The massacre at Charlie Hebdo, and the subsequent killing of a policewoman and mass murder at the Hyper Cachet kosher market, shocked the world. Young fanatics with automatic weapons unleashed a torrent of violence and death, fueled by zealous intolerance. At the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, the satiric newsmagazine, 12 were murdered and 11 wounded. The victims were guilty of nothing more than expressing ideas. Certainly, true to the point of satire, many of the ideas were very offensive to many people—in this case, caricatures of the prophet Muhammad.
In the wake of the violence, people from around the world expressed solidarity with the victims, and with the people of France. Among the world leaders who flocked to Paris to condemn the attacks were some of the worst perpetrators of repression of journalists, all too often Arab and Muslim journalists.
Reporters Without Borders, also known as Reporters Sans Frontieres, or RSF, is based in Paris, not far from the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Word of the attack quickly made it to the staff there. Lucie Morillon, RSF program director, was one of the first people on the scene after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. I spoke to her in New York City, just a day after she attended last Sunday’s solidarity march in Paris, which drew more than 1 million people. She recounted the events of Wednesday, Jan. 7:
“We were having a meeting … a colleague came in, he said: ‘There’s something huge. It looks like there had been shots fired at Charlie Hebdo, and there might be people dead.’ It was just complete shock, completely surreal.”
They raced to the scene of the massacre. Morillon went on: “There were still bullets on the ground. It was just very chaotic. We were just wondering who’s dead, what happened. And a man left the office, and he just went into President [Francois] Hollande’s arms. He burst into tears, ‘Charb est mort,’ ‘Charb is dead.’” He was speaking of Stephane Charbonnier, Charlie Hebdo’s edit
On Sunday, the day of marches across France, which drew close to 4 million people, the group stated in a press release, “Reporters Without Borders welcomes the participation of many foreign leaders in today’s march in Paris in homage to the victims of last week’s terror attacks and in defence of the French republic’s values, but is outraged by the presence of officials from countries that restrict freedom of information.” The group stated it was “appalled by the presence of leaders from countries where journalists and bloggers are systematically persecuted such as Egypt, Russia, Turkey and United Arab Emirates.”
Photos and video of the world leaders standing, locked arm in arm, leading the massive march, raced around the planet. Much ado was made in the United States of the absence of any high-level Obama administration official. Even though Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris that day, inexplicably, he didn’t show up for the march. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was there, whose government has imprisoned many journalists, most notably three from Al-Jazeera who have been held for more than a year now: Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed.
The Saudi Arabian ambassador to France also showed up at the march. Two days earlier, his government flogged the blogger Raif Badawi. He was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, but the Saudi monarchy is administering 50 lashes per week. Delphine Hagland, the U.S. director of Reporters Without Borders, explained, “They decided to divide the 1,000 lashes in different sessions because they were afraid that he would be killed.”
It has now been reported that the world leaders, locked arm in arm, were not in the march at all, but were gathered for a photo opportunity on a closed street, away from the protest, under guard. Quite simply, it was the people who led that day, not the leaders. “Je Suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” was the battle cry of many. Others tweeted or held signs that read, “I am not Charlie,” condemning the violence without endorsing Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures. A Muslim woman held a sign, “Je Suis Juif,” “I am Jewish,” in solidarity with the Jewish victims. Others held signs that read “Je Suis Ahmed” for Ahmed Merabet, the French Muslim police officer who was killed outside the magazine offices.
Close to 4 million people took to the streets of France last Sunday, demanding a more peaceful society, one in which press freedom and religious tolerance overwhelm violence and hatred.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
It was Herald Sun cartoonist Mark Knight who tipped me over the edge.
To be fair, he wasn’t wholly responsible. If it wasn’t for all the lunacy that preceded him, I probably would have dismissed his cartoon as just another Herald Sun atrocity, more a piece of Murdoch-madness to be mocked rather than trigger for outrage. But context is everything. And after days of sanctimonious blather about freedom of speech and the Enlightenment values of Western civilisation, his was one pencil-warfare cartoon too many.
