French Cartoons Row – A Clash of Oriental and Occidental Values

Palestinians gather to protest against the French president, in the al-Aqsa mosque compound, in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 30, 2020. — Photo: AFP

Syed Ali Mujtaba | Clarion India

THE Charlie Hebdo cartoon controversy surrounding Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) is turning out to be an emotive issue that is taking the world by storm. The worldwide protest by Muslims against the caricature cartoons of their Prophet in the French satirical magazine suggests that the issue deeply hurts the believers of the Islamic faith, even though they are separated by the geographical boundaries of societies and nations.

Islam prohibits drawing images of Allah and his messenger Prophet Muhammad and its followers consider such acts as sacrilege.

These old cartoons have appeared in France and with it the old debate of freedom of expression versus other’s belief, faith and hurt sentiments has ignited again.

There are reports of violent protests by Muslims as inflamed sentiments continue to grow worldwide. As the controversy rages on, a few things emerge distinctively in this ongoing religion- versus-reason debate.

What emerges in this controversy is a perceptible difference of worldviews between the occidental and oriental societies.

The occidental societies take pride in superiority of mind over faith. In their view, rationalism is the sheet anchor of life and material achievements the yardstick of success.  In such societies, nothing is infallible and sacrosanct. Those who do not subscribe to this view are fundamentalist, dogmatic, regressive and medievalists.

In contrast, in oriental societies, where the pace of development is not so dramatic as in the case of occidental societies, people here adhere to what they believe.

Religion provides a worldview that is above individual and society, an answer to complex problems pertaining to one’s existentialism.

The mystical aura of religion to absorb the stress and strains of life attracts people to adore and obey it without questioning and also to jealously guard its infallibility and sanctity.

The clash of two worldviews clearly emerges from this controversy that’s raging in France now. The occidental worldview does not believe in full stops to freedom of expression, while the oriental view makes distinction between sacred and profane.

The oriental view believes that if some do not respect its own revered characters, it does not give them the licences to caricature the belief of others and make mockery of the views that are sacrosanct.

If we see the cartoon protest against this background, those feeling enraged by the blasphemous cartoons seem justified. The caricatures are nothing but a blatant attempt to demystify the sacrosanct symbol of Islam.

The protests are not really about cartoons but against those diabolic social designers who masquerade as liberals under the garb of freedom of expression.

The motive of the innocuous-looking caricatures is to create an orient-vs-occident divide, and open up the closed debate of mind- versus-faith. The subtext is to create disharmony in the world.

Those displaying the cartoon want to communicate that their occasional worldview is supreme and the only legitimate prism to see societies and nations of humans.  In other words, it’s a diktat, a fatwa from the liberal world that oriental societies should see their faiths and beliefs from the occidental looking glasses and negotiate their lives.

In the debate of mind-versus-faith, popular theories of revolution and modernisation had predicted an inevitable decline of the religion. However, the 21st Century perspective suggests this to be nowhere in sight. This includes the communist countries where systematic destruction of religion was carried out. Religion continues to energise the societies and the forces of modernisation have failed to respond to the social needs.

In orient, where there is so much tension and turbulence, everyone needs God for personal security. Religion alone remains the supreme integrating force, energising society to negotiate the complexities of their lives.

It is this unstinted faith of the believers of Islam that is being tarnished by those who sketched caricature cartoons. The reaction is by raising the banners of protests. Those protests are being frowned upon while those culpable of triggering disharmony are given the label of liberals.

Such kinds of issues that are being raked up assume political dimensions as there are a host of local, national and international problems galore behind such smokescreen.

Such issues touch the emotional chords of the Muslims worldwide in the absence of any other rallying point to give vent to their pent- up anger.

Such protests can be seen as symbolic manifestations against the injustice being carried out against them in the world today.

The big picture in the protests is the pent-up anger of Muslims against the occidental world. Unstitching old wounds of macabre dance of death being perpetuated on occidental societies is now being presented through these cartoon protests.

At some other locations of the world, the local and national issues take over the real issue. In France, where large migrants have settled down, the cartoon protest is all about racial discrimination, an assertion that occidental societies should stop racial abuse and they have to adjust with multi-culturalism.

The demonstration in the Arabian Peninsula is to raise voices against their rulers that have mortgaged their natural wealth to the West for exploitation.

The protests elsewhere have regional and local undertones, a unifying force to fight against injustice in their social system.

What emerges from the cartoon controversy is that, in the oriental societies, religion prevails over individuals. In occidental societies, it is individuals who prevail over the issue of faith and belief systems.

The story of caricature cartoons suggests that tension and turbulence continue to rule the roost in the world. It demonstrates how such issues create social disharmony. The protests in reaction suggest how much social discontentment exists in the world.

The World Wars and nuclear holocaust have not deterred people to move away from creating conflicts and discontentment. Human beings have learnt little lessons to come to terms with each other. Even covid-19 has failed to be a unifying force.


Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at


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