Moral cowardice and Mohammad

Get ready GetReligion readers for a new round of righteous indignation, moral cowardice and sloppy reporting about Islam. There will be a cartoon of Mohammad — quelle horreur — on the cover of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo. The magazine is set for distribution on newsstands today, 2 Nov 2011.

My colleagues at GetReligion have written extensively about reporting on images of Mohammad. Articles on Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, South Park, and the Jyllands-Posten cartoons have raised questions about the quality of reporting and unwarranted suppositions about Islam. And although we are only in the first days of this news cycle, the same errors, moral cowardice and surrender to the forces of religious extremism and censorship are cropping up in this latest cartoon controversy.

The editors of Charlie Hebdo — a lowbrow political humor magazine akin to Private Eye — held a press conference on Monday in Paris to announce that the Muslim prophet Mohammed would be this week’s guest editor and the magazine renamed “Sharia Hebdo” for this issue in honor of the occasion.

The French wire service AFP filed this dispatch from the front lines following the press conference:

“In order fittingly to celebrate the Islamist Ennahda’s win in Tunisia and the NTC (National Transitional Council) president’s promise that sharia would be the main source of law in Libya, Charlie Hebdo asked Mohammed to be guest editor,” said a statement.

The weekly has been rebaptised Sharia Hebdo for the occasion, and will feature on its cover a picture of Mohammed saying: “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!”

On the back page, a picture of Mohammed wearing a red nose is accompanied by the words: “Yes, Islam is compatible with humour.”

The cover was circulating on social media such as Twitter on Tuesday, with many users incensed and describing it as “puerile”.

The weekly’s publisher, known as Charb, rejected accusations that he was trying to provoke.

“We feel we’re just doing our job as usual. The only difference is that this week, Mohammed is on the cover and that’s quite rare,” he told AFP.

Le Nouvel Observateur — a Paris-based weekly with a circulation of over half a million, it is generally considered the most prominent French-language general news magazine (think Time in its heyday)  — ran a story late Monday evening (with a photo of the offending cover)  on its website under the title “Quand ‘Charlie Hebdo’ devient ‘Charia Hebdo’.” This story drew upon the original AFP report for the details, and added a few color quotes from French social media sites. By the end of the day about two dozen French-language newspapers and broadcasters had their own stories up on the cartoon controversy — with most displaying the cartoon. And being France, opinions ran the gamut from praise to condemnation.

The story began to spread and at midnight Eastern Daylight Time  on Monday night the Worldcrunch news service posted a translation of the Observatuer story illustrated with a copy of the offending issue. However, within hours the Mohammad cartoon disappeared. The article was now illustrated by by picture of a back issue of Charlie Hebdo. Was it copyright concerns or cowardice that led to the spiking of the cartoon?

English language stories began to appear but without the cartoon. The BBC ran a brief item by midday. The Telegraph ran first the AFP story and then its own re-write. By day’s end, the Daily Mail ran the first detailed report entitled “French satirical magazine set to spark outrage by naming Prophet Mohammed as editor-in-chief”.

The Daily Mail‘s story was robust, damning both the French and radical Islam (no surprise there).  It led with: “A leading French magazine is set to provoke fury around the world by calling itself Sharia Weekly and pretending that the Prophet Mohammed is editing it.”

The article set the scene well, but closed badly:

Islamic law forbids any depiction of the prophet, even positive ones, to prevent idolatry.There are some six million Muslims living in France – the largest group of its kind in western Europe. While many have welcomed the fall of despots like Muammar Gaddafi following the Arab Spring revolts, many fear that they will be replaced by extreme Islamist governments.

There may not have been space available to flesh out the consequences of Muslim reactions, or to touch upon the past cartoon controversies. The story would have been improved with a word or two on this point. But it too played the coward, running a cover from a back issue of Charlie Hebdo instead of the Mohammad cover to illustrate the story.

And no, Islamic law does not forbid depictions of Mohammad. As my colleagues at GetReligion have pointed out there is no one Muslim law, nor common view on this topic. Here is a gallery of Mohammad images in Western and Turkish art collections.

