Hebdo and Jyllandes-Posten: Blasphemy in Modern Society

Theology Editor Bea Fones examines the relative controversies produced by Jyllands-Posten’s and Charlie Hebdo’s images of the Prophet Muhammad. 

One can rarely put forward a view without another party disagreeing, in either a religious or secular context. Furthermore, in any situation where there exists religious worship, there exists also the potential for this worship to be scorned. And this scorn, however harmless its motives may be, is prone to prompting violent response. This essay is concerned with two controversies which developed as a result of this foundation; those surrounding the satirical portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad in Jyllands-Posten, Denmark’s largest newspaper, and in Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly magazine, and their consequences over the last two decades.

The essay will, after briefly summarizing both these cases, explore the nature of the controversies surrounding them, and the motivations of the parties involved, along with the possible reasons to sympathise with or condemn them. I will discuss the reasons to be suspicious of the narrative framework repeatedly drawn around the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and shootings, and the often arbitrary nature of offence masquerading as satire, herein embodied by Flemming Rose and Jyllands-Posten, as well as contrast between Western treatment of religious and non-religious sacrament. Crucially, I will illustrate how the cry of “Free speech!” often masks latent prejudice which targets the most disempowered groups in society.

In 2005, Flemming Rose, then culture Editor of Jyllands-Posten, commissioned a dozen Danish cartoonists to draw cartoons focusing on Islam or Islamism, despite opposition from within the paper’s staff (Ghazi, 2006: 76). In attempting to hit back at a culture of “self-censorship”, Rose sparked responses, and a slowly developing controversy, from within the Muslim community on a twofold basis of reasoning: firstly, objections to any depiction of Muhammad, and secondly, objections on the basis of the content, which could be easily read as painting Islam as a violent religion of terrorists, particularly in the image of the Prophet wearing a turban stylised as a bomb.

Later in 2005, a delegation of 12 Danish imams visited the Middle East to present a dossier of cartoons, including those published in Jyllands-Posten, sparking a boycott of Danish goods by several Muslim countries, the publication of the cartoons by various media in other European countries (Charlie Hebdo among them) and eventually violent demonstrations against the cartoons in February 2006, culminating in the burning of Danish embassies in Syria and Gaza. 139 people were killed worldwide in relation to the Danish cartoons in Jyllands-Posten (Howard-Hassman, 2015: 468).

The Charlie Hebdo offices, similarly, were firebombed in 2011 after publishing their “Charia Hebdo” edition, purporting to have the Prophet Muhammad as a “guest editor”, and featuring a cartoon of the Prophet on the cover, with the caption ”100 lashes if you don’t die laughing!” Charlie Hebdo’s publishing of cartoons which could be seen as inciting violence continued, and some years after the firebombing incident, 12 people were killed after two gunmen attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, in January 2015, including magazine editorial staff and a security guard standing outside. The incident prompted massive demonstrations across the world, as entire nations proclaimed, “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie).

The cartoons published in Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo prompted controversy not so much because they were simply blasphemous, but because they were seen to represent a direct attack on Islam, and promote the Islamophobia already present in the West. It is unlikely that the cartoons would have garnered such strong reactions were they not spread further around the world by those opposed to their publication. Controversies such as the two named herein are rarely limited to one country or cultural group; “as texts cross the boundaries between normative groups of all kinds—including religious groups—tone and manner are often wilfully and dangerously distorted” (Benesch, 2015: 254), by those who would seek to incite violence amongst those who take offence to these texts or materials.

“Stéphane Charbonnier, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist and long-time editor of the paper, explained before he was killed in January 2015 that the cartoons were intended to ridicule Muslim extremists, not all Muslims.” (Benesch, 2015: 249) However, “Charb”, as he was known, failed to admit that the intentions meant nothing once they had prompted severe responses of anger and disappointment from Muslims worldwide.