The cartoon in question depicts two men – masked and armed Arab terrorists (is there any other kind of Arab?) – with a hail of bomb-like objects raining down on their heads. Only the bombs aren’t bombs. They are pens, pencils and quills. Get it? In the face of a medieval ideology that only understands the language of the gun, the West – the heroic, Enlightenment-inspired West – responds by reaffirming its commitment to resist barbarism with the weapons of ideas and freedom of expression.
It is a stirring narrative repeated ad nauseam in newspapers across the globe. They have been filled with depictions of broken pencils re-sharpened to fight another day, or editorials declaring that we will defeat terrorism by our refusal to stop mocking Islam.
It is well past time to call bullshit. Knight’s cartoon made the point exceptionally clear, but every image that invoked the idea that Western culture could and would defend itself from Islamist extremism by waging a battle of ideas demonstrated the same historical and political amnesia.
Reality could not be more at odds with this ludicrous narrative.
For the last decade and a half the United States, backed to varying degrees by the governments of other Western countries, has rained violence and destruction on the Arab and Muslim world with a ferocity that has few parallels in the history of modern warfare.
It was not pencils and pens – let alone ideas – that left Iraq, Gaza and Afghanistan shattered and hundreds of thousands of human beings dead. Not twelve. Hundreds of thousands. All with stories, with lives, with families. Tens of millions who have lost friends, family, homes and watched their country be torn apart.
To the victims of military occupation; to the people in the houses that bore the brunt of “shock and awe” bombing in Iraq; to those whose bodies were disfigured by white phosphorous and depleted uranium; to the parents of children who disappeared into the torture cells of Abu Ghraib; to all of them – what but cruel mockery is the contention that Western “civilisation” fights its wars with the pen and not the sword?
And that is only to concern ourselves with the latest round of atrocities. It is not even to consider the century or more of Western colonial policies that through blood and iron have consigned all but a tiny few among the population of the Arab world to poverty and hopelessness.
It is not to even mention the brutal rule of French colonialism in Algeria, and its preparedness to murder hundreds of thousands of Algerians and even hundreds of French-Algerian citizens in its efforts to maintain the remnants of empire. It is leaving aside the ongoing poverty, ghettoisation and persecution endured by the Muslim population of France, which is mostly of Algerian origin.
The history of the West’s relationship with the Muslim world – a history of colonialism and imperialism, of occupation, subjugation and war – cries out in protest against the quaint idea that “Western values” entail a rejection of violence and terror as political tools.
Of course the pen has played its role as well. The pens that signed the endless Patriot Acts, anti-terror laws and other bills that entrenched police harassment and curtailed civil rights. The pens of the newspaper editorialists who whip up round after round of hysteria, entrenching anti-Muslim prejudice and making people foreigners in their own country. But the pens of newspaper editors were strong not by virtue of their wit or reason, but insofar as they were servants of the powerful and their guns.
Consideration of this context not only exposes the hypocrisy of those who create the narrative of an enlightened West defending freedom of speech, it also points to the predictability and inevitability of horrific acts of terrorism in response. Of course we will never know what was going through the minds of the three men who carried out this latest atrocity. But it is the height of ahistorical philistinism to ignore the context – both recent and longstanding – in which these attacks took place.
The idea that Muslim outrage at vile depictions of their religious icons can be evaluated separately from the persecution of Muslims in the West and the invasion and occupation of Muslim countries is the product of a complete incapacity to empathise with the experience of sustained and systemic oppression.
What is extraordinary, when even the most cursory consideration of recent history is taken into account, is not that this horrific incident occurred, but that such events do not happen more often. It is a great testament to the enduring humanism of the Muslim population of the world that only a tiny minority resort to such acts in the face of endless provocation.
In the days ahead, a now tired and exhausting theatre of the absurd will continue to play out its inevitable acts. The Western politicians who lock up their own dissidents and survey the every movement of their citizenry will go on waxing lyrical about freedom of thought. Muslim leaders of every hue will continue to denounce a terrorism they have nothing to do with, and will in turn be denounced for not doing so often or vigorously enough. The right will attack the left as sympathisers of Islamist terrorism, and demand we endlessly repeat the truism that journalists should not be killed for expressing their opinions. They will also demand that we accept that white Westerners, not Muslims, are the real victims of this latest political drama.
