You didn’t have to be a journalist or cartoonist to be shaken by the news that members of the staff of Charlie Hebdo magazine had been murdered at their weekly editorial meeting, but it certainly helped.
How then must a cartoonist who has drawn Muhammad once a week for the last decade have felt on hearing the news from Paris?
The author of the online comic Jesus and Mo is such a cartoonist. The serial offender, who uses the pen name Mohammed Jones to preserve his anonymity, told me he was “utterly devastated” after the attacks, so much so that he couldn’t work for days. “The question arose, ‘Can I go on?’. It wasn’t to do with fear because I’m still impeccably anonymous. I was just so upset about the whole thing that the question was, ‘Can I still write funny cartoons?’ Can I still make light of all this?” Eventually, however, he realised that “business as usual is the only way to respond” to such intimidation.
The historian Tom Holland, whose Channel 4 documentary on the origins of Islam led to death threats, has described Jones as “the Eric and Ernie of monotheism”. His comic strip is a plainly-drawn religious satire in which Jones uses conversations between flatmates Jesus and Muhammad to send up many of the absurdities he sees, not just in Islam and Christianity, but in organised religion in general.
Unsurprisingly, Jones has run into controversy before. In 2013, two LSE students were ejected from the university’s freshers’ fair and branded “Islamophobic” for wearing T-shirts with the cartoon on them. When Maajid Nawaz, chairman of the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam and Liberal Democrat candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, pointed out that he was a Muslim and was not offended by Jesus and Mo, he received threats typified by the Twitter user who wrote: “Have spoken to someone in Pakistan. They will have a surprise for him on his next visit.”
At one stage, Jones contemplated lifting the blanket of anonymity that has let him work safely for a decade. There is no chance of him revealing his identity now.
Christopher Hitchens wrote: “For our time and generation, the great conflict between the ironic mind and the literal mind, the experimental and the dogmatic, the tolerant and the fanatical, is the argument that was kindled by The Satanic Verses.” With murder in Copenhagen on the anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie, that argument is raging a fiercely as ever. Laugh at Jesus and Mo and remember that as soon as we have lost our sense of humour we have lost the argument.