By Thomas Saccente – Staff Writer
Provocative French satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo, continues to make headlines around the world in the wake of a massive controversy surrounding an attack on their offices. The attack took place earlier this year on Jan. 7 when two Islamist gunmen entered the Charlie Hebdo offices and opened fire on the staff, killing twelve and injuring eleven more.
Those dead included cartoonists, writers, editors, and maintenance staff, as well as two police officers who arrived on the scene to stop the attack. It was later confirmed that these men were members of Al-Qaeda who were assigned to attack the building in retaliation for a series of cartoons that the magazine published which depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a satirical, violent manner.
The nature of these cartoons, the shooting, and its resulting aftermath shocked the entire world and also raised several pressing issues that are unlikely to be resolved in the near future. The most important of these issues is the nature of satire, the extent to which it should be protected in the name of free speech, and where to draw the line between parodies and hate speech.
In the decades leading up to the attacks, Charlie Hebdo was a magazine that prided itself on its ability to poke fun at hot button issues and raise widespread debate. Created in 1970 by a collection of far left wing political writers and cartoonists, it was designed to satirize all forms of political and religious authority and promote a strictly atheist, liberal point of view.
Each weekly installment contained a wide variety of reports and jokes that mocked current social issues, but the most famous parts of the magazine were the cartoons.
These were deliberately crude and vulgar in nature and touched upon controversial social topics in a way that would draw attention to the perceived flaws of those subjects.
According to Associate Professor of French Dr. Patrice Mothion, while these cartoons were irreverent and often insulting to the subjects being depicting, they were allowed to be printed because they fell within the bounds prescribed by the French government.
These bounds allow for the freedom of expression as long as the work in question does not discriminate individuals based on their religion, race, or sexual orientation.
“There are some restrictions to the liberty of expression in France, and one of them is not to insult an individual,” Dr. Mothion said. “So this is the reason why it’s allowed to talk about religion or make fun of religion [in Charlie Hebdo] because it’s not aimed at one person. You can make fun of the institution, but not make fun of a single person.”
In this case, the cartoons that have provoked such a strong response from the international Muslim community depicted Muhammad in an overly cartoonish manner, which makes satirical statements against Islamic fundamentalism and the restrictive laws often found in Muslim countries. This offended countless Muslims on multiple levels. In Islam, Muhammad is considered God’s greatest and last Prophet. Any depiction of him in any way is considered blasphemous in and of itself.
The fact that Charlie Hebdo not only depicted him at all, but also showed him making fun of Islamic principles caused great disdain amongst the French Muslim community, and Muslims around the world. This is made even worse by the fact that Muslims define their religion, and by extension themselves, through their association with Muhammad as the Prophet of God. This, in their view, makes them see the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as a personal assault on their religion.
In addition, the cause of the shooting was not attributed to an isolated incident. For the past decade, Charlie Hebdo has sporadically published numerous cartoons that many Muslims find offensive. In 2006, the magazine republished the controversial Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. These cartoons were originally printed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that portrayed, among other things, Muhammad having a bomb hidden under his turban.
In Nov. 2011, the magazine was satirically renamed Charia Hebdo (a play on the word sharia, or Islamic law), and boasted a cover of Muhammad, complete with a big nose, big lips, a beard, and a turban, proclaiming, “100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing!” The most recent example of this behavior came in 2012, when Charlie Hebdo published additional caricatures of Muhammad on both their website and their magazine, one of which featured the prophet kissing a male member of the Charlie Hebdo staff.
With all of this in mind, it is easy to see why the January shootings and the following aftermath divided not just French society, but also the entire world. On one side, there is a large group of people who have praised Charlie Hebdo for being such a prominent example of the freedom of speech, publishing controversial points of view despite the constant threats from Islamic terrorist groups to halt their operations.
It is worth noting that in the wake of the shooting the magazine did not cease publication. In fact, a week after the event, they returned as originally planned with a magazine that showed Muhammad on the cover holding up a sign that read, “I am Charlie,” with the phrase “All is forgiven” written above him, the former of which has been adopted as a slogan for supporters of the magazine.
That particular issue sold seven million copies. In addition, thousands of people took to the streets of cities across Western Europe to show their support for Charlie Hebdo, holding vigils for the cartoonists who died in the attacks and promoting free speech in general. Charlie Hebdo even found support in America.
Dr. Mothion, for example, states that Charlie Hebdo was fully within their rights to publish these cartoons, saying that the way in which they made fun of Islam is no different to how they mocked other religions in the past.
“It is insulting, but not personally insulting,” Dr. Mothion said. “They don’t say, you know, ‘We make fun of … a certain person.’ They make fun of religion in general. Charlie Hebdo has a long, long tradition of making fun of all religions.
“It is not something new. Freedom of expression dates back to the French Revolution … It is equally insulting. Some people choose to be more offended by it than others.”
On the other hand, while freedom of speech is an essential right that deserves protection by any means necessary, others, especially Muslims, argue that Charlie Hebdo abused this privilege with their commentaries on Islam.
While most of them do not believe that the cartoons warranted such a violent reaction (and, in fact, many have condemned the attack), other French Muslims have denounced Charlie Hebdo for their unsavory depictions of Muhammad, accusing them of unjustly attacking their religion under the guise of free speech.
Demonstrations were held all over the world to protest the magazine’s continued publication in the wake of the attacks. According to The Telegraph, at least a thousand British Muslims gathered on Downing Street in London to protest the reopening of the magazine, bearing signs emblazoned with such slogans as, “I am a servant of the Holy Prophet Muhammad,” and “Be careful with Muhammad,” among others.
According to Assistant Professor of Religion Dr. Matthew Pierce, the primary reason why so many Muslims have taken offense at the cartoons presented in Charlie Hebdo and now protesting its return is better understood when looking at the way in which Muslims are treated within the confines of French society.
For decades, French Muslims have found themselves at odds with French society at large. Many Muslims are still angry that the French government made it law in 2003 that no member of any religion is allowed to wear conspicuous religious symbols in state-run French schools, including the Muslim headscarf and veil.
For a religion that is so defined by outward signs of devotion such as Islam, this highly restricts the way in which they, especially the children, can practice their religion. Therefore, between laws such as these, frequent acts of violence that were inflicted on French Muslims over the years, and the way in which the French government has allowed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to see print, they feel as if they are being personally persecuted for their beliefs on all sides.
“I think that a lot of the offense that was taken from the cartoons by those who were offended by them (and not all Muslims were offended by them), has to do more with a perception of discrimination of Muslims within Europe,” Dr. Pierce said. “I think the Muslims who are offended by this tend to feel like these cartoons and depictions of Muhammad are intended to humiliate and discriminate against Muslims and is part of a larger anti-Muslim campaign in certain segments of society, and so their reactions to this is often in relationship to the context in which they view these cartoons more than the cartoons in and of themselves.”
More violent forms of discrimination against Muslims in France increased in number in recent weeks. According to The Independent, 26 mosques have been attacked with bombs, guns, and other weapons all around France as a sort of retaliation for the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
The Charlie Hebdo shooting and the events that arose because of it divides the entire world. Some view the attacks as an assault on free speech and basic civil liberties. Others feel like that the cartoons that arose from those same concepts have been used to personally insult Islam and perpetuate stereotypes of Muslims that will eventually give way to more discrimination against them.
While it is true that both of these sides must each be taken in consideration with each other in order to understand the full scope of what transpired that day in early January.
The future consequences that may arise from these events are difficult to predict at this point in time, however, for right now, the French are more determined than ever to protect their freedom of speech while Muslims in France are united in their mission to free themselves from persecution.