Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoon crassness

Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoon crassness September 19, 2012

Get ready GetReligion readers for the next twist in the Muslim outrage story. Today’s issue of  Charlie Hebdo a lowbrow political humor magazine akin to Private Eye — tops the “Innocence of Muslims” film in crassness and bad taste.

That direct to YouTube video produced by an expatriate Egyptian Copt denigrates Islam and Muhammad, denouncing him as a charlatan, womanizer, and sexual degenerate. The rest is history.

While some members of the mob that assaulted the U.S. embassy may have been paid to express their outrage, and it is unlikely the well planned assault on the consulate in Benghazi that led to the rape and murder of the U.S. ambassador was an act of spontaneous outrage — there is little doubt the film has sparked indignation across the Muslim world.

And at this point in the story, Charlie Hebdo steps in. The cover of the offending issue portrays an Orthodox Jew pushing a Muslim in a wheelchair. Atop the cartoon is the mock-movie title “Untouchables 2”, which Reuters says is:

a reference to a hugely popular French movie about a paralyzed rich white man and his black assistant.

The text balloon states “You must not mock”, but there is also the undertone of “Make my day” here also. Last November the offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed after they put Muhammad on the cover of their magazine and ran some distasteful cartoons inside the magazine.

It may be worse this time round. France 24 reported that after today’s issue of the magazine was released, the Quai d’Orsay announced it was closing 20 French embassies on Friday in anticipation of trouble. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who happens to be in Cairo today, expressed his anger at the timing of the release of these new cartoons. Publishing inflammatory cartoons while the Muslim world was still seething over the YouTube video was not helpful to the cause of peace, he told i-Télé. However, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has affirmed that freedom of speech is a fundamental principle for France.

The anger at Charlie Hebdo will focus on the cartoons on the inside of the magazine, not the cover. Here is a link to one page where you can see for yourself what is causing the fuss. Taking its film theme from the Youtube video, Charlie Hebdo portrays Muhammad as a gay porn star.

I suspect we will see calls for censorship of Charlie Hebdo just as the “Innocence of Muslims” has prompted pro-censorship commentaries in the U.S. press. Some self-censorship around the Charlie Hebdo story has already begun. While some European and American newspapers and broadcasters have not held back on showing the cover, Fox NewsABC News, CBS News, the Guardian, the Jerusalem Post, Al-Ahram and others chose to describe the cover and contents, but not show them to their readers. I’ve not seen any reprint the inside cartoons.

I too am guilty of self-censorship. I chose not to publish the risque cartoons on this blog, but  placed them on a private page where a reader can examine them if he so chooses. Am I guilty of moral cowardice?

The editor of Charlie Hebdo spoke to RTL defended his decision to publish, saying:

If we start to ask questions now about whether or not we have the right to draw Muhammad, if it’s dangerous or not, the next questions is going to be: ‘Can we show images of Muslims in the paper?’ Then the question after that will be: ‘Can we show images of people in the paper?’ And then at the end, we won’t be representing anything and this form of extremism that is happening around the world will have won.

Reuters quoted him as saying:

“To me, these religious hardliners who protest and kill over a crappy film are no different to the people who made the crappy film. They’re all the same pack, a bunch of assholes,” editor Stephane Charbonnier, under police protection since printing similar caricatures last November, told Reuters.

The last time Charlie Hebdo ran a Muhammad cartoon, I argued that this was done in bad taste and lacked journalistic merit — but it was their right to do so. I also stated that Islamic law does not forbid depictions of Muhammad. As my colleagues at GetReligion have pointed out in Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, South Park, and the Jyllands-Posten cartoons there is no one Muslim law, nor common view on this topic. Here is a gallery of Muhammad images in Western and Turkish art collections.

I also argued that the failure to print the Muhammad cartoon that prompted the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo, while printing covers from other issues of the magazine to illustrate the story, was moral cowardice. I rejected the contention that by publishing something that someone might find offensive you were crying fire in a crowded theater. I cited Christopher Hitchens in support of my argument. He wrote:

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 … 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.

