brought to court with the short-lived hope of solving them that way, and sometimes end up sparking international crises when they are laid onto other countries. For an ethnologist used to working on a small, delimited territory, the number of actors involved—depending in the moment, they can be individuals, crowds, newspapers, religious institutions, states, international organizations, etc.—the variety of relevant sites and the complexity of local contexts make these controversies challenging. But this is definitely not a new difficulty in our discipline: those of us invested in the anthropology of globalization have faced issues of this kind for thirty years already.

I have seen a number of public controversies provoked by accusations of blasphemy rise and fade. The way in which these crises simply disappear one day, while none of the problematics they had raised have been solved, never fails to intrigue me. What happened there, what happened to us, and to positions so fiercely held? I return to the origins of yesterday’s outrage: this is the odd point of departure of my investigation. My inquiry might be called a historical one, since my desire to understand arises in the immediate aftermath of a public controversy. An ethnographic one, just as much, since I am trying to understand a conflict that stirs our societies over and over and yet remains opaque, in spite of the monotonous repetition of these sequences.

The work I am attempting to produce is similar to that of all of my predecessors since the nineteenth century (i.e., to establish who said or did what, when, and in response to whom). But the specificity in this case is that the polemic is born out of an accusation of blasphemy—i.e., of a religious judgment voiced by someone regarding the expression of another, in the name of an authority the former considers absolute. Hence, the affair’s sequences are marked by repeated attempts on behalf of the accuser to lock the alleged blasphemer in his own judiciary apparatus; while the move of the accused is to push back on these attempts one after the other, based on the judiciary apparatus of any secular state. Meanwhile, public opinion, informed and stirred by the media, positions itself as a passionate witness of the conflict. In my contribution to the special issue of Ethnologie Française “Paroles d’outrage” (Favret-Saada 1992), I analyzed the specific apparatus though which judgments are voiced in blasphemy controversies. This apparatus preorganizes the communication of protagonists in sites of enunciation, which are also sites of action.3[32]

In theory, any social situation can be the object of an ethnographic or historical inquiry. However, those that have to do with situations too close to the examiner or too widely debated are implicitly excluded from scientific activity in order to protect the latter from partiality, the scientific sin par excellence. Unfortunately, this abstention comes at a cost: if we merely rehash the clichés of the media on religious controversies without putting them under scrutiny, if we give in to the media’s strategy of progressive polarization of public opinion, we all become idiots, ethnologists and others alike. The ongoing polemic eventually fades out, and we don’t talk about it until the next one. A new one soon generates similar stirrings, because the time in between crises has not been used to form a knowledge allowing us to step out of this pattern.

Rather than forbidding ourselves to work on “hot” situations and ones that have just cooled down, I suggest that we clearly state instead where the danger of partiality is located. My answer is that these situations hit a nerve in the very epistemological foundation of scientific inquiry, but this extreme circumstance is a blessing, because it forces us to remember that researchers are human subjects—no more and no less universal and temporally anchored than their object of study.

Indeed, the social situations that challenge freedom of expression engage the researcher both as a citizen and as an intellectual. Without widespread freedom of expression, debating is curtailed, both with the powers governing us and among citizens; and no intellectual work is possible, since intellectual work requires curiosity, imagination, and bravery. Furthermore, it seems inevitable that the process of knowing should shift one’s perspective on religious belief, thereby acting somewhat blasphemously toward them: it disregards their certainty in representing absolute truth, and it decomposes each religion in elements comparable with other elements, including those of a nonreligious social field.

How could a researcher avoid leaning toward an antireligious position—a “secular sectarianism” as Benedict XVI called it? This is best achieved by the very position of not having faith in science in the way the Holy Father has faith in Christ, by the fact of knowing that “science” does not exist, that it is merely a critical position for which nothing is sacred, for which everything can be interrogated, including, if necessary, the relativist stance.

A historical perspective

I first gathered empirical data from the protagonists of a case of blasphemy accusation dating from 1965. The affair had to do with the movie adaptation of Diderot’s La Religieuse [The Nun, 1967] by Jacques Rivette. I then studied other cases, which occurred in France, in England, and in the United States, and I also accumulated historical data spanning back to the end of the nineteenth century. Judging from the accumulation of cases, it appears clearly that 1989 was a turning point in this history.

A past era of armed peace

Our liberal democracies have separated for a long time religion and politics, and therefore, from the end of the nineteenth century until 1989, freedom of expression with regard to religion seemed to be an obsolete notion: it was something securely established since the Enlightenment and the early days of democracy, something that could be taken for granted. It was inscribed in our constitutions, deployed in our laws on the press, protected by the magistrates. Meanwhile, religions no longer birthed fanatics entrusted by God to exterminate impious adversaries—only devotees.

Of course, every now and then a group of Christians mobilized in an attempt to censor a production they deemed blasphemous. There is no law on blasphemy in France, therefore they invoked an offense caused to their religious sentiments, in order to convert what, to their eyes, was blasphemy, into an act of racism or discrimination that would qualify as tort. This way, they could ask for a compensatory fee, or a ban in the name of human rights. This conversion was unlawful, and they all lost their trials, even if at times the party of freedom of expression had to appeal in the Court of Cassation4 in order to force magistrates to state the law rigorously. In numerous Euro-American countries that still had a law on blasphemy, it only protected the religion in power, because these states had guaranteed a civil union between the citizens and the state. Therefore, when, in 1988, fundamentalist Muslims invoked such a law in Great Britain to censor Salman Rushdie’s novel (The satanic verses), they were immediately nonsuited. Nonetheless, their protest against that discrimination eventually provoked the abolition of the law on blasphemy a few years later.

