ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Charlie Hebdo Affair and the Spectre of Majoritarianism

This article draws parallels between the seemingly disconnected responses from the Muslim and the Western worlds to the Charlie Hebdo affair to argue that these demonstrated the disciplinary power of the globally ascendant idea that public sentiments of the majority are sacred and ought to be protected by state and society alike.

It has now been around four months since two French citizens, brothers Saïd Kouachi and Chérif Kouachi, stormed the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The ostensible reason for their attack was the previous publication of cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad that the brothers now sought to “avenge.” A week later, Charlie Hebdo responded by publishing yet more cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in its so-called “survivors’ issue,” sparking a wave of protests across the Muslim world.

The various elements of these protests—charges of blasphemy, visible displays of outrage occasionally punctuated with violence, the outpouring of statements by politicians condemning the cartoons, etc—were only too familiar, thanks to their similarity with those surrounding the publication of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 and the circulation of an amateur film Innocence of Muslims in 2012. A similar routinisation was apparent in the Western world, notably Europe, where a narrative centred on free speech sought to cement the notion that there is a fundamental divide between the freedom-loving West and the intolerant world of Muslims.

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