Tell me GetReligion readers, does this argument still work? Should we limit free speech in the name of a moral responsibility not to offend, or does the moral responsibility to act within the bounds of civilized society take precedence? Where I the editor of Charlie Hebdo I would not have commissioned the cartoons nor printed them in this climate. But having been printed, I believe the press should show them to their readers.  I respect Charlie Hebdo‘s right to be offensive and crass, but would not do it myself. Is this moral cowardice? Preening or prudence? What say you?

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22 responses to “Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoon crassness”

  1. Am I being naive to think that, if the press freely reproduced these images when they are newsworthy, the rage against them would burn out? By being so tentative, it seems the press stokes the fire.

  2. One of the problems with succumbing to censorship under the “fightin’ words” exception to the 1st Amendment is that it protects only those who threaten violence. Putting a crucifix in urine would be protected speech because Catholics are unlikely to go on a rampage. However, if the Knights of Columbus established by their actions that any insult to Jesus or the Bible would result in mayhem and riots, “Piss Christ” would become “fightin’ words.” Not a road I’d advise traveling.

    OTOH, maybe I’m just geezing, but so many people these days are caught up in being “edgy.” Most of it seems to me childish, rude and dangerous. Why gratuitously insult other people – especially about something as dear to them as religion? There are valid and important reasons to examine and critique religious beliefs, but common sense says to be careful how you do it.

  3. Actually, the cartoon says “Intouchables 2”, not “Untouchables 2”. It’s a reference to The Intouchables, a French film released in France last year and in North America a few months ago; if I’m not mistaken, it is currently the top-grossing non-English-language film of all time.

  4. You are not guilty of moral cowardice. You (unlike a court under the First Amendment) may decide that a graphic is more offensive than informative, that omitting it deprives the reader of no knowledge, and that your post is governed by your taste, not those you cover.

  5. The French word “intouchable” translates to the English word “untouchable”. It’s a translation.


  6. Should we limit free speech in the name of a moral responsibility not to offend, or does the moral responsibility to act within the bounds of civilized society take precedence?

    To me both apply. I have the right to speak. But I should voluntarily choose the moral choice and not deliberately offend people. There’s a four letter word which applies: tact. I don’t know about others, but I was brought up to be tactful and not to go out of my way to be offensive.

    • Nobody has the “RIGHT” to be offended. I can resist being, or refuse to be offended, but taking offence is an option.

  7. “Should we limit free speech in the name of a moral responsibility not to offend, or does the moral responsibility to act within the bounds of civilized society take precedence?”

    More and more, we are failing to distinguish between what is legal and what is not prudent or immoral or tactless or just plain stupid.

    Just because something is legal doesn’t mean we ought to all go do it in the road – as the Beatles put it.

    I’ve got to get along with exasperating relatives on Thanksgiving & so do most people. Besides – “free speech” has to do with speech that the GOVERNMENT can and can’t make illegal. The real world is full of consequences for lots of behaviors that are perfectly legal in the USA. Why do we think our US legal thinking governs the whole world?

    US citizens do not live in a vacuum. How is pushing offensive stuff in the face of people in a different culture going to help us get along? I know that pushing “Piss Christ” in my face does nothing to help me understand “edgy” photography supported by my own tax dollars. Why go out of our way to offend other cultures? I don’t get it. Is it a new version of playing “chicken”? [Rent “Rebel Without a Cause”]

  8. I really hate it when the media tells me that something very offensive has happened, but refuses to give me enough information to judge for myself whether (or how much) it was offensive. The media’s increasing success at withholding the content and simply expecting its audience to react to the judgment of other people (“it was offensive! you should be upset!”) is a major step towards increasing censorship of unpopular speech and ideas across the board.

    By the way, in the current case, your link is broken, George. So I still have not seen the “offensive” cartoons.

    • Thank’s Matt for letting me know about the broken link. It should be working now. If anyone has trouble let accessing the page let me know and I will try something else.