Before February 1989, there were some instances of Christian devotees organizing massive and repeated protests in several countries, in order to obtain the censorship of a cinematographic work that they saw as blasphemous. But each time, the National Churches led the protests, never the papacy; it did not have at all the means to mobilize religious fervor on a planetary scale, not even at the scale of a few countries, as they had been able to, for other goals, at the time of the Crusades.

The Scorsese Affair in France

Let us consider one example of these church-led protests. In August 1988, evangelicals vocally protested the release of Martin Scorsese’s feature The Last Temptation of Christ (Catholics did not protest for fear of being stigmatized). The following month the feature was not seriously threatened: neither in Great Britain, Italy, or Spain. In these countries, in fact, the movie was viewed as a Christian work, and it encountered great success, in spite of the cautionary comments of the respective national episcopal authorities. In France, on the contrary, well before the release of the movie, the cardinals-archbishops of Paris and Lyon issued threatening statements against it—even though they had not seen the movie—and they warned national authorities against the severe disorders that its projection would inevitably provoke. As soon as the movie came out, the religious authorities [34]were overwhelmed by groups of activists it had not summoned. They multiplied violent acts against the movie’s projection: attacks with tear gas, tearing down cinema screens, bomb threats, and eventually they went as far as setting three movie theaters on fire and wounding fourteen spectators, including one who remained permanently handicapped. Following their arrest, it was revealed that these activists belonged to an association of fundamentalist Christians (called “Chrétienté Solidarité”) with ties to the Front National party. The association had just rejected the schism of archbishop Marcel Lefebvre,5 and chosen to pledge allegiance to the church. It became obvious that the two cardinals were after their activists, who themselves were after their former schismatic comrades, all of them trying to prove to the world that they were the best defenders of Christ.

In fact this struggle for one-upmanship is an ordinary dimension of situations of devotional protest—even if the mass media and proponents of freedom of expression are generally unable to realize this. By becoming vocal against impious artists, groups of devotees attempt to show the religious masses the superiority of their religious zeal: they show they are not afraid to stand against state power, and to launch trials, even if they eventually go on to lose them. With this in mind, we may say that any conflict on artistic freedom of expression that confronts devotional coteries with nondevotees and nonbelievers presupposes a prior competition among religious groups for the adhesion of religious masses.

In spite of the unusual violence of the Scorsese affair in France, the era prior to 1989 can nonetheless be characterized as one of armed peace between, on the one hand, religious organizations and their followers, and on the other, artists and their audiences. At times, the boundary between the religious and the political in public spaces, as it is enshrined in constitutions and guaranteed by the impassibility of the laws—is suddenly destabilized: both parties mobilize and try to capture the biggest share of the public in order to safeguard its perimeter of jurisdiction.

A note on methodology: Because this is a case study, I trusted, at first, the syntheses published by well-known specialists. But at the time when I was discovering controversies on blasphemy because two of them had just been sparked right at me, the major figures in the literature of religious sciences kept making nonconfrontational assessments of the general situation. Consider the historian René Rémond, who celebrated the “reconciliation of two Frances”; Jean Baubérot, the Protestant historian of secularism, who pretended that secularism was the outcome of a “secular pact,” rather than a severe conflict on the relations between politics and religion. Finally, the philosopher Marcel Gauchet, the most imaginative of them all, deployed an entire teleology demonstrating that Christianity, because of its spontaneous maturation, was “the religion of the exit of religion.” According to René Rémond, there is no longer a war between secular and religious tendencies.[35]

According to the two other authors, there never was any, secularism being an endogenous avatar of Christianity. Twenty-five years later, I do not have a settled opinion on these general theories, but I see that they are regularly contradicted by the study of specific cases, in which a given religion, under one of its many forms, enters in a public conflict with some nonreligious element.

The Rushdie affair, first epoch

In September 1988, at the same time as the movie by Martin Scorsese was being released in French movie theaters, the Indo-British author Salman Rushdie published The satanic verses in London. The first six months that followed the publication of the novel are a typical sequence from the peace-through-strength era: Muslim associations in Great Britain, offended by the novel, limited their intervention to protesting with the author, the editor, and the British authorities. These associations did attempt to mobilize the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the ambassadors of Muslim states; the latters demanded the official withdrawal of the book from bookstore shelves in the United Kingdom (the book was effectively forbidden in the countries they were from). However, in Great Britain itself, the protests were peaceful and never gathered more than a few thousand people.

At one of these protests, in January 1989 in Bradford, a halal butcher publically performed the novel’s book-burning in front of the press, which must have been deliberately convoked. This image became an emblem of the Rushdie affair, because it allegedly illustrated for the public opinion the blatant backwardness of the Muslims who denounced blasphemy. A little earlier that year, the French media had considered that the Catholic protesters walking in the streets—even as they were led by the Parisian Archbishop, who claimed to be a product of secular education—belonged to a medieval form of Christianity, that for which the Inquisition served as a moral keystone. The British opinion likewise saw in the picture of the English Muslim burning a version of The satanic verses an invasion of the Oriental Middle-Ages in the country that had invented liberal modernity and Britishness.

