New Mohammad Cartoons from Charlie Hebdo Spark a Debate


Cartoon by Charb for Charlie Hebdo magazine

On Wednesday September 19, 2012, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons mocking both the film Innocence of Muslims, and, the violent reactions to that film that erupted in many Muslim countries.  The latest collection of cartoons includes naked caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad.  Fearing another outbreak of violence, the French government condemned the magazine’s decision to publish the cartoons as an irresponsible act at a very sensitive time.  The editor Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier and the editor-in-chief Gérard Biard stood by their decision as a matter of free speech.  Fortunately the worst fears of the French government have not come true.  The reaction of the Muslim community – the biggest in Europe at an estimate nearly five million followers – has been critical but largely composed.  While the cartoons have not sparked any widespread violence in France or abroad, they have sparked a lively debate.

The film, or at least the thirteen minutes of the film that can be found online, that has enraged so many Muslims, depicts Mohammad as a womanizing, child abusing fraud.  Posted on YouTube in July, the Innocence of Muslims is an amateurish looking film that was produced in California.  Since its posting, scores of protests, some of them deadly, have erupted worldwide.  Twelve people were killed by a suicide bomb in Afghanistan and numerous American and other Western embassies were attacked in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.  By now of course everyone is aware that U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were murdered in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.  The Benghazi assault it should be noted has been deemed by American counterterrorism experts a planned terrorist attack and not a spontaneous riot.  

The staff at Charlie Hebdo reacted to the film and the subsequent violence with its own brand of outrage.  The staff put out an issue that mocked Muslim extremists and the Innocence of Muslims, a film which Charb has called grotesque.  The cover of the magazine, seen above, depicts a Muslim man in a wheelchair being pushed by an Orthodox Jewish man under the title Untouchable 2 which references a recent popular French film.  Both men are saying, “You mustn’t mock us!”  Among cartoons poking fun of other issues from the recent headlines, are four Mohammad cartoons.  Two of the cartoons incorporate depictions of a naked Mohammad as a way to critique the film Innocence of Muslims.  In one of the cartoons, a caricature of the Prophet is lying on his stomach asking a movie director, “You like my buttocks?”  That cartoon references a scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Contempt staring Brigitte Bardot.  In the other cartoon, labeled “A Star is Born,” a caricature of the Prophet is bent over with a star emerging from his backside.  Yet another cartoon, without a Mohammad caricature, pokes fun of the rioters with a reference to the controversy over the photographs of topless Kate Middleton in the French magazine Closer.  In that cartoon a topless female figure with a beard has the caption, “Riots in Arab countries after photos of Mrs. Mohammad are published.”  The cartoons can be seen at Hlaa Oo's Blog at French Charlie Hebdo Runs Mohammed Cartoons.     

Despite an urgent request from the French government to print a Mohammad-free issue, the paper went ahead with its controversial issue.  Editor-in-chief Gérard Biard rhetorically asked, “What are we supposed to do when there’s news like this?  Are we supposed to not do that news?”  Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, told Reuters, “We have the impression that it’s officially allowed for Charlie Hebdo to attack the Catholic far-right but we cannot poke fun at fundamental Islamists.”  To the Associated Press, Charb said he did not have any regrets or feel any responsibility for the violent actions of others.  “I’m not the one going into the streets with stones and Kalashnikovs,” he said.  (To read these articles, click on French Charlie Hebdo Runs Mohammed Cartoons from Reuters, and, New French cartoons Inflame prophet film tensions from Associated Press.)  Charb defended the publication of the cartoons even in the text of the controversial issue.  He wrote, “There is nothing to negotiate with fascists.” 

The French government prepared for the worst.  On Friday the French government ordered the closing of its embassies, consulates, schools and cultural centers in 20 countries.  In France riot police were deployed throughout the major cities and of course at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.  The French government even went so far as to ban protests over the film and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.  At one location in Marseille the police deployed sixty riot police to prevent any possible protests.  Protests were banned as a threat to public order.   It should be noted that Charb has spoken out against the ban on protests in a consistent defense of free speech.

In France and abroad the reaction to the cartoons has not been as extreme as the reaction to the film Innocence of the Muslims.  Anti-French demonstrations in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia and elsewhere have been largely peaceful.  In France two men have been arrested for posting online death threats to the staff of Charlie Hebdo, a group calling itself the Syrian Association of Freedom has filed a complaint against the paper, and once again the paper’s website has been hacked.  But there have been no protests let alone riots in France in response to the cartoons.  Okay, there was a one-man protest in Marseille.  Defying the ban, the lone protester plastered walls with posters that read “Hebdo Pigs” and “French Muslims don’t need authorization to defend their rights.”  The police didn’t bother to arrest the lone protester.

While the protests over the cartoons did not fortunately erupt, the debate has certainly caught fire.  On one side of the debate are defenders of the paper, such as former prime minister Francois Fillon.  He said, “I defend freedom of expression and I think we must not give an inch in this area.”  On the other side are the paper’s detractors, including the Vatican daily Osservatore Romano, who have accused the Charlie Hebdo staff of “pouring oil on the fire.”  Many key Muslim organizations in France have condemned the publication of the cartoons while calling on fellow Muslims to refrain from violence.  For instance, in the same statement that the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) urged Muslims to “rise above their anger and not give in to the provocation,” the Council accused Charlie Hebdo of intentionally stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment.  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius seemed to be debating even himself.  He said the principle of freedom of expression “must not be infringed.”  But he then added: “Is it pertinent, intelligent, in this context to pour oil on the fire?  The answer is no.”

Cartoonists Rights Network International's Executive Director Robert Russell commented that, "The lack of violent protests in this case may be significant. It may indicate that in Europe Muslims are learning to put these assaults on their sensibilities in perspective. The publicity that violent demonstrators and the occasional terrorists' firebombs give to these cartoons and others like them serves only to bring more attention to them.  The demonstrations become self-fulfilling prophecies.  The firebombing of cars, the throwing of stones through windows and the destroying of property by Muslim demonstrators just bolsters' the claim by Islam's harshest critics that this a violent religion with violent followers."  Dr. Russell also noted that, "In Europe it took 400 years and countless brutal, horrific deaths to break the stranglehold of the Catholic Church on thought and free speech.  The printing press meant that books and their thoughts from a vastly broad number of authors began to travel across borders and across oceans, smashing aside old outdated ideas.  Today this same revolution is taking place in cyberspace.  Those who try to stop this onslaught of ideas and images are doomed to ultimate failure."