On the heels of a week of sometimes-violent protests over the depiction of the prophet Mohammad in the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims, French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo chose to print cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet in its Wednesday issue. The move has added fuel to the ongoing debate about whether such depictions are free speech or provocative incitement.
CNN.com reported on the publication of the cartoons, describing the defense used by Charlie Hedbo:
Stephane Charbonnier, director of the French magazine, said his staff is “not really fueling the fire” but rather using its freedom of expression “to comment (on) the news in a satirical way.”
Concerns have arisen that these images may provoke a reaction similar to what happened when cartoons depicting Mohammad were printed in the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2005. The publication of the Danish cartoons led to worldwide protest, boycott, censorship attempts, and even murder charges against four individuals for allegedly planning an attack on the Dutch newspaper.
Indeed, Charlie Hebdo is no stranger to violent protests over their decision to ignore one of the chief taboos of Islamic culture: Muslim teachings state that depicting Mohammad runs the risk of creating a false idol, directing worship away from Allah. Last November, the paper’s offices were attacked with a molotov cocktail in advance of publishing a cover mocking Islamic law.
The magazine claims to have “learned their lesson,” and chose not to make this week’s cartoons a cover story. Charbonnier further downplayed objections, claiming that the intent is not to mock the religion or its followers, but instead to ridicule the poorly-made Innocence of Muslims. From CNN.com:
The magazine was directing its derision at “this grotesque film,” Charbonnier said, not the Muslim prophet.
However, critics are not convinced that the cartoons are anything more than a publicity grab.
The French government has made no moves to censor or decry the magazine’s editorial decisions, supporting the publication of the cartoons as protected free speech. The French government did, however, express some concerns:
“We have a free press that can express itself right up to the point of caricature,” [French Prime Minister Jean-Marc] Ayrault said Tuesday. “But there is also a question of responsibility.”
Numerous French embassies in primarily Muslim countries will be closed on Friday in anticipation of possible protests.
Laurent Leger, a Charlie Hebdo journalist, defends the work as within the magazine’s legal rights, just as those who object to the cartoons are within their own right to protest the cartoons, within reason:
“In France, we always have the right to write and draw. And if some people are not happy with this, they can sue us and we can defend ourselves. That’s democracy. You don’t throw bombs; you discuss, you debate. But you don’t act violently. We have to stand and resist pressure from extremism.”
France has been taking steps to distance itself from the global protests, even taking legal action to suppress Muslim protests over Innocence of Muslims. Combined with last year’s ban on Islamic face-veils, French Muslims may be left wondering where the protection is for their own freedom of speech and expression.
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Joe Izenman is a freelance writer and musician in Tacoma, Washington. He owns a lot of comics and he’s pretty sure someone, somewhere would be offended by more than a few of them.