Charlie Hebdo Incident: An Example of Islamophobia or A Defense of Free Speech? Round Two - updated

Charlie Hebdo Incident: An Example of Islamophobia or A Defense of Free Speech? Round Two

by Sheila Musaji

Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, like Newsweek with its ‘Muslim Rage’ cover, and other reprehensible media outlets has decided to throw fuel on the flames of the current International crisis sparked by the “Innocence of Muhammad” film.  This is the second time Charlie Hebdo has carried out such a publicity stunt.  (See below for the article originally pubished on the first incident).

The NY Times reports

... The illustrations, some of which depicted Muhammad naked, hit newsstands across the country on Wednesday and were met with a swift rebuke from the government of François Hollande, which had earlier urged the magazine, Charlie Hebdo, not to publish the cartoons, particularly in the current tense environment.

“In France, there is a principle of freedom of expression, which should not be undermined,” Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister, said in a French radio interview. “In the present context, given this absurd video that has been aired, strong emotions have been awakened in many Muslim countries. Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?”

In the interview on France Info radio, Mr. Fabius announced that, as a precaution, France planned to close its embassies in 20 countries on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, which has become an occasion for many to express their anger although “no threats have been made against any institutions.” A Foreign Ministry spokesman said the closures would affect French consulates, cultural centers and schools as well.

Interest in the cartoons was so intense that the Charlie Hebdo Web site became overloaded with the number of people trying to seek access. A Pakistani technology news outlet, ProPakistani, said a Pakistani hacker group had also said it blocked the site because of its “blasphemous contents” about Muhammad. 

...  In a statement, the main body representing Muslims in France, the French Muslim Council, expressed its “deep concern” over the cartoons and warned that their publication risked “exacerbating tensions and provoking reactions.” The council urged French Muslims to express their grievances “via legal means.”

The magazine’s editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, said the weekly published the cartoons in defense of freedom of the press, adding that the images “would shock only those who wanted to be shocked.” ...

It is curious that a few years ago, Charlie Hebdo fired the cartoonist Maurice Sinet after he refused to apologize for cartoons considered anti-Semitic

The Guardian aska “Is French magazine Charlie Hebdo’s publication of mocking cartoons of the prophet Muhammad an important assertion of free speech or a senseless and dangerous provocation?”  Another Guardian article notes “Magazine aims to reassert its early secular leftwing credentials but in the current climate of religious prejudice these cartoons are not helpful.”

The Washington Post reports Charlie Hebdo’s editor as saying: “We are a satirical, political magazine, we publish in France ... which is a laic [secular] nation and ...we are against all religions.” 

CNN aska if this is free speech or incitement. 

Muslims should not respond to such provocation.  Please consider the words of Egypts Grant Mufti Ali Gomaa Violence is never acceptable answer to provocation, or the words of Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad The Anger Games, Putting The Brakes on Muslim Rage, or the words of Tariq Ramadan An Appeal to the Conscience of Muslims , or the countless fatwas and statements against violence many of which can be found in Muslim Voices Against Extremism and Terrorism

Any violent or angry response is un-Islamic.  It is also counter-productive.  These sorts of provocations are purposeful, and those involved want to see a response.  They are like school yard bullies, and are only encouraged to increase the pressure when they see that their chosen target is distressed.  If they get a reaction, it only encourages more such provocations.

Update: 9/20 - Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller have both republished the Hebdo cartoons on their sites.  Geller’s posting is curious since she does not include the cover cartoon that is definitely anti-Semitic as well as anti-Muslim.  Abraham Foxman noted that “In France, the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo ran a series of offensive cartoons that included a cover illustration playing on the French film “The Intouchables” with a stereotypical Orthodox Jew pushing the Prophet Mohammad in a wheelchair.”  Why would the cover include an Orthodox Jew pushing an injured Muslim in a wheelchair with the caption “no mocking”?  The magazine insists that the title on the cover refers to a film, however it is very possible to see more than one meaning.  Der Speigel noted that  “The cover of the current issue of Charlie Hebdo shows a Muslim in a wheelchair being pushed by a Jew under a headline saying that you can’t make fun of either of them. Isn’t that just standard right-wing screed to the effect that it is impossible to speak freely about Muslims and Jews?”   Look carefully at the cover image.  The faces of both the Orthodox Jew and the Muslim are identical except for their headgear, and the sidelocks on the Jewish man.  What is the message being sent?  That both Jews and Muslims don’t like being mocked?