  9. I believe the Founders wrote extensively about their belief that a free society required a high degree of morality and restraint from its populace.

    Just because your right to say silly and offensive things should be protected doesn’t mean you should say silly and offensive things. Indeed, if everyone did, one doubts that the right would be protected at all.


  10. If the media that is calling for the non-publications of these cartoons and demanding that the YouTube video, seen as “provocative” and “hurtful” to Muslims, be either removed or censored, the real question is why?

    This is the same media that made none of these demands when Piss Christ insulted Christians around the world (the NYT defended it as art, and now attacks Innoncence of Muslims as provocation).
    This is the same media that made none of these demands when the Da Vince Code – possibly one of the the most anti-Catholic movies ever produced by Hollywood – was released. Heck, Christians all the way in India protested against this movie but no people were killed and no embassies burnt.

    If the same media that will not make these demands of censorship when Christians are being mocked, why do an about-face when Muslims are being mocked? Is it the threat of violence? If it is, then what is the point of defending freedom of speech? Heck, perhaps Christians, like the Knights of Columbus, should start burning down mosques becos everyday Christians beliefs are mocked day and night in mosques across the Islamic world. Perhaps Jews should shoot dead Muslims around the world becos the Protocols of the Elders of Zion happen to be the most popular series in the Islamic world.

    If violence is the way to stop the media from reporting a story, then the media and journalists have lost this argument. Just shut down shop, go home into your safety bunker and suck on your thumb till the cows come home

  11. This isn’t simply about free speech and hypersensistive islamists, there is the issue of moral degeneracy which permeates our culture and is evident in Charlie Hebdo’s choice of imagery. John M. notes the virtue of “morality and restraint” in a free society, a virtue which may also be expressed as “those who cannot govern themselves will be governed by someone else.”
    Our atomistic, ‘tolerant’, values-free, society has discarded the idea of self-governance. The “slut walk” phenomena is a perfect illustration of the lack of “morality and restraint” which legitimizes the “right” of Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons which are calculated to inflame maximum outrage. It should be obvious to any reasonably intelligent person that the choice of imagery is not, as in the case of Jyllands-Posten, political/social commentary (however inept), but stupid, vicious, pornography.
    Milton, in his seminal tract on freedom of the press, defended the abuses of freedom as preferable to the suspension of freedom. This condescension to suffer abuses of liberty has, in recent years, been interpreted as a license to abuse those liberties. Courts are eager to discard the old moral restraints which they interpret as barriers to freedom.
    But there is a form to the freedoms we enjoy. By undermining the form we undermine the freedom. The moral restraints, of which all trace is being methodically erased, are the framework which supports freedom. When they are gone we are incapable of governing ourselves and will end by being governed by others.

  12. For a long time we have seen a back and forth of potshots in the middle east between Hamas and the
    Israeli settler movement, each trying to provoke the other with the apparent goal of making any sort of negotiation or settlement impossible between Israel and the Palestinians. Now we have Al Quaeda and leftist elements in the west using the same strategy- using provocation to drive a wedge between the Christians (one billion plus) and the world’s Muslims (nearly a billion also, right?) /The radicals get their Armageddon and the innocent suffer. And the networks get lively video to air and raise their ratings.

  13. John Stuart Mill proved long ago that the benefit of freedom of speech is that it assures the continuing growth and relevance of our most cherished institutions:
    “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

  14. Individual freedom of speech should be protected NOW instead of publicly subjected to sharia blasphemy law. The question of “tact”, “moral restrain” etc. is a valid one – but untimely. Not when your embassies are burning and people get killed. You don’t compromise on principles under the threat of or with the violence. This is plain cowardly – and you simply do not deserve any freedoms, and “moral choice”, “tact” – are all moot points then. The West should respond with one satellite channel running incredibly funny Mohammad cartoons 24 hrs a day for the planet and another one calling them stupid, in bad taste, moronic etc. 24 hrs a day. That would finally explain to uninitiated muslims how things work in a free society. 🙂 I also suspect that in the end more muslims would watch the first channel, not the second one 🙂

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