A week ago, most of us would have thought that Charlie Hebdo sounds like the sort of name a person would change by deed poll. Today, we know that it's a French satirical weekly that pus-hed the limits by publishing an image of the Prophet Mohammed on the cover saying he was the guest editor, evoking a violent reaction from the purported faithful. Of course, the Asso-ciation of Imams in France has appealed for peace, but the instant response of believers was to firebomb the office of the weekly. Per-ceived insults about or jokes at the expense of faith are touchy subjects in any religion. But the fury of the faithful is usually tempered by an equal and opposite reaction from those who defend the freedom of expression or the more liberal who feel that these things should be approached with a sense of humour rather than anger.
While Islam has a great comedic tradition, today harmless banter about the religion is often mistaken for deliberate goading. Those who are all too quick to condemn, indeed violently, as happen in the recent Charlie Hebdo case or the earlier one in 2005 when some Danish cartoons found offensive to Islam sparked off so much unrest that 50 people were killed in different parts of the world are often the only ones who make themselves heard. When Hindu goddesses were depicted by a painter in what some felt was an inappropriate manner, there was some amount of violence and hysteria. But there was a counter-offensive as it were by both the dyed-in-the-wool secularists and those who felt that this was not an important enough issue to waste time over. We see some outrage when Hindu motifs or depictions of gods adorn designer wear or other products, but this is usually nothing more than a momentary, if unpleasant, disruption. Similarly, works like Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ got many Christians into a lather, but the anger stopped short of overt violence. It may be a while before we see an Islamic version of Monty Python's Life of Brian, a bumbling comedy about a man born at the same time and next to Jesus who gets mistaken for the messiah. But surely, there are sizeable sections of Muslims who don't see any harm in either criticism of or humorous references to their faith.
A religion which is one of the oldest in the world and one of the most widespread is hardly so fragile as to be diminished by a few jibes or cracks. This is an argument that's been used with good effect in India against both the religious fundamentalists and the ultra-nationalists. And as time has gone by, there have been more takers for this middle path point of view. With democracy coming in across the Arab world, we are confident that this sort of over-the-top reaction that the Charlie Hebdo weekly invited will gradually diminish, for the very essence of democracy is the ability to tolerate other views, even though they may be unpalatable. This could herald the next progressive phase not just for the region, but for Islam as a whole. Jasmine evolution perhaps?