Update:  9/27 - It seems that French law does ban some defamation of religion.  In 2005, a French court banned an advertisement after the Catholic Church complained about an ad based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Christ’s Last Supper.  BBC reports.  The display was ruled “a gratuitous and aggressive act of intrusion on people’s innermost beliefs”, by a judge.

Italy’s advertising watchdog said the ad’s use of Christian symbols including a dove and a chalice recalled the foundations of the faith and would offend the sensitivity of part of the population.

The Catholic Church used a similar argument against the advert, which also shows two of the apostles embracing a bare-chested man in jeans.

“When you trivialise the founding acts of a religion, when you touch on sacred things, you create an unbearable moral violence which is a danger to our children,” said lawyer Thierry Massis.


November 2011 Incident - Round One

Charlie Hebdo Incident: An Example of Islamophobia or A Defense of Free Speech? Round One

When Molly Norris’s poster art sparked the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” campaign last year TAM spearheaded a statement A DEFENSE OF FREE SPEECH BY AMERICAN AND CANADIAN MUSLIMS signed by many writers, journalists, and activists.  The statement said

We, the undersigned, unconditionally condemn any intimidation or threats of violence directed against any individual or group exercising the rights of freedom of religion and speech; even when that speech may be perceived as hurtful or reprehensible.

We are concerned and saddened by the recent wave of vitriolic anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiment that is being expressed across our nation. 

We are even more concerned and saddened by threats that have been made against individual writers, cartoonists, and others by a minority of Muslims.  We see these as a greater offense against Islam than any cartoon, Qur’an burning, or other speech could ever be deemed.

We affirm the right of free speech for Molly Norris, Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and all others including ourselves.

As Muslims, we must set an example of justice, patience, tolerance,  respect, and forgiveness.

The Qur’an enjoins Muslims to:
* bear witness to Islam through our good example (2:143);
* restrain anger and pardon people (3:133-134 and 24:22);
* remain patient in adversity (3186);
* stand firmly for justice (4:135); 
* not let the hatred of others swerve us from justice (5:8);
* respect the sanctity of life (5:32);
* turn away from those who mock Islam (6:68 and 28:55); 
* hold to forgiveness, command what is right, and turn away from the ignorant (7:199);
* restrain ourselves from rash responses (16:125-128); 
* pass by worthless talk with dignity (25:72); and
* repel evil with what is better (41:34).

Islam calls for vigorous condemnation of both hateful speech and hateful acts, but always within the boundaries of the law. It is of the utmost importance that we react, not out of reflexive emotion, but with dignity and intelligence, in accordance with both our religious precepts and the laws of our country.

We uphold the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Both protect freedom of religion and speech, because both protections are fundamental to defending minorities from the whims of the majority.

We therefore call on all Muslims in the United States, Canada and abroad to refrain from violence.  We should see the challenges we face today as an opportunity to sideline the voices of hate—not reward them with further attention—by engaging our communities in constructive dialogue about the true principles of Islam, and the true principles of democracy, both of which stress the importance of freedom of religion and tolerance.

My views on freedom of speech are clear.  However, I believe that the current Charlie Hebdo Satire Magazine incident is about more than free speech.  Just because someone has the right to be offensive doesn’t mean that they should be offensive.

This week, the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine in France published a “special issue” focused on Sharia, and the issue was, according to the magazine, “guest edited” by the Prophet Muhammad and featured a cartoon of the Prophet on its’ cover.  The day after the issue came out, the offices of the magazine were firebombed and their website hacked.

At this point, no one knows who carried out this act of violence.  Most people suspect that it was Muslim extremists, but no one has taken “credit” for the act, and so far the police have issued nothing about any suspects.  Whoever is responsible is a criminal, and deserves to be punished to the full extent of the law.

Reuters reports on a series of statements by French and European Muslim Organizations:

The French Muslim Council (CFCM) issued a statement:  “The CFCM deplores the deeply mocking tone of the newspaper toward Islam and its prophet, but reaffirms with force its total opposition to any act or form of violence”

Tareq Oubrou, head of the Association of Imams of France, also condemned the attack. “This is an inadmissible act.  Freedom is very important. It is nonetheless important to underline the sensitivity of the situation we face today.  I call on Muslims to treat this lucidly and not succumb to what they consider as provocations regarding their religion ... I personally call on Muslims to keep an open mind and not take this too seriously.”