Silenced, a 2011 book on the collision between Western concepts of free speech and Islam by Paul Marshall and Nina Shae notes:

There are numerous representations of Muhammad in historic Muslim art. Such works are housed in the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace. Images of Muhammad appeared in illuminated manuscripts dating from as early as the thirteenth century and as late as the eighteenth century.

Sunni Islam, in modern times, has prohibitions against depicting the Prophet or his companions. Sunni theologians at Al-Azhar University continue to prohibit his portrayal, as does the Muslim Brotherhood, and iconoclastic theology has been promoted with particular vigor by the conservative Wahhabi sect, supported by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Shia tradition is less stringently opposed to such depictions. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Iraq, a prominent Shia cleric, suggests on his website that portraying the Prophet is not problematic as long as the depiction is respectful. A primary reason for barring images of Muhammad is the prevention of idolatry…

Yes, I agree the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are puerile. But aesthetic considerations should not be grounds for censorship. Gustave Doré illustrations of Mohammad for Dante’s Inferno are as offensive to the Wahhabist Muslim as is Charlie Hebdo‘s juvenile stunt. Nor am I persuaded that the self-censorship on display is intellectually or morally credible.

In 2009 the Yale University Press cancelled the publication of a scholarly book on the Mohammad cartoons after the school’s administration intervened. The university defended its cringing cowardice in a press release. While Yale was “institution deeply committed to free expression” publishing cartoons or “other illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad” ran “a serious risk of instigating violence.”

Writing in Slate, Christopher Hitchens deplored Yale’s mendacity and its misuse of  the word“instigate”. One instigates violence by actively encouraging and abetting it, not by engaging in lawful acts of communication. Lawful or innocent actions can spark violence. But society is not subject to mob rule. Maintaining public order is why we have police forces.

This story may have legs. French President Nicolas Sarkozy will have a tough time winning reelection in 2012. The Socialist challenger François Hollande is playing on economic discontent in France, and is touted to win. However, if the latest Mohammad cartoons spark rioting in the Muslim banlieues, it will be a political gift to Sarkozy (as well as to Marine Le Pen of the National Front).

European Muslim militants have manufactured outrage about Mohammad cartoons in the past — remember it was not until a group of Danish imams toured the Middle East complaining about the Jyllands-Posten Mohammad-with-a-bomb-in-his-turban cartoon that rioting ensued. Danish embassies were attacked and a trail of murder and mayhem spread across the Muslim world that ultimately left some 200 people dead. The Assad regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, among others, have facilitated riots over past cartoons. Whether it is in their political interests to do so now is a calculation that will be made in the coming days.

In his 1946 essay, “Why I Write”, George Orwell stated, “every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism.”  This is the duty of a free press. Though Stalinism and Fascism no longer have a place in Western intellectual life, the cant, hypocrisy and moral dishonesty they represented remain part of our intellectual and philosophical lives. And it is in this work, in challenging the orthodoxies of left and right, that journalism achieves its moral purpose.

Does the omission of Mohammad cartoons serve this moral good? No, it does not.

Addendum: In the hours between writing this story on Tuesday evening and publication on Wednesday morning the Charlie Hebdo story entered a new phase. The offices of the magazine were fire-bombed early this morning. No group has yet claimed responsibility or other actions against the magazine or its distributors been reported so far.

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About geoconger
  • Dave

    It is neither cowardice nor censorship for a news organization covering Charia Hebdo to decide not to reproduce the potentially offending image. It’s prudent editing.

    I am bemused by your blase attitude toward the potential for violence. Pictures can kill people, whether you want to acknowledge the connection or not.

  • Jerry

    The framing of this post is obvious given the number of times “moral cowardice” is repeated. A more neutral frame would have considered the situation which is that some consider this a “fire in a crowded theater” situation and others consider it a free speech situation. Of course, you’re entitled to consider that anyone who believes this is a “fire in a crowded theater” situation is guilty of moral cowardice since that’s what you obviously believe, but I would have hoped for more neutral language on the reporting.