“Satire is peaceful, even if it stings. It does not kill; it ridicules and publicly exposes that which others wish to keep hidden. It moves us to laughter, not to fear or hatred.” (Rose, 2015: 40) Ironic, then, that the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo, and earlier Jyllands-Posten, can themselves be read as an attack on faith, and on Islam in particular; to caricature a minority is to emphasise their otherness, and one cannot abdicate responsibility for this by stepping back and claiming one intended only to make others laugh.

According to Rose, “the price that we all have to pay to live in a democracy where there is freedom of speech and freedom of religion, is that no one has a special right to not be offended. The staff of Charlie Hebdo won’t have died in vain if we choose that road as an answer to their murder.” (Rose, 2015: 44) There is quite a clear distinction, however, between speaking critically of that which we oppose, and belittling those in a weaker position than ourselves. “If satire is meant to ridicule the powerful, that does not appear to apply to the religion of Islam or to Muslims in France.” (Howard-Hassman, 2015: 471) Similarly, Carens emphasizes that “in Denmark, the Muslim minority has been marginalized socially, economically and politically, and has been portrayed as a threat to the Danish nation” (cited in Modood, T et al, 2006: 37) Then, it is somewhat cowardly to strike at those who are disempowered, even if a publication also targets those in power in the same way. The power structures within society do not allow us to divorce a religion from its economic and social context.

A left-wing historian and sociologist, Emmanuel Todd, saw the demonstrations as “an affirmation of the middle class’s moral superiority and domination, and their Islamophobic quest for a scapegoat,” (Chrisafis, 2015) contrary to the near deification of Charlie Hebdo expressed by most of French society. His standpoint was clear: those proclaiming “I am Charlie!” were amongst the most privileged in society. The demonstrations, as a result, were simply posturing. “Here was clear fraud. The street demonstrations were the self-glorification of the French middle class. That made me explode.” (Todd, quoted in Chrisafis, 2015) The narratives surrounding both sets of cartoons have painted Islam as backward and other, desiring to suppress free speech. The West, conversely, is portrayed as intrinsically linked with freedom and the right to speak out. The “holier-than-thou” attitude of the demonstrators standing “with Charlie” continued a trend of right-wing, middle-class support for the right to bully and exclude the “outsider”.

Moderate Muslims across Europe have, in the wake of Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo, come under pressure to “prove their eligibility for admission to secular society by demonstrating their capacity to endure caricature and to have their Prophet mocked and debased.” (Asad et al., 2013: xii) To oppose the cartoons, without condemning those who took their opposition to the level of violence, would be to expose oneself as other, and as inadmissible to “democratic” Western society. Todd concurs with Asad; “they [Muslims] needed to admit that blasphemy, in the form of caricatures of Muhammad, was an integral part of French identity.” (Todd, 2015: 14) This twisted logic has, to a great extent, contributed to the politicization of numerous citizens who have turned to extremism, betrayed by and vilified in what they saw as their home countries.

“Charlie Hebdo was perhaps the only European publication that, despite threats and incendiary attacks, insisted on the right to continue making fun of all religions. It aimed its darts at the Pope as often as it did at the Prophet. It worked from a well-established tradition in which nothing is sacred.” (Rose, 2015: 41) Rose’s argument that sanctity is imagined and meaningless ties in with the idea that once a religious figure or text is in the public domain, it is fair game for those who would demean it. However, just because it is possible to poke fun at any religious symbol in the name of free speech and equal treatment, does not mean it is right. Rather than freedom of expression, such actions become embodiments of “a western attitude underlined by license, as against a Muslim position underpinned by helplessness.” (Ghazi, 2006: 28)

This defiant quote from Stéphane Charbonnier, a cartoonist, journalist and Director of Publications at Charlie Hebdo, murdered in the 2015 attacks, exemplifies the spirit of the Charlie Hebdo writers; “C’est peut-être un peu pompeux ce que je vais dire, mais je préfère mourir debout que vivre à genoux.” (quoted in Hollis-Toure, 2016: 300) I believe that Todd, and several others who do not subscribe to the narrative of hero-worship surrounding Charlie Hebdo, would agree with me when I say that affording some respect to already marginalized groups in society is hardly the same as living on one’s knees, or living in fear. Rather, publishing cartoons of the kind found in Jyllands-Posten in 2005, and repeatedly found in Charlie Hebdo is fear-mongering and a form of oppression in itself.