In Dubai, the world’s largest international Muslim body condemned Charlie Hebdo for publishing the image and a “highly provocative” editorial, but urged restraint among Muslims.  “The publication of the Prophet Muhammad’s cartoon, once again substantiated the OIC’s concern of the alarming rise of Islamophobia in Europe,” Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, said in a statement.

Today, The Irish Times reports that “A French satirical weekly whose office was firebombed after it printed a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad has reproduced the image with other caricatures in a special supplement distributed with one of the country’s leading newspapers.”  So it seems that they are determined to continue this course of action.

Europe is facing an even worse financial crisis than the U.S.  There are social rifts and tensions between various ethnic minorities and the majority.  There are very real social, political, and economic problems deserving of satire.  Why the choice of this topic?  What was the point?  What was gained?  Everyone knows that Charlie Hebdo has freedom of speech and can say whatever they want.  How did this advance or protect the freedom of speech?  Everyone knows that within any minority community there are some extreme elements that can be provoked, and that this is particularly true of minority communities who are feeling under stress. 

As Shada Islam reports, this incident predictably plays into much larger social and political currents:

With French elections set to be held next summer, politicians, especially from the increasingly popular far-right parties, will probably keep stoking the fires of xenophobic sentiment. Mainstream politicians, seeking to win over votes from the extremists, are likely to follow on the heels of French President Nicolas Sarkozy by maintaining a steady flow of criticism of multiculturalism.

And France’s six to seven million Muslims — the largest number of Muslims in a European country — will have to deal with a constant barrage of accusations that they are inherently ‘un-European and un-French’ and will never become trusted and true French citizens.

Is it possible to break this predictable, toxic and tedious cycle of recrimination and counter-recrimination, accusation and counter-accusation? At first glance, the answer appears to be negative. After all, Muslims are already in the dock in France and many other European countries for their apparent failure to integrate. Late last month, a French court nullified the construction permit for a mosque in the southern city of Marseille, home to the largest Muslim community in France.

...  Are European Muslims condemned to live their lives on the defensive, their loyalty and citizenship in constant doubt because of the criminal acts of a small minority who dominate the national conversation about Islam? Or can Europe and its Muslims develop a fresh narrative of acceptance, integration and inclusion? In fact, the true story of Europe’s Muslims is much more heartening and upbeat than either side in the debate is ready to admit.

Attacks such as the one on Charlie Hebdo may make the headlines, stirring trouble for the silent and law-abiding majority of Muslims who are happy to call Europe home. But fortunately such incidents are not the norm. European Muslims are making headway in politics, business and culture. They are breaking stereotypes and clichés — and emerging as full-fledged European citizens, ready to demand their rights but also fulfil their duties and obligations.

Of the hundreds of articles I waded through on this incident, two are worth quoting at length.

The first is Firebombed Newspaper Charlie Hebdo a Victim of its Own Making by Rob L. Wagner

I have been a working journalist for more than 35 years. The First Amendment is the most vital component of what I do for a living. Without it I’m not reporting news or giving an opinion, but just someone writing advertising copy. One cannot work effectively in journalism without the legal protection of free speech. So it is not without considerable soul-searching that I reject the idea of pushing for solidarity on the issue of free speech for Charlie Hebdo’s editors who insist on mocking the religion of 1.5 billion people.

There are still enough news people out there who consider journalism a calling. We take the words we write seriously, and we carefully weigh those words that have an impact on our readers and community. And power to all those opinion writers who believe that being offensive is the best way to deliver their message.

Yet it is no excuse for publishing offensive material just because you can publish it. There’s no excuse for promoting racial, ethnic and religious hatred and say it is okay because it is just satire. Playing the free speech card is a cop out. It is nothing more than an excuse to perpetuate stereotypes and stoke the flames of bigotry. Islamophobic bloggers argue that republishing the Danish newspaper cartoons is a display of solidarity to fight for our free speech rights. They argue that since Christianity is fair game, so should Islam. Why, Islamophobes whine, should there be a two-tiered approach to mocking and ridiculing religion if one religion gets a free pass and the other doesn’t?