But the requests to Rushdie and to his editor, however unusual, were just requests: they were asked to destroy all the printed copies of the novel, to prevent its reediting and translation, and to publically apologize for insulting Islam and religions more broadly. To the government, they asked for the law on blasphemy to be enforced, which in fact was not relevant to the situation.

An era of globalized showdown

In February 1989, important popular protests against Salman Rushdie caused the death of four individuals in Islamabad (Pakistan), and five deaths and a hundred casualties in Srinagar (Kashmir); finally, on February 14, a journalist from Radio Tehran read in a toneless voice a text written by the ayatollah Khomeini that was presented as a fatwa. It stated that the author, his editors, and the booksellers who sold his books were condemned to death, and that any Muslim in the world, wherever they lived, were entrusted the execution of the sentence.

Allow me to tarry with this moment at which a form of revolutionary Islam was introduced in Western democracies. Recall that these democracies maintained a strong separation between religion and politics in spite of the turmoil caused every now and then by pious groups. The mass mediation of the imam is a discursive act, [36]a verbal performance with immeasurable effects, instituting a form of state terrorism targeting all the nations that, like Great Britain, admit among the citizenry the author of The satanic verses, those who publish him, read the book, and support its existence.

Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini had the authority to issue a fatwa, having been a doctor of Islam (an ayatollah) for over thirty years. Furthermore, he was the Supreme Guide of the Islamic Revolution, the spiritual guide of Iranian Islam; also, his black turban signifies that he is a descendant of the prophet. His decision regarding The satanic verses nevertheless constituted, in many respects, a juridical and religious monster, and he deliberately conceived it that way.

According to the principles of Islamic law, in the Shia branch also, a fatwa is an opinion on a specific question, an advice requested by a devotee or by a secular judge to an expert on sharia law, canon law. In this case, no religious follower requested a fatwa to the ayatollah. Afterward, British Muslims claimed they wrote to the imam Khomeini to denounce The satanic verses: even if this were true, a petition is not the same as requesting a fatwa. In reality, the imam heard of the novel thanks to a small radio transmitter that he listened to constantly, and thanks to a television news report: the announcement of protests ongoing in Islamabad angered him and he decided to intervene in this peculiar fashion.

The fact that a fatwa is an opinion on the jurisprudence of a given problem has two consequences. On the one hand, the jurist does not elaborate on his personal opinion but presents a reasoning based on relevant precedents. On the other, a fatwa is merely one perspective among many. For this reason the quester often consults several jurists in order to determine the ad hoc line of action. This is why a fatwa cannot be a verdict, which in fact would require the gathering of a tribunal and the holding of a trial in due forms, and in front of a cadi.

And yet, what the journalist presented as a fatwa authored by the Ayatollah Khomeini was phrased like a tribunal’s judgment, and this assimilation was so convincing that since February 14, 1989, the Western press (and in some cases, the Middle Eastern press as well) has understood the word fatwa as a death warrant pure and simple. An extreme violence—both religious and political—characterized the ayatollah Khomeini’s speech act: in a single utterance he ordered the death of an alleged culprit and brushed aside several centuries of Islamic jurisprudence. Indeed, for Islamic Law broadly, including Twelver Shia Islamic Law, this public statement of the Ayatollah Khomeini had many juridical improprieties, and I will only evoke the most important ones.

First, as we just saw, although it presents itself as a judgment, it was not pronounced by a tribunal presided by a cadi. Second, it evokes the object of tort as a “work against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran” without specifying where the hostility of the work can be situated, and without placing it on a hierarchy of religious sins. Third, this message is a sentence, a death warrant, which he entrusts to “all brave Muslims of the world.” According to Islamic law, apostasy (ridda), is the only crime that can be punished by such a sanction, therefore we can deduce that the imam is accusing Salman Rushdie of abjuring his faith. However, two considerations should stop us from adopting this interpretation. On the one hand, capital punishment is not known to apply automatically for writings. Indeed, in 1989, a Shia jurist of the same hierarchical rank as the imam Khomeini stated that a [37]book must only be fought against by another book, an opinion by another opinion.6 Furthermore, granted one might accuse Salman Rushdie of having abandoned his faith (something that the author has always forcefully denied), it is not relevant to mandate with the same sentence the assassination of his editors, translators, and librarians, who never were Muslims in the first place. Fourth and finally, the death sentence is issued against a series of culprits—including Rushdie—who do not fall under the Iranian jurisdiction, nor any other state ruled by Islamic Law. They all live in countries where sharia law does not apply, that which the Islamic tradition locates in the dar al-harb, the “domain of war,” where Islam and Muslims are not protected and where the verdicts pronounced by the cadis have no applicability. All the more so considering that punishments for religious sins include severe consequences regarding civil rights—such as the obligation to divorce, or the seizing of one’s property—and it is not easy to conceive which authority might apply such sentences in a non-Islamic state.