Meanwhile, Muslims in the West will, if they dare to walk the streets, do so in fear of the inevitable reprisals. And pencils aren’t what they will be afraid of.
If you thought the Arab world celebrated the attack on Charlie Hebdo as a blow against blasphemers, some Arab-language newspapers tell a different story.
Many newspapers across the Arab world have published cartoons expressing solidarity and support with the French satirical newspaper, much those published by Western cartoonists just hours after the attack.
But cartoonists find themselves in a difficult position: Despite the alleged wave of democratization that swept the region during the Arab Spring, free expression is still very much in danger across the region.
“Nearly four years later, many people are still watching their step,” Israel’s YNet newspaper writes. “Authoritarian rule has returned to many Arab countries while the rise of Islamic State militants who have seized large areas of Iraq and Syria also poses dangers to anyone who dares to debate religion.”
Below is a collection of cartoons gathered from across the region.
These two cartoons are from the An Nahar newspaper, with the first one reading “But … he called me a terrorist.”
The second one reads: “This is how we avenge the cartoonists’ killer.”
The Al Akhbar newspaper, which some view as pro-Hezbollah, printed the following with the Arabic reading “freedom up in the air.”
A Lebanese cartoonist described the situation “easier but far from ideal,” following the Arab Spring since some saw that as the beginning toward freedom of speech.
“We want to defend the freedom of the press, the freedom of the media and the freedom of opinion. This is our mission,” said Stavro Jabro, who draws for two newspapers and knew some of the victims.
English-language newspaper Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed printed a powerful image of a pencil overpowering a bullet.
Makhlouf, a young cartoonist, drew two cartoons for the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.
“In support with Charlie Hebdo,” it says on top with the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie.
In the other cartoon, Makhlouf drew “himself holding up a pencil in the face of an assailant wearing a balaclava, with almost alien-like eyes, as he points a gun at him,” the outlet writes. The Arabic again says “In support of Charlie Hebdo.”
The slaying of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and cartoonists because of their work is the grossest attack on the value of free speech, and of course the right to life. In the deadly attack on the magazine’s office, the sword has crushed the pen: an unspeakable outrage.
An attack on liberal values
Any attack motivated by the pen upon that pen’s purveyor, whether he or she be a journalist or academic or author or satirist, is an attack on free speech. And journalists are tragically the victims of persecution, including murder, every year. Since 1992, 731 journalists have been murdered worldwide due to their work, not counting the further 373 killed in crossfire or combat, or while on dangerous assignment.
The murders of journalists tend to take place in countries with a weak rule of law. They are virtually unknown in developed liberal countries such as France. Furthermore, most work-related murder of journalists arises because they bravely speak, or attempt to speak, truth to power.
The motivation behind the Charlie Hebdo murders seems different. The cartoonists were killed, presumably, because the murderers believed its portrayals of Muhammad and Islam were blasphemous. They were killed because they refused to abide by the cultural values of the murderers, who lethally enforced their own views on the societal limits of free speech in France. This led to the outpouring of solidarity and defiance mixed with grief in huge gatherings in Paris and other European capitals.
The right to offend
Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier and his colleagues are now martyrs to free speech and satire, and in particular the right to offend. Leaving aside the obvious point that no-one should be killed because of what they have drawn, how does one characterise the Charlie Hebdo cartoons? Were they cheeky cartoons, wholly within the proper bounds of freedom of speech, or were they the product of “a racist publication”?
There is a human right to free speech, including the right to offend, a right held dear by cartoonists the world over. But there are limits. Of relevance, hate speech is prohibited in international human rights law, including that which is likely to incite hatred on the basis of religion.
The Charlie Hebdo cartoons were generally more likely to offend members of the targeted group than to generate hatred against that group. For example, its depictions of Muhammad and Islam were more likely to offend and hurt Muslims rather than generate hatred by non-Muslims against them. Such speech, to my mind, falls outside the definition of hate speech.
However, some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons seem clearly racist – though racist speech is not always, legally, hate speech. For example, one particular cartoon portrays the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria as greedy welfare recipients. However, this discussion of that cartoon reminds us of the importance of context, which I lack as a non-French speaker who hasn’t read that edition.