The mainstream media have managed to steer clear of mocking Jews, but many publications revel in portraying the Prophet as a dirty, hook nosed Arab or having a bomb in his turban. The ugly stereotypes of Jews in Nazi propaganda are still fresh in our minds. Today, publishing such hateful images is unacceptable under any circumstances. However, Charlie Hebdo and its supporters believe it is just fine to demean Muslims in the same manner.

Charlie Hebdo chose to publish its Prophet Muhammad edition because it could and because its editors knew that it would anger and hurt the Muslim community. In a seriously twisted effort to encourage Muslims to assimilate in French society, the government banned the hijab in public institutions and the burqa everywhere outside the home. These laws have done nothing but to marginalize a segment of French society. Charlie Hebdo’s editors are well aware of a disaffected Muslim community, but decided to further marginalize them by publishing images of Muslim stereotypes. The newspaper has a history of this kind of behavior when it faced criminal charges in 2008 for “publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion” after Muslim groups had complained. A French appeals court acquitted the publication of the charges.

The editors knew of the consequences of publishing the Prophet Muhammad edition. There are plenty of nasty people willing to do harm over the smallest slight. But when bad things happened, the newspaper’s editors, in a cynical ploy to gain attention and in a bid to become free speech martyrs, cried that it was an assault on free speech. It was really an assault of their own making. Now they are milking their suffering to create an image that they are champions of a free press.

Enacting censorship laws certainly would certainly stifle press freedoms and I have grave concerns over the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s efforts to pass anti-blasphemy legislation. But Charlie Hebdo’s editors and their ilk abuse the privilege of being journalists. Their behavior only strengthens the OIC’s argument that anti-blasphemy laws are necessary to keep bigotry out of the news media.

The newspaper’s staff can boo-hoo all they want – ultimately it they who are the bigots, manipulating their victimhood to gain undeserved support of the journalistic fraternity.

The second is Firebombed French Paper Is No Free Speech Martyr by Bruce Crumley

Okay, so can we finally stop with the idiotic, divisive, and destructive efforts by “majority sections” of Western nations to bait Muslim members with petulant, futile demonstrations that “they” aren’t going to tell “us” what can and can’t be done in free societies? Because not only are such Islamophobic antics futile and childish, but they also openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy in the name of common good. What common good is served by creating more division and anger, and by tempting belligerent reaction?

The difficulty in answering that question is also what’s making it hard to have much sympathy for the French satirical newspaper firebombed this morning, after it published another stupid and totally unnecessary edition mocking Islam. The Wednesday morning arson attack destroyed the Paris editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo after the paper published an issue certain to enrage hard-core Islamists (and offend average Muslims) with articles and “funny” cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed—depictions forbidden in Islam to boot. Predictably, the strike unleashed a torrent of unqualified condemnation from French politicians, many of whom called the burning of the notoriously impertinent paper as “an attack on democracy by its enemies.”

We, by contrast, have another reaction to the firebombing: Sorry for your loss, Charlie, and there’s no justification of such an illegitimate response to your current edition. But do you still think the price you paid for printing an offensive, shameful, and singularly humor-deficient parody on the logic of “because we can” was so worthwhile? If so, good luck with those charcoal drawings your pages will now be featuring.

Though police say they still don’t know who staged the apparent strike, the (sorry) inflammatory religious theme of the new edition has virtually everyone suspecting Muslim extremists were responsible. Which, frankly, is exactly why it’s hard not to feel it’s the kind of angry response—albeit in less destructive form—Charlie Hebdo was after in the first place. What was the point otherwise? Yet rather than issuing warnings to be careful about what one asks for, the arson prompted political leaders and pundits across the board to denounce the arson as an attack on freedom of speech, liberty of expression, and other rights central to French and other Western societies. In doing so they weren’t entirely alone. Muslim leaders in France and abroad also stepped up to condemn the action—though not without duly warning people to wait for police to identify the perpetrators before assigning guilt, especially via association.