    • geoconger

      No Jerry, I am not reporting on the publication of the Muhammad cartoon, nor upon the subsequent firebombing that has destroyed the offices of the magazine. I am commenting on two press related issues: 1) the claim that Islam prohibits the representation of Muhammad. That is simply not true. And 2) the preemptive surrender by many press outlets. Many French-language publications did post the cover, allowing its readers to decide for themselves whether this was puerile, offensive, or a witty commentary on the election victory of an Islamist party in Tunisia.

      The fire in the theatre analogy does not work. One cannot be held hostage to what some might think or do in response to news and still be faithful to the journalistic calling. Neutrality does not mean hiding information. Self-censorship is the antithesis of neutrality as it elevates the sensitivities of one group over the whole before the facts are laid out.

      In his discussion of the Yale incident, Christopher Hitchens dismissed the claim that by publishing something that someone might find offensive you were crying fire in a crowded theatre —

      If you instigate something, it means that you wish and intend it to happen. If it’s a riot, then by instigating it, you have yourself fomented it. If it’s a murder, then by instigating it, you have yourself colluded in it. There is no other usage given for the word in any dictionary, with the possible exception of the word provoke, which does have a passive connotation. After all, there are people who argue that women who won’t wear the veil have “provoked” those who rape or disfigure them … and now Yale has adopted that “logic” as its own.

      It was bad enough during the original controversy, when most of the news media—and in the age of “the image” at that—refused to show the cartoons out of simple fear. But now the rot has gone a serious degree further into the fabric. Now we have to say that the mayhem we fear is also our fault, if not indeed our direct responsibility. This is the worst sort of masochism, and it involves inverting the honest meaning of our language as well as what might hitherto have been thought of as our concept of moral responsibility.

      Last time this happened, I linked to the Danish cartoons so that you could make up your own minds about them, and I do the same today. Nothing happened last time, but who’s to say what homicidal theocrat might decide to take offense now. I deny absolutely that I will have instigated him to do so, and I state in advance that he is directly and solely responsible for any blood that is on any hands. He becomes the responsibility of our police and security agencies, who operate in defense of a Constitution that we would not possess if we had not been willing to spill blood—our own and that of others—to attain it. The First Amendment to that Constitution prohibits any prior restraint on the freedom of the press. What a cause of shame that the campus of Nathan Hale should have pre-emptively run up the white flag and then cringingly taken the blood guilt of potential assassins and tyrants upon itself.

      Yes, you are correct in perceiving that I believe that the failure to print the Mohammad cartoon, while printing covers from other Charlie Hebdo issues to illustrate the story, was moral cowardice.

  • Dave

    I just caught a headline from that the Charlie Hebdo offices have been firebombed.

  • Dave


    Red herring alert! When person A disagrees with voluntary editorial decisions of person B, then A cries “self-censorship.” It brings in the spectre of censorship to where it does not belong because it does not exist there.

  • sari

    You are right, geoconger, this is not a fire in the theatre situation. Members of any group, ethnic, religious or both, have the choice to live by societal rules or suffer the consequences. Right now there are no consequences.

    When you posted the disgusting photo on your “Jews as C-killers” thread, did you anticipate the need to go into hiding rather than face offended and violent Jewish readers? No, you did not. The rules need to be the same for everybody. When the press self-censors for fear of reprisals, it privileges those groups above all others and, in effect, validate the groups’ rationale. Better to publish and at the same time post law enforcement to intercept, detain and try the perpetrators.

  • Daniel

    Dave and Jerry, is a blog, not a newspaper. You seem to be mixed up about these journalistic animals. I think in order to comment about journalistic issues as to magazines, newspapers and blogs, we ought to know the differences between the three. It seems as if you’re doing some fact-checking on geoconger, without appreciating the difference between an opinion piece and a report!

  • Dave

    Daniel, your remark makes absolutely no sense as regards my comments.

  • J

    First time I’ve been censored here…I posted a link showing that the BBC reported that Charlie Hebdo has drawn cartoons showing certain other religions in a negative light, and asking about the journalistic cowardice in not posting those. My point is that bad taste and insensitivity is not something that must be repeated, as opposed to reported, by the press. I guess that wasn’t appreciated. Here’s the link again, without my quote from the article which had some possibility offense words.