Editor’s Note: Due to some confusion from early reports, the article stated that Hamyd Mourad, brother-in-law to the Kouachi brothers, was the getaway driver for the brothers. He was in no way involved. He turned himself in to police after seeing his name mentioned on social media but was actually in class with fellow students all day. We apologize for the error.
On the morning of 7 January 2015, a group of three Muslim extremists broke into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a famous satirical magazine headquartered in Paris, France, and killed twelve people. I mention their faith only because it has bearing on why they took their actions. These three extremists, who in no way represent the majority of Muslims in France or the world at large, saw the magazine’s presentation of the Prophet Mohammad as inappropriate and unforgiveable. I would counter by saying that killing in the name of your faith is inappropriate and unforgiveable. What the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi did is beyond the pale. But this is also not the first time that there has been trouble over the depiction of Mohammad in political and other cartoons.
Islam has a long tradition of not depicting the face of its prophet, but not everyone agrees with that understanding. This custom stems not from the Quran but rather from the hadith, a collection of sayings attributed to the prophet or his close followers; a sort of oral wisdom tradition. The concern stems from the prohibition against idolatry, the idea that Mohammad the man might become an object of worship instead of the Divine. Christianity has had similar concerns with the Iconoclasm Controversy when church prelates could not decide if venerating saints via icons qualified as dulia (respect or veneration for a beloved religious figure) or latria (actual worship as divine). Many American Protestants today wrongly conflate the two actions when they condemn Catholic or Orthodox veneration of the saints. My own faith, Judaism, has similar concerns stemming from Exodus 20:4 regarding idolatry, so we do not portray the Divine, but depictions of prophets and other figures are just fine.
In the West, depictions of Mohammad were relatively rare for the first millennium of Islam’s existence. For those that did exist, there seems not to have been much controversy, but that could well be the result of a lack of a Muslim audience for the art. One major exception has always been a scene from Dante’s Inferno that was popular with engravers where he is shown as hanged with his entrails falling out. Over time, however, and particularly since the First Gulf War, Western depictions of Mohammad have become more common and more controversial with the advent of the internet and greater mobility of populations. The response has been vigorous, to put it mildly.
The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art has removed historical depictions of Mohammad from public galleries. Comedy Central, that bastion of irreverence, refused to let South Park show him in an episode. Even Wikipedia received a rather hefty petition to remove images from its pages. More broadly, negative depictions of Islam and Islamic figures in general has been a source of ire from some Muslims. The home of Lars Vilk, a Swedish cartoonist, was burned to the ground and there is allegedly an al-Qaeda sponsored $100,000 bounty on his head. Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in part because of a documentary. Artists at the Dutch paper Jyllens-Posten received death threats for what came to be known as the Muhammedkrisen, called the nation’s worst international relations incident since WWII by PM Anders Rasmussen. The film Innocence of Muslims was initially, and wrongly, blamed for the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi. The film is still available on YouTube, but I refuse to link to it, not out of fear of retaliation, but because it is a gross misrepresentation of actual Muslim belief and practice. That such a claim about a film was believable merely demonstrates that the response to depictions of Mohammad is understood to be vigorous and violent, another misrepresentation.
Counter response has been similarly vigorous, if just as kneejerk in its proposals as the original protests. Everybody Draw Mohammad Day was just the most ridiculous example. A Pakistani court ordered Facebook blocked for allowing posts about it on their social network. In the end, the artist who came up with the idea backed down amid the clamor. Westerners in general, though, have been moderately more respectful than that while insisting on their rights under freedom of the press and freedom of expression while still insisting that no topic was too sacred for scrutiny and lampooning. Journalism as we know it, and storytelling along with it, would not exist without caricature, archetypes, and comprehensible symbols, oral and pictorial, that we use as a sort of shorthand for understanding. Without them, the majority of literature would go in the wastebasket as an unintelligible mess.
More to the point at hand, this is not the first time Charlie Hebdo has been attacked. In November 2011 they had a “guest editor” of none other than a cartoon version of Mohammad himself with an image on the cover reading “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!” in French. Shortly afterward their offices were firebombed and they had to move to a more discrete location with another name on their intercom buzzer. In September 2012, they did it again, this time in the wake of Benghazi. Editor-in-Chief Stéphane Charbonnier responded to criticism by saying, “We do caricatures of everyone, and above all every week, and when we do it with the Prophet, it’s called provocation.” He saw the publication of the controversial material as true to the spirit of a free press. Reportedly on an al-Qaeda hit list, he was among those killed.
Insofar as the idea of a free press has martyrs, these few as well as two police officers and economist Bernard Maris, will join that cadre. Best known by their pen names, that is how they should be remembered: Charb, Cabu, Honoré, Tignous, and Wolinski.
The cartooning at Charlie Hebdo was, on the best of days, puerile and crass. They have that right. Some of their representations of Judaism leave me rather flummoxed. But they were indiscriminate in their targets and consistent in their mockery. Because of this, and a respect for a free press, the response has been overwhelming in an entirely different way. Three other media companies have offered their facilities, equipment, and staff to help continue operations. The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie is trending on Twitter. Massive rallies across Europe have expressed support for the magazine’s surviving employees and the families (although one hopes a simplistic understanding of the events do not lead to a conflation with the Pegida movement). Muslim leaders across the nation have condemned the attacks as cowardly and contrary to the spirit of Islam. Secretary of State John Kerry described the events as symptomatic of a “confrontation between civilization itself and those who are opposed to a civilized world.”
A free press, an active Fourth Estate, is essential to the safeguarding of liberty. Our own nation’s colonial struggles for freedom in many ways began with the trial, travail, and triumph of John Peter Zenger. We continued this tradition when Larry Flynt of Hustler fame beat Jerry Falwell’s claims of damage from the magazine’s satire in the Supreme Court. The New York Times beat the Pentagon, the very heart of our military, in the Pentagon Papers case. Our own government has accepted defeat against the inroads of press freedoms when they had every ability to squash them from the start. America, and the West generally, need a free press. It’s how we “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
And so, today of all days, je sui, non, nous sommes Charlie Hebdo.