The reasons for such concern were as obvious as the suspicions about who had staged the strike: the coarse and heavy-handed Islamist theme of the current edition of Charlie Hebdo. As part of its gag, the paper had re-named itself “Sharia Hebdo”. It also claimed to have invited Mohammed as its guest editor to “celebrate the victory” of the Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia’s first free elections last week. In addition to satirical articles on Islam-themed topics, the paper contains drawings of Mohammed in cartoons featuring Charlie Hebdo’s trademark over-the-top (and frequently not “ha-ha funny”) humor. The cover, for example, features a crudely-drawn cartoon of the Prophet saying “100 Whip Lashes If You Don’t Die Of Laughter.” Maybe you had to be there when it was first sketched.

If that weren’t enough to offend Muslims sensitive to jokes about their faith, history helped raised hackles further. In 2007, Charlie Hebdo re-published the infamous (and, let’ face it, just plain lame) Mohammed caricatures initially printed in 2005 by Danish paper Jyllands-Posten. As intended, those produced outrage—and at times violent reaction—from Muslims around the world (not to mention repeated terror plots to kill illustrators responsible for the drawings). Apart from unconvincing claims of exercising free speech in Western nations where that right no longer needs to be proved, it’s unclear what the objectives of the caricatures were other than to offend Muslims—and provoke hysteria among extremists. After it’s 2007 reprinting of those, Charlie Hebdo was acquitted by a French court on inciting racial hatred charges lodged by French Islamic groups over those and other caricatures—including one run as the paper’s cover cartoon depicting Mohammed complaining “It’s Hard To Be Loved By (expletives)”. When it comes to Islam, Charlie Hebdo has a million of ‘em—but they’re all generally as weak as they are needlessly provocative.

Editors, staff, fans, and apologists of Charlie Hebdo have repeatedly pointed out that the paper’s take-no-prisoners humor spares no religion, political party, or social group from its questionable humor. They’ve also tended to defend the publication during controversy as a kind of gut check of free society: a media certain to anger, infuriate, and offend just about everybody at some point or another. As such, Charlie Hebdo has cultivated its insolence proudly as a kind of public duty—pushing the limits of freedom of speech, come what may. But that seems more self-indulgent and willfully injurious when it amounts to defending the right to scream “fire” in an increasingly over-heated theater.

Why? Because like France’s 2010 law banning the burqa in public (and earlier legislation prohibiting the hijab in public schools), the nation’s government-sponsored debates on Islam’s place in French society all reflected very real Islamophobic attitudes spreading throughout society. Indeed, such perceived anti-Muslim action has made France a point of focus for Islamist radicals at home and abroad looking to harp on new signs of aggression against Islam. It has also left France’s estimated five million Muslims feeling stigmatized and singled out for discriminatory treatment—a resentment that can’t be have been diminished by seeing Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Islam “just for fun” defended as a hallowed example of civil liberty by French pols. It’s yet to be seen whether Islamist extremists were behind today’s arson, but both the paper’s current edition, and the rush of politicians to embrace it as the icon of French democracy, raises the possibility of even moderate Muslims thinking “good on you” if and when militants are eventually fingered for the strike. It’s all so unnecessary.

It’s obvious free societies cannot simply give in to hysterical demands made by members of any beyond-the-pale group. And it’s just as clear that intimidation and violence must be condemned and combated for whatever reason they’re committed—especially if their goal is to undermine freedoms and liberties of open societies. But it’s just evident members of those same free societies have to exercise a minimum of intelligence, calculation, civility and decency in practicing their rights and liberties—and that isn’t happening when a newspaper decides to mock an entire faith on the logic that it can claim to make a politically noble statement by gratuitously pissing people off.

Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile. Baiting extremists isn’t bravely defiant when your manner of doing so is more significant in offending millions of moderate people as well. And within a climate where violent response—however illegitimate—is a real risk, taking a goading stand on a principle virtually no one contests is worse than pointless: it’s pointlessly all about you.

So, yeah, the violence inflicted upon Charlie Hebdo was outrageous, unacceptable, condemnable, and illegal. But apart from the “illegal” bit, Charlie Hebdo’s current edition is all of the above, too.

Charb, the alias used by the Director of Charlie Hebdo Magazine, said about whoever firebombed their offices “I think that they are themselves unbelievers ... idiots who betray their own religion”.  On this point at least we might agree, if it turns out that the perpetrators were Muslims.  Since he sounds so certain that he knows who did this, he should turn any evidence over to the authorities.