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Why Ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad Is Europe's Oldest Tradition

20/01/2015 10:22 GMT | Updated 17/03/2015 09:59 GMT

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Image of 'I am Charlie' march by Ben Ledbetter

The Charlie Hebdo massacre sent shockwaves throughout the world and was widely interpreted as an attack on free speech. However, the attack on Charlie Hebdo was more than an attack on free speech; it was an attack on one of Europe's oldest traditions. Ridiculing, defaming, belittling and slandering the Prophet Muhammad are far older European traditions than free speech and democracy. The massacre in Paris comes at a time when French and Pan-European Identity is at a crossroads- the Russian annexation of Crimea, mass immigration and multiculturalism, economic hardships, declining religiosity, the ascent of a post-modern attitude that treats values with suspicion and the political revolts in the Middle East and North Africa.

The earliest attacks on the Prophet Muhammad came to Europe via the Christian Byzantine in the seventh and eighth century. In the Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizai, a dialouge is recorded between a Christian convert and several Jews, one of the participates relays a letter his brother wrote to him saying, "A deceiving prophet has appeared amidst the Saracens." Another participate says, "He (the Prophet Muhammad) is deceiving. For do prophets come with a sword and chariot?... You will discover nothing true from this said prophet except human bloodshed." These early myths about the Prophet Muhammad are still within western consciousness and have been expanded. By the ninth century, a number of hostile biographies of Muhammad appeared in Latin and some of them claimed that he was the awaited anti-Christ.

By the 12th century an obsession with Islam and Muhammad had developed and the first translation of the Qu'ran appeared in Latin, Lex Mahmuet Pseudoprophete. The translation is widely regarded to be inaccurate and deliberate distortion of the Qu'ran by scholars today, but the purpose of the translation was to enable Christian theologians to engage in polemics against Muslims. The translation led to a tide of literature about the prophet in Europe, various aspects of his life were scrutinised for evidence that he was a 'false prophet', from his love life to his teachings. The great protestant reformer, Martin Luther, regarded him to be "a devil and first-child of Satan."

The Prophet Muhammad even makes an appearance in Dante's The Divine Comedy: Inferno (Canto 28), where he is in the eighth circle of hell reserved for fraudsters. Muhammad is depicted with his entrails hanging out and Dante writes, "As I stared at him he looked back and his hands pulled his chest open, saying 'See how I split open the crack in myself! See how twisted and broken Mohammed is! Before me walks Ali, his face cleft from chin to crown, grief stricken.'" The importance of the Prophet Muhammad appearing in a classical tale in the form, tell us a great deal about the formation of European consciousness and identity.

The idea of an Islamic menace has always been a central rallying point for Europeaness and by extension Westerness. In the 11th century, Europe was bitterly divide by war between rival Christian monarchs, the Pope fearing the decline in papal authority tried to find away to end the in-fighting and unify Europe. He sought, and found, an external enemy in Islam that could unify Europe and he railed the various Christian Kingdoms to launch a Crusade to liberate Jerusalem. It's important to remember that at the time of the Crusades, Muslims controlled much of Spain, Portugal and Sicily and so getting the Christian monarchs to see the threat was not difficult. Since the Crusades, other Muslim menaces emerged from the Ottomans to the European-colonized Muslims in the 18th-19th century.

Even today, Islam is still seen as the 'other' for many Europeans and the post 9/11 war on terror has only exacerbated this tension. A poll carried out on Germans by Forsa opinions institute found that 52% believed that Islam doesn't belong in Germany. Similar results are found in other European countries whenever surveys are carried out. But the biggest difficulty for various European societies has been the ascent of multiculturalism and general equality for its new Muslim citizens. Muslims are now German, French, Dutch and British and no longer Ottoman soldiers at the gate to Vienna, and this has challenged the very idea of what it means to be a European. What does it now mean to be French or German? When the gunmen attacked Charlie Hebdo, they struck at the pressure point of this nerve. In many ways, the people who lined up to buy the last edition of Charlie Hebdo, were hoping the magazine would provide the answer to this question, who are we?