In short, this fatwa did not qualify as one, and the death sentence it pronounced was invalid whether we consider the motives for the verdict, the way it designated the guilty parties, and the ones entrusted with executing the sentence (i.e., all the faithful of Islam in the world). Yet shortly after February 14, 1989, the president of the Iranian Republic, who was obviously subjected to much international pressure, considered the possibility that Rushdie might be forgiven were he to repent publically. But a statement issued by the ayatollah Khomeini immediately contradicted him. This confirms that he had in mind a case of apostasy, not impiousness or blasphemy (more on those later), unless all these crimes blend into one, deserving of death, in the imam’s revolutionary conception of religion (to go “against Islam, the prophet and the Koran”). Salman Rushdie and his editors, translators, and librarians are thus condemned to death because of a book “against Islam, the Koran and the Prophet.”

Obviously, the Western press was unanimous in its complete indignation, but the analysis of the fatwa it suggested was erratic. Some commentators immediately interpreted its brutality as the everlasting essence of Islam, now presented as the religion to which one is converted by the power of the sword. On the other hand, some students of Islam, weary of this cultural invention, started prophesying the “failure of political Islam,” while the majority of political scientists saw in this event a political instrumentalization of Islam. Most of them refused, in brief, to recognize that Islam was not a unique and consistent entity. Or that the concept formed by centuries of Orientalist research was not designed to predict what a researcher would encounter empirically, that is, of course, merely one form of the countless varieties of Islam, a variety that potentially contradicts some of the traits of the general entity. And yet, some of these forms, among them the one foregrounded by the imam Khomeini, could be inventions. And many of them, including this form, blend the domain of the political with what we call the religious.

In short, the journalists and expert interpreters of the fatwa implicitly take it for granted that these two registers are mutually exclusive. If it is political (having [38]to do with power relations), it is not religious (which has to do with spiritual life). This perspective forgets that such a disjuncture is a recent acquisition in Western culture, where its reality is not as firmly established as we assume, since groups of devotees constantly erode this wall of separation, while simultaneously proclaiming its authority.

For centuries, Christians and their churches practiced a fusion of religious and political matters, and researchers should at least mention that it is not an Islamic specificity, even if the form of a revolutionary theocracy is indeed specific to Iran. To reduce the fatwa of the imam Khomeini to mere political manipulation leads one to ignore the properly religious project that he was drafting for all human societies, including Great Britain, and that was maintained well after his death in June 1989.

Over the next three months, Salman Rushdie probably came to the painful realization that the sentence of the imam was not a mere rhetorical bluff: in December 1989, the United Kingdom’s Special Forces placed four Iranian terrorists under arrest in Manchester. But most importantly, the seemingly inventive but very straightforward program of the Ayatollah was immediately approved by political agitators faithful to various kinds of Islam, in several countries. On March 29, 1989, the rector of the Brussels Center for Islamic Studies and the librarian of the center (from the Muslim Brotherhood) are assassinated for having held too tolerant words on Salman Rushdie: the assassination is claimed by the Jund al-Haqq, the “Soldiers of the Right”—a Sunni organization based in Beirut associated with the Fatah—the Palestinian Abou Nidal’s revolutionary council), that prides itself for implementing “God’s sentence.” On July 3, 1991, the Italian translator of The satanic verses was stabbed in his home, and barely survived. On July 11, the same fate hit the Japanese translator who died subsequently. On the same year in October, the Norwegian translator avoided several gunshots. Finally, on July 2, 1993, ten thousand Turkish Sunni fundamentalists set on fire a seaside resort where a cultural festival was taking place (thirty-seven persons died, but the local translator of The satanic verses survived). The “brave Muslims” thus seized the opportunity to settle some personal matters, but it is always the novel and Rushdie as a public personality who was targeted, and beyond him, quite obviously, freedom of expression.

Some terrorists escaped prosecution, and as a result we do not know their precise religious allegiance. Yet among the groups that claimed some of these attacks, some are Sunni and have traveled from the Middle East to target other Sunnis in Europe. One can conclude from these facts that from February 14, 1989, the properly religious project contained in the fatwa of the Ayatollah Khomeini, in spite of the loopholes it contained as we saw, found some enthusiastic followers in the quasi-totality of the forms of Islam. This condemnation inaugurates an epoch that had been dreamt of by some for a long time: that of a globalized showdown with the world of Disbelief, represented by the imperialist states of the West, which subjected Islamic countries to their domination for almost two centuries, and which so stubbornly differentiate the religious and the political. The old Shia leader drew from a resource Christianity has long lost: a religious fervor likely to bolster hundreds of thousands of individuals, in spite of their confessional differences, in spite of their century-old theological conflicts and their incessant wars.[39]

From then on, the familiar conflicts of France, the United States, or the United Kingdom on the right to satire—and beyond this, on the right to freedom of expression—changed scale: they no longer had to do merely with one specific society but could potentially be deployed worldwide. This transformed the debate on freedom of expression because it required that everyone take a position at once on the satire at hand, its reception by the devotees of the country in which the affair unfolded, on the intervention of states, peoples, foreign agents in a insider’s conflict, on the uses of murder to solve disagreements regarding principles, and on quantities of questions regarding the worldwide geopolitical equilibrium—possibly even relationships between supposed “civilizations.”