Ironically, Rose chose to view the Danish cartoons controversy from the vantage point of fighting totalitarianism; claiming a duty to publish provocative work. Additionally, and somewhat perversely, Rose claimed that publishing the cartoons was an attempt to integrate Muslims into Danish society by exposing Danish Muslims to the same insults experienced by regular Danes. This reasoning comes across as insincere at best, and flawed and arrogant at worst. “Europe has to choose which is more important, the right to ridicule Muslims or the integration of Muslims,” (Modood, T et al, 2006: 6) and scorn and marginalization is not a step towards successful integration. Rose refused to apologize for his actions, and rather seemed to fan the flames as he “argued that the cartoons could have a positive effect on their Muslim recipients” (Kahn, 2010: 263). It is not difficult to find an argument in opposition to Rose. Modood summarises it as such; even if Jyllands-Posten did not seek to offend, “there clearly was a purpose of trying to achieve some kind of victory over Muslims, to bring Muslims into line (Modood, T et al, 2006: 5).

Hansen attempts to more clearly define the distinction between racial and religious hatred, claiming that the Jyllands-Posten cartoons embodied only the latter, and essentially, that any media organ, scholar or historian can cite good reasons to object to religion (Modood, T et al, 2006: 12). Whilst it is true that there was no direct racial attack in either set of cartoons, it is undeniable that they represent a wider distrust of Islam in the West, and a targeted xenophobia against refugees and migrants. Bleich expresses incredulity at Hansen’s claim that “[equating] Islam with terrorism, violence and death is not racism… Muslims are being constructed as the newest ethno-racial outsiders in Europe.” (cited in Modood, T et al, 2006: 17)

After the Danish cartoons incident, Western press “typically complained that Muslims were iconoclasts who wished to censor the use of images by Westerners.” (Klausen: 2009: 132) Similarly, the position of British newspapers after the Charlie Hebdo shootings used emotive and inflammatory language surrounding the “jihadists’ warped morality” (Express, 2015) and “murderous attack on Western freedoms” (Mail Online, 2015). Even fairly moderate publications such as the Times praised Charlie: “its cartoonists are heroes” (The Times, 2015). The Independent, however, warned against the dangers of feeding Islamophobia across Europe as a result of the attacks, that right-wing parties would “surely use the Paris attack to feed an Islamophobic agenda that elides the gap between the murderous barbarisms of a tiny few with the peaceful lives of the many.” But mainly, the Western media equated the cartoons with liberty, making the victims martyrs for the cause of free speech and the ability to insult without repercussion.

Satire  is  one  of  the  ways  in  which  an  open  society  answers  violence, threats, and barbarity. Satire is peaceful, even if it stings. It does not kill; it ridicules and publicly exposes that which others wish to keep hidden. It moves us to laughter, not to fear or hatred. Satire is one of the ways in which an open society answers violence, threats, and barbarity. Satire is peaceful, even if it stings. It does not kill; it ridicules and publicly exposes that which others wish to keep hidden. It moves us to laughter, not to fear or hatred.

Perhaps the controversy surrounding both sets of cartoons would not have been so intense if it had not taken place against an already ingrained backdrop of acceptable Islamophobia in Western society. Let us consider this.

