Another Attack on Freedom in France

As you probably have heard by now, at least 12 people (ten journalists and two police officers) have died in a terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. No one has taken responsibility just yet, and the murderers have not been apprehended. But it is broadly assumed that the attacks were related to the magazine’s deployment of provocative images of the Prophet Muhammad in 2012, and of other material deemed anti-Islamic more recently, including this very week and day. Here’s a report from the Guardian‘s Anne Penketh:

The weekly’s latest jibe, published on Twitter moments before the terrorist attack, was a cartoon wishing a Happy New Year ‘and particularly good health’ to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic militant group Islamic State (Isis).

The magazine describes itself on the social network as the ‘irresponsible newspaper’. Its cover this week features the provocative new novel by Michel Houellebecq, Submission, which satirises France under a Muslim president.

Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, has received death threats and lives under police protection. He has always insisted that the cartoons depicting the Prophet were harmless fun, although he is well aware that Islam does not allow public images of Muhammad, which are believed by Muslims to be sacrilegious.

A lot of non-Muslims are confused about this issue, believing Muslims oppose depictions of the Prophet because they worship him. The “sacrilege” involved is rather the opposite: an iconoclastic concern that depictions of the human form (most definitely that of the Prophet) will encourage idolatry. Demeaning images of Muhammad, then, simply add insult to injury.

As is appropriate, responsible Muslims are lining up to condemn the killings. Here’s what the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) had to say in 2010 when violent threats were being received by Southpark’s creators for an episode featuring Muhammad, which in turn led to “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” an effort to express solidarity with satirists:

In reaction to the recent controversy over a depiction of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in an episode of Comedy Central’s “South Park,” a Seattle cartoonist apparently declared May 20th to be “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”

I say “apparently,” because cartoonist Molly Norris — the creator of the cartoon showing many objects claiming to be a likeness of the prophet — now says she never intended to launch “Draw Muhammad Day.”

On her web site, she has since posted a statement that reads in part: “I did NOT ‘declare’ May 20 to be ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’…The cartoon-poster, with a fake ‘group’ behind it, went viral and was taken seriously…The vitriol this ‘day’ has brought out, of people who only want to draw obscene images, is offensive to the Muslims who did nothing to endanger our right to expression in the first place…I apologize to people of Muslim faith and ask that this ‘day’ be called off.”

Norris even visited a mosque at the invitation of the local Muslim community.

The creator of a Facebook page dedicated to the day also repudiated the “inflammatory posts” it inspired. He said, “I am aghast that so many people are posting deeply offensive pictures of the Prophet…Y’all go ahead if that’s your bag, but count me out.”

Despite the cartoonist’s and the Facebook page creator’s seemingly sincere attempts to distance themselves from the fake event, Muslim-bashers and Islamophobes made sure the call to “draw Muhammad” went viral on the Internet. They are hoping to offend Muslims, who are generally sensitive to created images of the Prophet Muhammad or any prophet.

[The majority of Muslims believe visual representations of all prophets are inappropriate in that they distract from God’s message and could lead to a kind of idol worship, something forbidden in Islam.]

So how should Muslims and other Americans react to this latest attempt by hate-mongers to exploit the precious right of free speech and turn May 20 into a celebration of degradation and xenophobia?

Before I answer that question, it must first be made clear that American Muslims value freedom of speech and have no desire to inhibit the creative instincts of cartoonists, comedians or anyone else.

The mainstream American Muslim community, including my own organization, has also strongly repudiated the few members of an extremist fringe group who appeared to threaten the creators of “South Park.” That group, the origins and makeup of which has been questioned by many Muslims, has absolutely no credibility within the American Muslim community.

I, like many Muslims, was astonished to see media outlets broadcasting the views of a few marginal individuals, while ignoring the hundreds of mosques and Muslim institutions that have representatives who could have offered a mainstream perspective.

There’s zero question that the outrage in Paris will feed global anti-Islamic sentiment, particularly in the U.S.; that was almost certainly a major motivation for the attacks, waged by people who want a global confrontation between Islam and infidel “crusaders.” As we express our own anger and grief over the murders, it would be very helpful not to play the same deadly game.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.