When cartoons are accused of blasphemy

The Danish affair on the drawings of Mahomet

In 2006, I spent a year examining the events that came to be known in the French media as the “Mahomet caricatures” affair, about the cartoons published by the Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005. This phrase is incorrect for two reasons: first, only four out of twelve drawings were caricatures; second, and most importantly, those drawings were only used as illustrations for a long magazine reportage piece explicitly aimed at a few well-known fundamentalist imams openly at war with the Danish press. This was an investigation led by the cultural section of the Jyllands-Posten on the self-censorship of some artists who feared retaliation from the fundamentalist imams. The drawings tested this hypothesis, and many Danish cartoonists had been invited to represent Mahomet as they imagined him. Only twelve answered. Some cartoons evaded the prompt, others respected it with no satirical intent; four, finally, caricatured the Prophet’s mores or his face.

I conducted two sorts of investigations on this affair: one in Denmark, where this story was born; there I conducted interviews with many witnesses. Another investigation consisted in an analysis of press releases internationally, especially those that reported subsequent events that ensued in Denmark, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, the United States. . . . This long inquiry, which was centered on the individuals engaged in each episode (those who contributed in the action’s development, those who were witnesses, etc.), gave very interesting results. By tracking the differences of groups, individuals, and their intervention in the quotidian flow of press releases, by drawing successions of events from scratch rather than premising in advance the histories they conjured, by also constantly building anew the set of concepts by which the protagonists could be unequivocally designated, as well as their affiliations and their behavior, I managed to free my analysis from the systematic use of large and soft entities by which the media assigned blame for these events.

One of these entities was the presumed performativity of the Jyllands-Posten’s drawings. Indeed the commentators kept repeating that the drawings were the main agent in this dramatic unfolding of events. The cartoon: not the cartoonists or the paper, nor those who blamed the drawings. We were told it was obviously an effect of the performativity of images—a performativity so much stronger than that [40]of the word, especially in the era of instant communication of images on the Internet. Thus the media led us to think that the twelve drawings had, from the time of their publication on September 30, 2005, reached the farthest corners of the planet, causing an immediate uproar among the billion and six thousand million Muslim devotees on Earth. From an empirical point of view, this idea could not be more in the wrong, and I can demonstrate it.

On the one hand, for several months no foreign Internet user thought about consulting the newspaper’s website: Denmark is rather small, its language not widely spoken abroad. On the other hand, that these drawings even existed (among which, we recall, only four were caricatures) only became known by a wide audience in Muslim countries after the verbal protests of “the Danish Imams,” as the press called them—even though only two out of the five imams who composed the Committee for the Defense of the Honor of the Prophet were actually Danish. Funded by the Egyptian government, they travelled to the Middle East at the beginning of December 2005 in order to recruit the states, the religious leaders, and public opinion to the cause of the punishment of Islamophobic Denmark. Along with them, they carried a file that contained reproductions of the twelve drawings and a few more, which they had fabricated. The content of this file was never presented to the press: it remained in the hands of their addressees, religious ministers and dignitaries. A wider audience only got to hear about “caricatures of the Prophet” when the imams were hosted on TV shows, but then again they were prudent not to show the drawings, in order not to reiterate the blasphemy committed by the Jyllands-Posten. For the same reason, they carefully avoided describing the image as well. In fact, their declarations did not produce popular indignation in the streets of the Middle East. To achieve this required another month, the intervention of many additional actors, and various events that I will quickly summarize.

During the first week of January 2006, the Danish government managed to assuage the indignation of the Egyptian government and the Arab league—two of the three most bellicose foreign protesters—while in Copenhagen, activist imams withdrew their demands, and declared that they were now at peace with their country. The international affair would have solved itself, had it not been for the discovery, on January 18, 2006, by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (the third protester) of a Norwegian paper printed at 5,000 copies, which had republished a few days earlier the drawings from the Jyllands-Posten.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference made it a casus belli against Norway and Denmark, and it pulled along several member-states of the organization in its diplomatic intervention, as well as religious leaders such as the Imam al-Qaradawi, from the International Union of Muslim Scholars, a popular preacher on the Qatari network Al Jazeera. All were asking for the punishment of the cartoonists, apologies from Denmark, and for the modification of the press codes in Western states so as to protect Prophets from being insulted. Danish ambassadors were convoked, several of those officiating in Muslim countries were revoked, a boycott on Danish goods was decreed, public manifestations of indignation were sparked, and finally, a European Union building was set on fire.

Since the beginning of the crisis in 2005, the EU—and also the European governments, with the exception of Germany—had not acted as if they were concerned by the events concerning freedom of press or the Danish government. More precisely, [41]some heads of state and some second-rank European officers had publically criticized the cartoons from the Jyllands-Posten, while the Danish Prime Minister and his presumed arrogance had been condemned in the private confines of international meetings. All called for a “responsible” freedom of expression.

