They said their creed was sacred and the jesters must stay off it,
So they firebombed Charlie Hebdo when it satirized their prophet.
The next time that it happened the result was still absurder.
The penalty for humor shouldn’t ever be a murder.


            The Parisian magazine, Charlie Hebdo, delighted  in being  grossly offensive. Its tone was harsher, more scabrous than that of other French satirical media, particularly its bigger circulation journal, Le Canard Enchainé, and the popular TV program, Les Guignols de l’info. Though it struggled to survive, for it accepted no advertising, Charlie Hebdo was beholden to no-one but its staff and its readers, and it pursued a tradition dating from before the French Revolution of mercilessly mocking powerful people, institutions and ideas.

               Politicians were inevitable targets. Its predecessor, Hara-Kiri, had been banned after it drew a mocking cartoon on the death of President Charles de Gaulle. Re-born as Charlie Hebdo it enjoyed ridiculing every subsequent president, especially their sex lives. When it became known that President Francois Hollande was changing one unmarried consort for another Charlie carried a cartoon with ollande’s ppenis showing through his open fly.Hollande’s penis showing through his open fly.

            But Charlie Hebdo’s targets were not limited to politicians.  It went after widely held, powerful beliefs, especially religions and their leaders – the Pope, rabbis (though they fired a cartoonist for a grossly anti-Semitic drawing) but most especially Mohammad. The magazine’s fascination with the Muslim religion and its prophet was spurred by the international furor over a group of cartoons mocking Mohammad published in a Danish paper in 2006, which set off a wave of deadly riots throughout the Muslim world. Charlie Hebdo rushed into the controversy, reprinting the offending cartoons. In 2011 its cartoonists added their own list on the same theme under the heading “Charia Hebdo” which led to the fire-bombing of the magazine’s offices. And in January, 2015, the editor, three cartoonists, and eight others were shot down by gunmen shouting: “We have avenged the Prophet Mohammad.”

            The immediate reaction in France to the latest massacre was a massive outpouring of sympathy for the victims. Hundreds of thousands in Paris and other cities in France and Europe gathered under signs declaring “JE SUIS CHARLIE!!” Whereas the Muslim riots following the Danish cartoon publication had expressed a bitter hostility to the right of unfettered expression, the new demonstrations pressed a fervent defense of open, uninhibited criticism,

            Satirists elsewhere rushed to add their support. Jon Stewart paid tribute to the victims’ courage. Conan O’Brien lamented: “In this country we just take it for granted that it’s our right to poke fun at the sacred. But today’s tragedy reminds us, very viscerally, that it’s a right some people are inexplicably forced to die for.” Cartoonists around the world weighed in. One shows a raised finger in a hand holding a pen taunting the oppressors. Another has a terrorist saying “Be careful, they might have a pen.” A fusillade of pens descends on an assassin. Blood pours out of a broken pencil. A black-clad gunman points at the victim and claims: “He drew first.”

            Yet, even while there was unanimous condemnation of the slaughter in the democratic media, some expressed reservations about Charlie Hebdo’s persistent mocking of Islam. Back in 2006 the Philelphia Inquirer had been the only major newspaper in the U.S. or Britain to reprint the Danish cartoons. This time there were more exceptions, but most refrained. Two reasons were given.

            The first, and least mentioned, was fear of retaliation. Onion magazine aped both the portentous tone of the editorials on the tragedy and the alleged danger facing the media: “It is sadly not yet clear whether this very article will ultimately put human lives at risk.” Indeed the risk to American media was likely to be minimal. But in Europe it might be very real. As the editor of the British publication, The Jewish Chronicle, indicated: “Here’s my editor’s dilemma. Every principle I hold tells me to print them…what right do I have to risk the lives of my staff to make a point?”

            Other publications had a different explanation for not reprinting the cartoons. The New York Times editors agonized over the issue, but finally decided that its prime consideration must be the sensibilities of its readers, including Muslims, for whom mocking their prophet was sacriligeous. Many of the cartoons crossed the line “between gratuitous insult and satire.” One image of a Charlie Hebdo cover did reach the Washington Post front page; but this was an exception to the paper’s policy that it doesn’t publish material “that is pointedly, deliberately, or needlessly offensive to members of religious groups.” And the London Guardian had made the point during the original Danish cartoon controversy: “The Guardian believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty gratuitously to offend. It would be senselessly provocative to reproduce a set of images, of no intrinsic value, which pander to the worst prejudices about Muslims…even if the intention was satirical rather than blasphemous.” And this position was updated by the Guardian in 2015 with a cartoon by the graphic artist Joe Sacco in which he asked whether a cartoon strip showing “a black man falling out of a tree with a banana in his hand” would be acceptable, or another showing “a Jew counting his money in the entrails of the working class.”

            These are hardly trivial arguments. In 2006 the noted philosopher and champion of free expression, Ronald Dworkin, had argued that while “in a democracy no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not be be offended or insulted", the public does not have a right "to read or see whatever it wants, no matter what the cost” – which would include inflicting great pain on Muslims and perhaps provoking more riots. 

            In any case, said Dworkin and the Guardian, the public is not denied access to the cartoons for they’re easily available online. Indeed, and there’s the rub. For online is where more and more readers start today. And that includes newspaper readers through their online editions. Thus after the massacre the New York Times editors explained why it was not including any of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Then, on the front page of its online edition, the paper provided its readers with a video showing, step by step, and in full visual detail, the various stages by which the Charlie Hebdo’s staff had decided on which Mohammad cartoon to use as their cover.
        Moreover, when a defiant, post-massacre Charlie Hebdo printed three million copies of a new cartoon declaring that "All Is Forgiven" the Washington Post and the Guardian reprinted it, the Guardian with a warning: "This article contains the image of the magazine cover, which some may find offensive." 

            It appears that the closely argued, finely balanced position on this question is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. My own preference, which I believe is also the natural preference of democracies, is for too much disrespect rather than too little.

                                       Charlie Hebdo cover         


















Posted on Monday, January 12, 2015 (Archive on Sunday, October 08, 2017)



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