On Wednesday, armed militant Muslims stormed into the editorial offices of a satirical magazine in France and killed 12 people — journalists and their police guards. They did this because the magazine, Charlie Hebdo (a name probably everyone on Earth now knows) published satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed. This is not the first time a publication published such a cartoon and not the first time there have been murders associated with militant Muslims not liking something.
And now I’m seeing people either privately or in public editorials talking about how the magazine “provoked” these people to kill them. One such statement was that if you know publishing something like that puts a target on your back, you shouldn’t do it. I understand the inclination towards self-preservation so I understand why many people would choose not to do it. These people are not journalists and I think they don’t really understand the significance and fragility of this thing we call “free speech.” People also described the cartoons as “not funny” and “12-year-old humor.” Maybe. The last couple probably do fall into that latter category. But the first one, the one that started the whole ball rolling, doesn’t. It isn’t funny, but it is poignant. I think a detailed explanation is necessary about why (at least I think) the people at Charlie Hebdo provoked those who threatened them.
The Huffington Post published an article giving the timeline and full story so I won’t reiterate it here. But I will include the first cartoon:
The text reads in English, “Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists.”
This cartoon resulted in a court case against the magazine asking French courts to force the magazine not to publish images of the Prophet. Charlie Hebdo won. These were journalistic satirists. They had a sarcastic sense of humor and an almost fanatical need to blow raspberries at people who couldn’t take a joke — to the point of trying to silence the magazine in a court of law. The court case was about free speech. It was about whether a religion can dictate what people who don’t even belong to that religion do or say. Charlie Hebdo’s staff wasn’t going to stand for that and they didn’t.
And so followed a series of increasingly offensive cartoons and increasing anger in the radical Muslim community. It was a simple thing, but it was a brave thing. On the surface, it was silliness and maybe a little 12-year-old humor. Underneath, though, it was a group of people taking a stand, saying that no one was going to tell them they couldn’t speak out. This was their own little revolution. They may be dead, but they still won.
Did Muslims have a right to take offense to any or all of the cartoons? Absolutely. Even if I disagreed with them, I would fully support their right to condemn the cartoons publicly in speeches, letters to newspapers and magazines, blog posts, even picketing outside the magazine’s offices or calling for a boycott. All of those things — even the court case — are acceptable and within their rights. Murder, however, is not.
This is not the first time radical Islam has taken such a stand. Salman Rushdie had to live in hiding for years because of one small passage in a novel he wrote. A radical Muslim murdered Theodoor “Theo” van Gogh for making a documentary critical of the treatment of women in Islam.
Charlie Hebdo said, “ENOUGH!”
Ironically, on the same day the murders occurred, over her in the United States, a local small-time politician took on his local newspaper. Kirby Delauter was angry that the newspaper published his name in an article about parking spaces for new council members in a small Maryland town. And he got a royal smackdown from the newspaper. His response was to apologize. Should that newspaper have backed down because someone was angry? He didn’t threaten lives, but he threatened a lawsuit. And he was wrong.
Whether it’s Kirby Delauter, radical Muslims or Watergate, the press has a duty to tell the important stories. Without a free press, we might as well go back to the Dark Ages.
And that is why Charlie Hebdo continued poking the bear and why those pokes became harder and harder each time.