The murders were more likely inspired by the images of Muhammad themselves, rather than any Islamophobic cartoons. The depiction of Muhammad, regardless of negative (or positive) connotations, is considered blasphemous and therefore grossly offensive to many Muslims.
However, there is no human right not to be offended on a religious basis. Blasphemy laws themselves are breaches of the human right to freedom of expression. That is not to say that the gratuitous giving of offence to Muslims, or the people of any religion, is desirable. But “desirability” must not be the measure of permissible free speech. And it is dangerous to hold up any religion as something which must be free from ridicule.
Charlie Hebdo deliberately published cartoons which its staff knew would offend some people deeply. It has done so throughout its history of more than four decades, with its targets including the French political and cultural establishment, and religions of all kinds. Islam was not disproportionately targeted.
Clashes between extremist Islam and freedom of speech have been prominent for more than a quarter of a century. Iran’s supreme Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie in 1989 over the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad in The Satanic Verses.
Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered in 2004 in Amsterdam over his film about violence against women in Islamic societies, Submission. In 2010, an episode of the cartoon South Park featuring Muhammad was censored, against the wishes of its creators, in response to death threats.
In late 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten published 12 cartoons which were critical of Islam, including portrayals of Muhammad. The episode led, in early 2006, to protests and riots, particularly in Islamic countries, and death threats against the cartoonists. In 2010, one of the cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard, was attacked in his home with an axe.
In 2006, Charlie Hebdo republished all 12 Danish cartoons, along with some of its own of a similar ilk. It has since published numerous depictions of Muhammad, as well as cartoons ridiculing Islamist extremism and aspects of Muslim life, such as the niqab. Charbonnier was placed on an al-Qaeda hitlist. Al-Qaeda is suspected of involvement in his assassination.
Death threats against material perceived as religiously offensive are not unique to Islam. In October 2014, an exhibition of Catholic iconography using Barbie and Ken dolls was cancelled in Buenos Aires due to death threats.
Australians may remember the 1997 controversy over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photo of a crucifix in a vat of urine, when a Serrano retrospective in Melbourne was cancelled after the work was physically attacked. A Serrano exhibition in Avignon in 2011 closed prematurely after death threats against museum staff.
Protection was supplied to actors in Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, which attracted charges of anti-Semitism.
Outside the realm of religion, in late 2014, persons unknown – though suspected to be the North Korean government – threatened major acts of terrorism if the film The Interview was released. The movie is a comedy which depicts the violent assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Production company Sony caved in to the threat, before reversing its position and authorising an internet and limited theatre release.
Nevertheless, it seems that threats motivated by the offence felt over forms of expression (for example, a book, movie or cartoon) arise more often and more credibly, and with greater lethal consequences, from extremist Islamists.
Republication of the cartoons
A final consideration is the treatment of the cartoons by the media in the aftermath of the killings. While I have argued that the cartoons should not be banned, a separate question is whether the cartoons should be displayed.
Many major media outlets, such as CNN, have refused to show the cartoons, or have shown them with pixelated images. Others, such as Daily Beast, are showcasing some of the magazine’s controversial covers. Outlets in Europe differed. In Denmark, four papers republished Charlie Hebdo cartoons (interestingly, not Jyllans Posten).
In judging the merits of such an editorial decision, context and motive are crucial. Self-censorship out of fear hands a shocking win to the Charlie Hebdo murderers, but I cannot put myself in the shoes of the editor who is genuinely concerned over the safety of staff. Nor can I criticise self-censorship out of respect for the feelings of Muslims (and others).
The tragic demise of the victims does not mean that one has a duty to offend swathes of people who have nothing to do with the atrocity. And many see the cartoons as racist and will not be morally blackmailed “into solidarity with a racist institution”. Hatred of the murders does not have to translate into love of the cartoons.
For others, it is important to show the public what the fuss is about, just as, for example, Wikipedia displays the Danish cartoons. Finally, some media outlets have published the controversial cartoons to reflect the widespread mood of “Je suis Charlie” – that is, to speak defiance to the perpetrators of this atrocity. It is one way, alongside the wonderful tributes drawn by cartoonists in response, of reinforcing the pen, and proving it can never be truly crushed by the sword.