The directors of major European newspapers were exasperated by the emergence of this new concept—a responsible freedom of expression—which was as obvious as the knife of Lichtenberg: “a bladeless knife with no handle” as the anecdote goes. On February 1, 2006, they decided to act upon the defense of their freedom: without referring to their governments, some of them started publishing the cartoons from the Jyllands-Posten, followed by many others in the following days. Then, and only then, the globalized showdown known as the “Mahomet caricatures” affair occurred. Five months and two completely unforeseen coups de théâtre were thus necessary for the famous drawings from the Jyllands-Posten to reach the mass European Muslim public. This audience then started protesting in the streets of capital cities, without creating any major incident, nor breaching any law. And therefore, they did not exemplify at all the thesis according to which the mere vision of the cartoons—be they caricatures of the Prophet—is enough to push the devotees in a state of uncontainable violence.

This violence was witnessed shortly after, and for many weeks, in the Middle East and in Asia. But in this vast part of the universe, no one, ever, got to see the drawings. The newspapers that sought to publish them were immediately prevented to, shut down, and their managers imprisoned. Social networks even forbade themselves from circulating them. The empirical source of trouble when trouble ensued has to be attributed to Arab televisions, which commented on the manifestations by expressing considerable outrage about the satirical violence of drawings that were never shown.

From then on, it is impossible to blame the acts of violence that were committed on the drawings of Kurt Westergaard in the Jyllands-Posten, even if he did represent the Prophet wearing a turban, which concealed a bomb with a lit-up fuse. It would be more realistic to blame them on the verbal messages of television journalists, as well as to their agentive connections (the official protests of states and religious leaders, Imam al-Qaradawy’s call for a “Day of Anger” relayed by Al Jazeera, etc.). Even after the affair had spread internationally, in February 2006, it did not come to the minds of ordinary people to look for the cartoons on the newspaper’s webpage—and it would have required skills and time to find the drawings there.

In fact, the mere viewing of the drawings does not seem to produce the expected explosion as the following three examples show. Two of them are from Denmark, and the third is from Egypt. First, as early as September 30, 2005, Raed Hlayhel (who was one of the soon-to-be “Danish Imams” on the Committee for the Defense of the Honor of the Prophet) placed two of the drawings on the walls of his mosque in the suburb of Arrhus. The headquarters of the Jyllands-Posten were close by, and he hoped stir the unanimous indignation of the devotees against the newspaper. The Muslims who saw them were scandalized but not to the point of mobilizing together against the newspaper.

Two weeks later, the imams of the Committee for the Defense of the Honor of the Prophet organized a protest in Copenhagen. The devotees abstained from joining it; only the usual suspects of the gatherings for Palestine and the traditional [42]adversaries of these imams, the young militants of Hizb ut-Tahrir, who used the event to display their own slogans, were seen. In fact, throughout the crisis—from October 2005 to April 2006—the Committee for the Defense of the Honor of the Prophet did not organize any more protests, not even outside of local mosques, fearing they would be ridiculed by young radicals.

Finally, an Egyptian newspaper that had not realized the potential impact of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons published several of them in mid-October 2005, without causing censorship or scandal. The caricature affair was in limbo: the Egyptian ambassador in Copenhagen had just cosigned the first collective letter on behalf of the Muslim States to the Danish Prime Minister, denouncing the “Islamophobic” campaign, which threatened the safety of Muslims living in Denmark. In that campaign, the Jyllands-Posten drawings were merely one source of complaint among several others.

To put it in a nutshell, the thesis that evokes the performativity of the press drawings and their immediate, ubiquitous presence on the Internet is untenable for many empirical reasons: where there were violent and deadly acts of protests involving deaths, as there were in the Middle East and Asia, no one saw the drawings of the Prophet; when those were visible, as in Denmark, Europe, and Egypt after mid-October 2005, they caused indignation, but they sparked a few well-organized demonstrations at most. Even in Denmark, the majority of Muslims, it is worth keeping in mind, refused to buy into the political-religious scheme plotted by the five fundamentalist imams.

The Charlie Hebdo cartoons

Contrary to the Jyllands-Posten, a newspaper in which cartoons are rather marginal, Charlie Hebdo is a satirical weekly paper whose raison d’être is cartoons, although every issue also contains an editorial and concise articles. When the European press decided, on February 1, 2006, to publish the Jyllands-Posten cartoons again to express its moral support to the Danish newspaper and its commitment to freedom of expression, Charlie Hebdo was more radical than any other involved party. On February 8, it issued twelve drawings, complemented by some creations by the paper’s cartoonists (all very strongly caricatural), as well as a proclamation by the Manifest for Freedoms (Manifeste des Libertés), an association that gathers secular people of Muslim heritage. On the cover of the issue, there was a drawing by Cabu entitled “Mahomet is overwhelmed by fundamentalists” (“Mahomet débordé par les intégristes”), which represented the Prophet covering his eyes and sighing: “It is so hard to be loved by morons” (“C’est si dur d’être aimé par des con . . .”). In the following years, Charlie Hebdo published more drawings satirizing the Prophet and fundamentalists, until the massacre of January 7, 2015. As a farewell to this tragedy, one week after the attacks, one of the journalists who survived, Luz, drew Mahomet carrying a sign “Je suis Charlie” with the caption “Everything is forgiven” in the issue known as the issue “of the survivors.”

Who can tell the meaning of a drawing?

Whatever the weight of a drawing in a newspaper issue, its aggressiveness or its humor plays a role in defining the identity of the readership: all those who laugh when they see a drawing by Plantu, the famous cartoonist for the French newspaper Le [43]Monde, form a collective, a morally solidary group, which is opposed to those who do not think the drawing is funny. Among the latter, some may feel targeted by the caricatures. Sometimes, readers might stop buying the newspaper, either because they feel targeted or because they identify with the targets of the drawings; or for less serious reasons, which nonetheless have the same effects—because the cartoons no longer make them laugh.

The press drawing pertains and summarizes in a vivid form the characteristics of a public space that privileges the satirical confrontation of opinions and sensibilities among citizens. In this space, readers select the newspaper that best expresses their point of view.

Democratic states, we should recall, do not have the monopoly over press cartoons: dictatorships also resort to them to ridicule their enemies and stigmatize them, while in authoritarian regimes, censorship always protects the ruler and religion. To consider, as we often read it in Western newspapers, that people born in an Islamic society lack the necessary visual culture to interpret double voicing, is a racist idea: it reduces the cognitive faculties of those born in Islam to what religious prescription authorize, while humor and jokes are anthropological universals, just like the metarepresentational ability to produce interpretations).7 All contemporary people thus know about the art of press drawing, but only a few experience freedom of press to the extent they can take it for granted. Many cartoonists refrain from tackling explicitly prohibited subjects, but everyone strives to instill in their work as much impertinence as is possible.

In a state where the press is free, when satire comes to aim at religion, we can expect that the most devout among the faithful will not appreciate the joke. They protest in the name of religion as a whole, and for the whole community of fellow believers, even if the incriminated drawing only targets a few believers, or specific aspects of a religion. These devotees then attempt to impose on the public their interpretation of the given drawing, opposing themselves both to the artist—whose only means of retaliation is to invoke the original intention of the drawing—and to the readers who support the artist—and who can only offer their own exegesis.

This infinite argument on the meaning of a drawing is, by definition, impossible to settle objectively, because only the reader can interpret the polysemy of graphic signs and translate in explicit language the allusions it contains. Let us consider for instance the caricature by Kurt Westergaard in the Jyllands-Posten: the face of the Prophet is coiffed with a turban adorned with the Muslim profession of faith; a bomb-fuse emerges out of the turban. Does this drawing represent, as the artist contends, the Prophet in the name of whom jihadists set up bombs? (This is the way I had interpreted it the first time I saw it, and the objections of some of my friends did not make me change my mind.) Or does this caricature represent the Prophet and founder of Islam, the one who was born in Mecca in 570, since protesters, but also Jean Plantu—a cartoonist for Le Monde, who is not a Muslim devotee—are so certain it is him? Does this drawing speak against jihad? Or does it speak against Islam, defined as a criminal religion in its essence? Can one say it is “racist,” considering Islam is the faith of many immigrants in Denmark today? Of course, the Danish and French tribunals rejected this last interpretation, but this [44]merely means that the juridical criteria that regiment racism could not be applied to what the magistrates understood from the drawing.

In brief, it is utopian to hope to achieve a reasoned consensus on the interpretation of a press drawing in a democratic society, for two main reasons. First, press cartooning, as an institution, is based on the preliminary acceptance by all of the fact there exists fundamental and irreducible conflicts concerning morality, religion, politics, and ideology; consequently, press drawings merely delimit, in an already fragmented society, communities that are morally unstable, which agree on the nature of what can be a subject of laughter.

Second, the specific conventions of the genre—for instance, allusion and the polysemy of the graphic sign —prevent one from delimiting with certainty the meaning of a press drawing. In fact, even as artists are usually careful to specify who, exactly, they are aiming their cartoons at—this is the case for instance in Charlie Hebdo—they convince their supporters, but not their ideological adversaries, who denounce their hypocrisy: by attacking jihadists or Salafist Imams, Charlie Hebdo really is, they say, aiming at Islam as a whole and at all the immigrants.

In Paris, and then Copenhagen, early in 2015, some devotees of Islam chose to settle by murder this irresolvable conflict over interpretation. In spite of their clearly announced desire to avenge the honor of the Prophet, they nonetheless did not specify the nature of the conflict that opposed them to their adversaries, since their bullets simultaneously aimed at—and reached—other categories of people besides the incriminated cartoonists: some collaborators from Charlie Hebdo, a Dane who was participating in a meeting on the Jyllands-Posten affair in Copenhagen, policemen, and Jewish devotees.

In any case, the terrorist attacks of January and February 2015 have radically changed the question that was first posed on September 30, 2005 on the occasion of the release of the twelve “faces of Mahomet” in the Jyllands-Posten. On the one hand, all the press cartoonists in the world now know their life is at risk if they decide to draw the Prophet. On the other hand, in nonauthoritarian states, freedom of press is no longer regulated by the judiciary only, since ordinary citizens, armed with their convictions and a Kalashnikov, reach definitive opinions on the expression of others regarding religion. Thus, the perpetrators of 2015 reiterated the political-religious gesture of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, a gesture that inaugurated the era of globalized showdown.


Appignanesi, Lisa, and Sara Maitland. 1989. The Rushdie File. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Cabantous, Alain. 1998. Histoire du blasphème en Occident. Paris: Albin Michel.

