January 30, 2015 By Shaheen.k. Moidunni

The Colonial Lineage of Charlie Hebdo


In the 1995 neo-noir ‘The Usual Suspects‘, Kevin Spacey, playing the role of a con-man affected by cerebral palsy, rephrases Charles Baudelaire in a memorable one-liner: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” This line can be seen overtly rephrased again and again ever since 9/11 and is now being doled out in the geo-political manoeuvres. The gist of it is that the greatest trick the Colonial European powers ever pulled was to convince the world that all their genocides and racial constructs didn’t exist. Popular imagination seems to have fallen for this sleight of hand to an extent.

Imaginations and creativity quite often displayed by not just Charlie Habdo but by other magazines and cartoonists in the west and especially Europe are played out as hallmarks of freedom of expression and daring to dissent. These cartoons betray historical precedents and are the consequence of a deep seated anti-Islam discourse evolved over millennia. The roots of this narrative can be traced back to the early ninth century. Contrary to popular reasoning, the anti-Islam discourse was not as a result of ‘lack of information’ or ‘misunderstanding’, but rather as a discourse which was methodically and diligently constructed bearing socio-political necessities in mind. It was these socio-political necessities that later proved requisite in the formation of a European identity. Islam was essential for the formation of such a European identity that we witness today and this unity was articulated in relation to Muslims as the enemy. European peace and unity were intimately linked to war – war against those who were perceived as threatening that unity, against enemies within and without: infidels, heretics and schismatics. It was Muslims who were made the enemy among all other possible enemies. War against them was seen as an outlet for violence that would otherwise have ravaged Christendom and Europe, and European peace consequently was conceptualized as being possible only on the basis of war against the enemy without. Moreover, in an ominous twist of the perspective, peace and unity in Christendom and Europe began to be seen as the precondition of making war against the ‘enemies of the cross’[i]. The construction of this narrative was centred by early Christendom on the persona of Muhammed. For centuries Muhammed has been at the centre of the European discourse of Islam. Medieval Crusades chroniclers, Church officials and theologians depicted Muhammed as a fraudster who seduced the Arabs away from Christianity thus justifying the Crusade. In the 18th and 19th century the image of Muhammed as an impostor was the driving force of European colonisation of Arab-Muslim lands. Muhammed occupies an important and ambivalent place in the European imagination; he figures as the embodiment of Islam, alternatively inspiring fear, loathing, fascination and admiration but rarely indifference.[ii]

In 1076, Pope Gregory VII, one of the greatest of Roman pontiffs, wrote a respectful letter to Al-Nazir, the Emir of the Hammadid empire (present day Algeria) thanking him for his request to the Pope to consecrate a bishop to tend to the spiritual needs of the Emir’s Christian subjects. The Pope in his letter also alludes to the common theological ground between the two faiths stating, “In truth, such charity we and you owe more particularly to our own than to the remaining peoples, for we believe and confess, albeit in a different way, the one God, and each day we praise and honour him as the creator of the ages and the ruler of the world.” This was accompanied by a proposal to establish commercial and political ties although nothing ever developed beyond the letter.[iii]

Now keeping aside interfaith niceties, Pope Gregory was also instrumental in developing the concept of an armed struggle in the interest of faith under the ultimate leadership of the Popes and this concept was elevated to the centre of official church thinking which formed the foundation for the doctrine for Christian Holy war. Later on, the Pontificate ascribed a spiritual component of absolution of sins to those who waged war for the papacy. This created a deadly combination of penance and violence which would later form the raison d’etre for the Crusade. To this end Christian intellectuals and Church officials versed in the Canon Law cited earlier Church fathers for reinforcement of this claim. Bishop Anselm of Lucca cited St Augustine for justifications for invoking war in support of Papal endeavours. The laying down of their swords by the disciples on Jesus’ orders were interpreted by John of Mantua not as a renunciation of violence but rather as waiting for the right opportunity to strike and that such a time had finally arrived. Bishop Bonzio of Sutri celebrated the image of the Christian holy warrior who would smite heretics.[iv] Pope Gregory himself aspired to lead this papal fighting force against the ‘Saracens’ and ‘pagans’. There are numerous references from Pope Gregory’s correspondences overtly implying Saracens as the ultimate public enemy number one. This militant zeal of casting Saracens and pagans as an existential threat two decades later culminated in Pope Urban’s call for the Crusades in 1095.

In Pope Gregory’s rallying calls and letters to the Christian nobles, the only evident characteristic that the Saracens possess is a general hostility towards Christianity sans any other ideological or theological content which is very familiar to the currently ever increasing echoes of why-do-they-hate-us’ monologue . The Muslims of Spain were daubed by the Pope as ‘pagans ignorant of God’. In another instance, he clubs together devil, Jews, Saracens and pagans. Political expediency and Papal priorities helped forge an atmosphere of fear and hate by safely ignoring out of hand the overtures made by Pope Gregory to the Emir Al-Nazir and erasing out all differences in which Pope Gregory had found common ground between Christianity and Islam. Edward Gibbon rightly credits Pope Gregory for arousing the entire enterprise against the Muslims.[v] This project which aimed at unifying the warring knights of Europe and affirming the primacy of the Papal authority-at a time when the Carolingian empire established by Charlemagne lay in its deathbed-became the cornerstone for the evolution of a virulent anti-Islam discourse which became tightly woven into the fabric and psyche of nascent European.

It was only in the early seventeenth century that the terms Muslim and Islam entered the vocabulary of western European languages.[vi] Prior to that Muslim identity had often been confusingly referred to by the Church officials armed with a slew of identities such as Saracens, Moors, Persians, Arabs, Ishmaelites, Turks, etc. such that Pope Urban on one instance described the infidel enemy in Jerusalem as Persians. With these identities were merged disparaging connotations like evil, idolaters, race with a huge sexual appetite, etc. Biblical narratives and interpretations played a primal role in the imagination of early medieval Christians. Christian textual tradition offered profound imagery to frame the emerging enemy. Apocalyptic traditions and predictions of impending doom contained in the New Testament were further imagined by polemicists to define the emergence of Islam as marking the beginning of the end of times and Muhammed as the Antichrist. Christendom’s insecurities were projected into the person of the Prophet of Islam.

Eulogious of Cordoba who lived in the early ninth century was the first Latin author to label Muhammed the Antichrist.[vii] John of Damascus, in his references to Islam in the text De haeresibus positions Muslims as idolaters with Kaaba in Mecca being imagined as an idol in the image of the Greek goddess Aphrodite .[viii] Robert the Monk in his Historia Iherosolimitana reports Pope Urban at Clermont calling believers to take up arms against “the race of Persians, a foreign people and a people rejected by God”.[ix] The church clergy imagined Muhammed to be an idol worshipped by pagan Arabs (Muslims). The eleventh century nun Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim portrays the Caliph of Cordoba, Abdurahman III as worshipping golden idols. Many of the chroniclers of the first Crusade actually believed that Muslims had erected a statue of ‘their god Mahomet’ at Jerusalem at the Dome of the rock. Monasteries in Western Europe took the lead in propagating a parochial image of Muhammed. The Chronographia of Theophanes written in 815 A.D. recounts that Muhammed promised to all who followed him a paradise full of sensual delights; eating, drinking and sex and that Muhammed “said many other things full of profligacy and stupidity.” The Chronographia was to become the primary source of information on Muhammed and Islam until the 12th century. Apart from the clergy, twelfth century Latin poets penned more colourful impressions of Muhammed as a pseudo prophet, serial adulterer and the founder of a heretical sect. The Otia de Machometi composed by Gautier de Compiegne presented Muhammed as a wily maleficent scheming scoundrel who longed to marry the rich widow Khadija to enrich himself. He goes on to say that Muhammad hoodwinked his people by covering up his epileptic seizures as divine intercession. Gautier mentions that Muhammed’s followers considered him a god and in his denouement with quite relief celebrates the fact that “Muhammed received the punishment he deserved in hell.” Taking into context present day Europe, it is compelling to note that Otia de Machometi was translated into French by Alexander du Pont in 1258.[x] Chroniclers and theologians of the day were explicitly obsessed in exposing the evilness and deceitfulness of Muhammed and what we witness today is the extrapolation of these adjectives onto the entirety of the Muslim community.

From a theological perspective, the more influential of texts is an anonymous text known as the Risalat al-Kindi, a supposed exchange of letters between two friends; a Muslim and a Christian. This text is a detailed refutation of Islam and its essence of rebuttal is as usual the personality of Muhammed who is once again portrayed as an idolater who used guile and cunning to fool the simple nomads who knew nothing about prophecy. The anonymous author is also shocked by a prophet being a married man. The Dominican missionaries undertook the evangelization of Jews and Muslims in Christian Europe and for this the Dominican theologians studied Islamic texts. One of their leading texts against Muhammed was the De seta Machometi by a Dominican friar named Ramon Marti. Ramon Marti claims that Muhammed is the false prophet Jesus foresaw in the New Testament. The prong of the attack is against Muhammed’s sexual escapades which were more than enough for Marti to denounce Muhammed as unholy. An interesting oddity is Marti’s claim that although homosexuality is illegal in Islam, Muhammed “gave cause and occasion to his followers to perpetrate this crime almost without shame and fear[xi]”. The vision of Muhammed as a false prophet was further strengthened in supposedly learned polemics as can be seen in works like Contra legem Saracenorum by the Dominican friar Riccoldo da Montecroce and the Cribratio Alcorani by Nicholas of Cusa. Even in reformist tradition, Martin Luther in the preface to twelfth century translation of the Quran affirms that there is no better way to tackle the Turks than to expose the “lies and fables” of Muhammed. The fifteenth century Italian humanist and moral philosopher Andrea Biglia depicts Muhammed as “a horrible beast of hell”. In 1697, Humphrey Prideaux, an Anglican minister and Oxford educated doctor of theology published The True Nature of the Impostor fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet in which the author is at pains citing earlier such works to sketch Muhammed as obsessed by lust and ambition which he follows by the facade of prophethood. Colonial apologist William Muir in his discerning work on Muhammed writes, “Britain must not faint until her millions in the East abandon both the false prophet and the idol shrines.” This portrayal has been a recurrent common theme throughout the turbulent and ever changing landscape of European history. The Pope and the Catholic Church, the Reformation movement, various Christian denominations, poets and literary figures, humanists and philosophers during the Age of Reason, historians and chroniclers, apologists of empire all saw in Muhammed an icon to be despised and hated and this emphatically proved decisive in their political goals and adventures.

By erasing all commonality between the two faiths, Christian Orthodoxy presented the Muslim as the exact opposite of what a devout Christian must aspire to be. Muslims were godless, inherently violent, barbaric whose annihilation was rewarded with salvation. Muslims were pushed in the words of Fanon into the ‘zone of non-being’. Common grounds such as the fact that both Muslims and Christians worshipped the same God were now lost never to be reclaimed. This was all happening in an era when Muslims were at the doors of the Eastern Byzantine empire in the east and were firmly rooted in modern day Spain in the west and were making forays into present day France. In stark contrast, rivalling Sultans and Emirs did not find their faith an impediment to allying with Christian Kings in south Europe in battling each other.

Many other theological pronouncements and texts had its impact on legislation as well. In lands taken from the Muslims especially in the Iberian Peninsula, social and religious restrictions which became increasingly tighter were placed on Muslims which led to the exclusion and ultimately to the expulsion of Muslims from west Europe. Modern day Europe’s failure to relate to difference, be it veil, minarets, Halal food or anything visibly Islamic, can also be traced back to this period. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council imposed a range of legislative measures to protect Christian purity from Muslim contamination which included a dress code so as to avoid accidental mixing, banishment of Muslims from public space during Holy Week and exclusion of Muslims from positions of authority over Christians. King Alfonso of Castile in the thirteenth century envisioned complete separation of the two communities. Conversion to Islam was prohibited, Muslim worship within the sight of Christians was banned and so were conjugal relations between Muslims and Christians.[xii] These measures culminated in the total expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Western Europe. Those who stayed back could only do so at the expense of converting to Christianity and these new converts or Moors as they were called were considered as second class citizens owing to their impure blood lineage. This discrimination on the basis of blood and lineage laid down the edifice for modern day racist discourses.

After the fall of the last Muslim stronghold in the Iberian peninsula, Granada on 2nd January 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand moved into the Alhambra Palace where they received Christopher Columbus on 11th January 1492. The permission and fund for exploiting the New World were granted and in October the same year Columbus falters in to the Americas. What was interesting was that Columbus understood his project as a step towards the recovery of Jerusalem. His original plan was to reach India from the west, align with the pro-Christian Mongols and by thus encircling the Muslims liberate the Holy Land. The discovery of the immense wealth of the Americas further strengthened Columbus’ resolve for the possibility of using this new found wealth in financing an army for taking Jerusalem. In his journals, Columbus in fact reminds the monarch of his request “that all the proceeds of this voyage should be used for the conquest of Jerusalem”.[xiii] The entire voyage of discoveries that are narrated today as an expression of the innate human quest for discovery and the yearning for exploration was in fact primordially financed and envisioned with the Muslim enemy in mind.

