Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro, written at the close of the 18th century, included this freedom of speech monologue in Act V, Scene 3,
I cobble together a verse comedy about the customs of the harem, assuming that, as a Spanish writer, I can say what I like about Mohammed without drawing hostile fire. Next thing, some envoy from God knows where turns up and complains that in my play I have offended the Ottoman empire, Persia, a large slice of the Indian peninsula, the whole of Egypt, and the kingdoms of Barca [Ethiopia], Tripoli, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. And so my play sinks without trace, all to placate a bunch of Muslim princes, not one of whom, as far as I know, can read but who beat the living daylights out of us and say we are “Christian dogs.” Since they can’t stop a man thinking, they take it out on his hide instead.
Images of Muhammad, both pious and critical, have been produced almost continuously, for a half millennium by Muslim and non-Muslim artisans alike. Will the particularly radicalized Muslims of today destroy Dante’s images? And in an age where jihadism is run amok, why not ridicule one of its primary sources, i.e., the sacralized violence of Muhammad himself, this “Ecce Homo Arabicus”?
The cartoons are a healthy dose of long overdue criticism of the direct nexus between Muhammad’s actions, and jihadism, more therapeutic for the cowering West, but ultimately therapeutic for those Muslims who wish to embrace modernity as well.