Cheyronnaud, Jacques, Elisabeth Claverie, Gérard Lenclud, and Jeanne Favret-Saada. 1992. “Paroles d’outrage.” Special edition of Ethnologie Française, 22 (3): 249–385.

Favret-Saada, Jeanne. 1992. “Rushdie et compagnie, préalables à une anthropologie du blaspheme.” “Paroles d’outrage.” Special edition of Ethnologie Française, 22 (3): 251–60.[45]

———. 2015. “Rushdie und Co. Vorbedingungen einer Anthropologie der Blasphemie.” Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften, 2: 263–97.

Loetz, Franciska. 2009. Dealing with God: From blasphemers in early modern Zurich to a cultural history of religiousness. New York: Ashgate.

Schaeffer, Jean-Marie. 2011. “Rire et blaguer.” In Pourquoi Rire?, edited by Jean Birnbaum, 23–37. Paris: Gallimard.

Une anthropologie des polémiques à enjeux religieux: Le cas des affaires de blasphème

Résumé : Dans ce texte, je propose une perspective historique et ethnographique sur les affaires de blasphème. Mon travail, qui repose sur une étude détaillée des polémiques déclenchées en Europe par des accusations de blasphème depuis les années 1960, suggère que cette période connaît deux attitudes différentes quant à la conciliation du politique et du religieux. Tandis que les chrétiens soutenant des accusations de blasphème grignotent localement, et avec obstination, la séparation entre politique et religieux, n’hésitant par à avoir recours aux outils du politique pour se faire porte-parole du religieux, les fidèles musulmans impliqués dans le développement de controverses publiques ont, depuis l’affaire Salman Rushdie, tendance à internationaliser les affaires de blasphème vers des pays ne défendant pas la séparation entre religion et politique comme principe. Ces polémiques mobilisent alors des acteurs investis dans la défense de l’Islam originaires d’états islamiques moyen-orientaux qui condamnent avec une violence nouvelle les productions jugées blasphématoires. Cette violence instillée dans les polémiques à enjeux religieux, je propose de l’étudier de plus près dans cet article en retraçant les origines de la controverse déclenchée par les caricatures de Mahomet publiées dans le Jyllands-Posten in 2005.

Jeanne FAVRET-SAADA is an anthropologist and author of Les mots, la mort, les sorts: La sorcellerie dans le Bocage (Gallimard, 1977; English translation: Deadly words: Witchcraft in the Bocage, translated by Catherine Cullen, Cambridge University Press, 1980) and Corps pour corps: Enquête sur la sorcellerie dans le Bocage (Gallimard, 1981, coauthored with Josée Contreras). She has since published numerous other works, including Le Christianisme et ses Juifs: 1800–2000 (Le Seuil, 2004), once more in collaboration with Josée Contreras; Algérie 1962–1964: Essais d’anthropologie politique (Bouchene, 2005); Désorceler (Éditions de L’Olivier, 2009; English translation: The anti-witch, translated by Matthew Carey, HAU Books, 2015); and Jeux d’ombres sur la scène de l’ONU: Droits humains et laïcité (Éditions de L’Olivier, 2010).

Jeanne Favret-Saada
92 Cours Julien
13006 – Marseille


Editor’s Note: This is a revised version and translation of the original 2015 Eugène Fleischmann Lecture, originally published as Favret-Saada, Jeanne. 2016. Une anthropologie des polémiques à enjeux religieux : le cas des affaires de blasphème. Conférence Eugène Fleischmann. Paris: Société d’Ethnologie. We are grateful to the Société d’Ethnologie for their kind permission to translate and print this lecture, and our thanks (as always) to Jeanne Favret-Saada for her kind permission to publish her work in HAU.

1. This lecture, initially planned on November 25, 2015 at the Musée du Quai Branly of indigenous arts and cultures, had to be cancelled due to the November 13th Paris attacks.

2. Alain Cabantous (1998) suggests how to take up the proposal in future historical inquiries, while Franciska Loetz (2009) works in this direction with her book on judicial decisions concerning blasphemy in Zurich in the seventeenth century.

3. Cf. Favret-Saada 1992: 251–60. In France, this text was discussed in Social Sciences seminars on the pragmatic aspects of speech, but never in a space dedicated to discussing blasphemy, which confirms that blasphemy is a blind spot in social research. This paper was recently translated into German in Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften (2015).

4. The Court of Cassation controls the accurate and faithful enforcement of the law by French tribunals and appellate courts. It guarantees the homogeneous interpretation of French Law.

5. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905–1991) was a traditionalist bishop, who voiced very critical positions regarding the aggiornamento of the Catholic Church as early as the Vatican II Council of 1962–1965. He founded the Society of St. Pius X and the Écône seminar in Switzerland, where he consecrated several traditionalist priests. In June 1988, he willingly provoked a rupture with the Church by consecrating four bishops in spite of a pontifical interdiction: he was excommunicated on the next day for a violation of canon law.

6. One can refer to British historian of the Middle East Malcolm Yapp’s article in The Independent on February 22nd, 1989, cited in The Rushdie File (Appignanesi and Maitland 1989: 95–98).

7. Cf. Jean-Marie Schaeffer’s comments (2011: 23, 32) in her article, “Rire et blaguer.”