The othering of minorities is not new. Islamophobia is not new, and it is worth considering that, on the part of Jyllands-Posten, “this profanity was, in fact, the culmination of a consistent campaign by fanatic groups” within Denmark and Europe. (Ghazi, 2006: 75) A Danish government unresponsive to calls for protecting the peaceful Muslim minority, itself contributed to “revenge by the underdog” (Ghazi, 2006: 36) in the form of eventual violent demonstration. In the case of the Danish cartoons, it is true that thousands of peaceful protestors against the cartoons’ publication went unnoticed. “Nobody in the world however cared about a genuine grievance until the peaceful passive campaigning turned into vocal, sometimes violent, street protests”. (Ghazi, 2006: 20)

The cartoons in Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo, and the subsequent attacks on the publications and mass hysteria in the form of kicking back at Islamism, have contributed more than we can often see to the marginalization of Muslims in modern Europe; the controversies themselves became a “welcome rallying cry” for certain extreme Muslim regimes, politicising and turning people to hate. Through continual marginalization, Western governments and media ensured that “Muslims would always be a body apart” (Langer, 2014: 49), sparking exactly the kind of hateful fire that right-wing nationalists within Europe would seek to stoke. Aspects of Western society, for allowing these xenophobic sentiments to develop, are as much to blame for the attacks on Jyllands-Posten and Charlie-Hebdo as the actual attackers. “A fire is a fire, nonetheless. If outraged Muslims burned diplomatic missions in Damascus and Beirut, so did some extremist western leaders who deliberately fanned the blaze of intolerance ignited by Jyllands-Posten.” (Ghazi, 2006: 21)

The social media storm, the slogan “#JeSuisCharlie” [I am Charlie] emblazoned on nearly every profile picture, newspaper website and media photograph, following the Paris attacks of 2015 is an indicator of the rallying power of the notion of free speech under threat, despite all obstacles. The words became somewhat symbolic of French nationalism, and of international unity, bringing together public figures and politicians across the world; those in power who Charlie Hebdo had always scorned. “The wording [on memorials to the Charlie Hebdo victims] seems to capitalise on the global outpouring of solidarity for France, making Tignous, Wolinski, Charb, Honoré and Cabu in particular into representatives of a patriotism that they may not have felt and in any case brutally mocked when alive.” (Hollis-Toure, 2016: 297)

This patriotism, which bloomed regardless of what the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists intended before their deaths, is a link in the disturbing chain which connects Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo. “By framing the publication of the cartoons and subsequent events as a struggle of ideas or a battle against Islamism, between the West and radical Muslims, between secular democracy and totalitarian theocracy… Jyllands-Posten was able to infer that ‘Islamism is the totalitarian threat of our time’” (Meer and Mouritsen, 2009: 343) This narrative of the West vs. Islam is extraordinarily damaging, and it is reprehensible of publications like Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo to promote it. Meer and Mouritsen later posit a view which I find difficult to swallow. “Jyllands-Posten made an important counter-argument about resisting ‘moderation’. Satire and provocation was part and parcel of an open and plural debate or dialogue (providing the Islamic world refrained from threats and abuses), and such dialogue was furthered by not pulling one’s punches.” (Meer and Mouritsen, 2009: 347) I would disagree. Social responsibility encompasses not only not bending the knee to our oppressors, but also resisting becoming the oppressor ourselves through our efforts. Resisting self-censorship does not excuse inciting hate.

I would suggest that we, as individual humans, possess an instinctive knowledge of what others will find offensive. It is therefore our choice whether to use this material or not, and if we do so, we must question whether it is being used simply to offend. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, it appears that their entire value system is built upon the foundations of simple transgression rather than considered motives.

Howard-Hassman considers “whether good manners or “liberal civility” should prevail” when asking ourselves whether it is right to publish cartoons like those discussed above (Howard-Hassman, 2015: 468). Here, I would draw attention to a more recent publication by Charlie Hebdo, when in January 2016, approximately a year after the Paris attacks, they published an edition causing outrage and disappointment by “suggesting drowned toddler Alan Kurdi would have grown up to be a sexual abuser like those immigrants allegedly involved in the assaults in Cologne” (Meade, 2016). It is unlikely that Charlie Hebdo were truly insinuating that the child would have grown up to assault women, and rather, were commenting on the tendency of Western media to make sweeping statements about refugee motivations and behaviour in the aftermath of the Cologne attacks. However, regardless of their intention, it seems in unutterably poor taste to use the image of a drowned child to further a satirical agenda.

Bearing this in mind, I would suggest that it is not acceptable to hail Charlie Hebdo and their supporters as heroes of free speech and democracy, without considering wider circumstances than just their Muhammad cartoons, and subsequent attacks. The Paris attacks of 2015 were a tragedy, an extremist response to the publication of controversial material, but not an entirely unexpected one. The onus is not on Charlie Hebdo for the crimes committed against them, but for the material they published. Although the violent response of the attackers is inexcusable, this does not necessarily mean that we must condone all of Charlie Hebdo’s prior and previous decisions on the basis that they were attacked for being proponents of free speech. Charlie cartoonists are, in a manner of speaking, anti-heroes, immortalised through the January 2015 attack, and afforded the rosy glaze we so often gift to those killed in the name of free speech. “Not every victim is a martyr, and one does not become a hero simply by offending people.” (Cavanaugh, 2015) The victims deserve recognition for their work, and respect for the manner in which they died, but not celebration for the prejudice they legitimised.

The response from Iran to the Danish cartoons, a proposed contest for artists to draw cartoons depicting the Holocaust, prompts us to look inwards; why do we react with horror at the very idea of depicting the Holocaust in such a way, but have no qualms about targeting a religious sacrament? The notion of sanctity is very different in secular societies than in religious ones, though memorials for the Holocaust have been afforded a near-religious reverence since the end of the Second World War. Thus, Todd sums it up neatly in his incredulous statement regarding the untouchable nature of the pro-Charlie demonstrations: “How could anyone oppose virtuous ignorance on the march, or dare state that these demonstrators, with their pencils as symbols of liberty, were insulting history?” (Todd, 2015: 15) Indeed, both sets of cartoons of Muhammad hold unpleasant echoes of those cartoons promoted by, among others, Julius Streicher in Der Stürmer, the anti-Semitic publication circulated during the Nazi occupation of Europe. “Muslims might be excused for being astonished at people who sneer at the world’s great faith traditions but declare themselves ready to die for Nazis, pornographers, and bigots… We must not glorify contempt for the non-secular “other,” those many Muslims, Christians, and Jews who do not think that blasphemy, racism, and pornography are something to celebrate.” (Cavanaugh, 2015) 

Maussen asserts that the Charlie Hebdo controversy was not simply concerned with free speech. “The strongest disqualification of their [the Charlie attackers’] acts can very well co-exist with an understanding for demands asking for regulation of public speech that is deemed offensive, shocking or experienced as a form of hate speech…” Even though we cannot condone the actions of the attackers in Paris in January 2015, “in framing the events in Paris the emphasis should be on the violent means that were employed, rather than on the underlying motives” (Maussen: 2015) Thus, it is perfectly acceptable to criticise Charlie Hebdo, and in fact, Jyllands-Posten, rather than worshipping them for their “courage” in attacking Islam.

I would emphasize, once again, the danger of glorifying Western values as a paragon of democratic virtue. Organs of the press, as we can see from the cases of Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo, are not infallible. I have demonstrated that free speech is not the only freedom at stake, when considering the impacts of the cartoons published in Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo, and the ensuing controversies. The desire to offend, shock and scorn must, in a modern society, come second to the right to practice one’s religion without being subject to hatred. Consequently, there is little choice but to condemn the actions of both publications, and their wilful promotion of the ostracising of European Muslims from the societies in which they live. Condemning violent acts such as the burning of embassies after the Jyllands-Posten incident, or the Charlie Hebdo shootings, does not mean we cannot reach within ourselves for some semblance of understanding for the communities targeted by hate speech, marginalized and othered.

It is not right simply to offend without reason. But even offending with reason often oversteps the boundaries of an accepted ethical code, one which we in the West are often far too willing to overlook in the name of free speech. Extremism is indeed the result of prejudice. But it is not only the prejudice of the attackers which we must condemn, and not only physical attacks which we should aim to prevent, but also hatred delivered in pseudo-intellectual strikes, made in the name of Western values.


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