The genocide and barbarity that transpired is common knowledge and owing to this numerous race theorists like Dr Syed Mustafa Ali have dubbed the fall of Muslim Spain as the Big Bang of race discrimination.When the Spaniards encountered the natives of the newly discovered Americas, there was a fascinating dispute among the intelligentsia of the time as to how to deal with the indigenous people. What followed is a relatively well known episode in the European political thought, the debate between Bartolome de las Casas, an adherent of the Dominican order and Juan Gines de Sepulveda, a notable philosopher and a translator of Aristotle. The opposing views were presented in an assembly of learned men summoned by Emperor Charles V at Valladolid in 1550.[xiv] This assembly was convened in order to establish the manner and laws by which the Catholic faith could be preached in the New World and in what form these people may remain subject to the Emperor. The image of the Muslim or the image of the Turk-expressed in nationalistic terms owing to the lack of vocabulary- greatly underpinned the entire discourse. The paradigm on how to deal with these newly discovered people was the identity of the Turk. Where the Dominican Las Casas tried to prove that the natives were not like the Turks and should be treated peacefully and called to the way of the Lord, Sepulveda argued that the natives were like the Turks and it would be just to wage war against them if they prefer to continue to live in their brutish and uncivilized ways. The Turk was the other which drew the line between civilization and barbarity as the image of the ‘otherized’ Turk was integral to the development of European political thought.

Furthermore after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Turks became the prime existential threat and the severest enemy of Christendom. The humanist Enea Silvio Piccolomini who later became Pope Pius II is credited with inventing the notion of Europe. This notion of Europe was developed with the identification of Christianity as the religion of this geographical space. This idea was articulated by Pius II in opposition to the Turkish peril. Pius II preached the language of Holy War in wresting ‘back’ land and possessions lost to the Turks. What Pius II ingeniously crafted was this new geopolitical language in which this ‘lost land’ was part of Christianity, which, despite being a universal concept, was defined in part by the geographical boundaries extending to the Muslim lands. So now, what was being assaulted was not just Christianity but Europe as well. This became the rallying cry for a new Holy War and this war for Europe was a Christian war. Unfortunately for Pius II, the congress in Mantua which was convened to decide on defending the Christian republic failed to endorse a new Crusade, though it did succeed in formulating a political strategy vis-a-vis the barbaric Turk which would be evolved further by prominent Christian humanists like Erasmus of Rotterdam, St Thomas More, Justus Lipsius and a whole host of others. For a detailed analysis of the emergence of this new European identity, Thomas Mastnak’s “Islam and the Creation of the European Identity” is an indispensable and invaluable study.

Without this animosity and hatred of the Muslim which was embodied in Muhammed, there would be no European history in the literal sense. Anti-Muslim discourse and the subsequent call for action against this Muslim menace continue to be part of the European psyche. This theo-political formation was manifested in modern Europe in its most savage form in Bosnia. Bosnian Muslims who saw themselves standing for “European values” and not known to adhere to a strict or literal “Muslimness” paid dearly as a result of their identity or what we could say their blood lineage. Bosnia like Cordoba and Granada were to be cleansed of Muslims to uphold European values and the conflict was depicted as a result of “age-old hatreds” and this narrative was reinforced by none other than Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis both of whom were quoted extensively by both Serb and Croat nationalists to justify the Muslim threat.[xv] The Islamophobic racist foetus integral to the Charlie Habdo magazines is not impregnated, as liberal champions would like to argue, by the Enlightenment secular discourse but rather was fathered by Christendom and nurtured and perfected through the last thousand years. Islam due to its nature resisting secularisation and its personification in the person of Muhammed will continue to haunt the imagination of those trying to universalize asymmetrical liberal European values and these unwarranted fears can only be allayed through an atmosphere of multiculturalism, respect and plurality which was the norm in Mohammedan lands.

In the words of Professor Salman Sayyid “Europe needs to decolonise and liberate itself and at the heart of all this is the crisis of European, and not Muslim identity.”


[i] Islam and the Making of Europe by Tomaz Mastnak

[ii] European Account of Muhammed’s Life by John V. Tolan

[iii] Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism by Jonathan Lyons

[iv] God’s War: A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman

[v] The First Crusade: A New History by Thomas Asbridge

[vi] Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination by John V. Tolan

[vii] Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism by Jonathan Lyons

[viii] John of Damascus on Islam: The Heresy of the Ishmaelites by Daniel J. Sahas

[ix] Robert the Monk’s History of the First Crusade by Carol Sweetenham

[x] Christian Reaction to Muslim Conquests by John V. Tolan

[xi] European Account of Muhammed’s Life by John V. Tolan

[xii] Ibid

 [xiii] The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy by Emran Qureshi and Michael A. Sells

[xiv] Fictions in Political Thought: Les Casas, Sepulveda, the Indians and the Turks by Tomaz Mastnak

[xv] The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy by Emran Qureshi and Michael A. Sells


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