“I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”
Last Wednesday, gunfire broke out in an attack at the offices of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly), leaving 12 dead, including four prominent cartoonists. The masked gunmen were armed with AK-47s and, according to witnesses at the scene, claimed to be from al-Qaida and shouted “Allahu akbar” (usually translatted as “God is [the] greatest” or “God is great”) and “We have avenged the prophet.” The suspects, identified as Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi, shot dead one of the officers on the street as they fled – escaping first in a black Citroen that they abandoned after a crash, and then in a sedan they carjacked from a bystander. Said and Cherif Kouachi were killed on Friday in a gun battle with police in the town of Dammartin-en-Goele, northeast of Paris.
The attack was carried out because of Charlie Hebdo‘s controversial history of depicting the Prophet Mohammed, often in an unfavorable light, which has angered many Muslims around the world. In Islam, the prohibition against illustrating Muhammed grew out of a desire to prevent idol worship, a practice that was widespread in Islam’s Arabian birthplace. Mohammed, according to Islam, was a man, not God, and it was believed that portrayals of Mohammed could lead to revering a human in lieu of Allah. It is important to note, however, that this prohibition is not limited to Mohammed. Rather, in Islam there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on depicting the prophet, though, is apparently absolute.
In the wake of the attacks, multiple news agencies have refused to re-publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. The New York Daily News blurred the cartoon. The Associated Press opted not to publish the cartoons, calling them “deliberatively provocative images.” CNN requested that its staff simply “describe” the images rather than show them. The New York Times reacted similarly, concluding that “describing the cartoons in question would give readers sufficient information to understand today’s story.” And NBC News and MSNBC reiterated a policy against showing cartoons that “could be viewed as insensitive or offensive.”
What does that say about our “free” press?
In addition to the prohibition on depicting the Prophet Mohammed, Islam also prohibits consuming pork, the drinking of alcohol, or, in some Muslim societies, even music or dancing. “Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these,” Christopher Hitchens aptly remarked in 2006. “But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.”
I, like Hitchens, “refuse to be spoken to in that tone of voice, which as it happens I chance to find ‘offensive.'” No belief or conviction, no matter how closely held, is immune from criticism or satire. Blasphemy is sacred. It should be encouraged, not suppressed. If you are so insecure in your “belief” that you think that you have the right (perhaps even obligation) to kill any person who violates your interpretation of that belief, then you are part of the problem. Avoiding blasphemy out of prudence allows the extremists to set the rules.
In solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, here are some of their best “blasphemous” cartoons: