Our worst fear was that Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s supreme leader, would mark the New Year by sending a nuke to Sony Pictures for finally deciding to show the movie “The Interview,” which portrays his fictional assassination. To our pleasant surprise, nothing like this has happened: the rather inane movie appears to have bombed at the box office, and Kim has made no great protest against it since. He is even reported to be considering a moratorium on nuclear testing.
But last week, the horror shifted from Pyongyang to Paris when three Islamist gunmen descended on the office of the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo (short for hebdomadaire, which means weekly), and slaughtered ten journalists and two others in the name of Prophet Mohamed. This has made Kim so much less than the mad despot the Western press has made him out to be.
Overnight, Charlie Hebdo became a worldwide sensation as the post on Facebook, “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” (I am Charlie Hebdo), went viral as sympathetic first-world newspapers reprinted Charlie’s anti-Mohamed cartoons; as world opinion echoed French President Francois Hollande’s statement that the attack was an act of “exceptional barbarism;” and as financial donors made sure that Charlie continued to publish, with a print run of one million copies from its usual 60,000.
This was not the first time the magazine was attacked. On Nov. 2, 2011, its office in the 20th arrondisement (district) was firebombed, and its website hacked. Long before that, it drew a big lawsuit from the Grand Mosque, the Muslim World League, and the Union of French Islamic Organizations, after it reprinted on Feb. 9, 2006 the 12 anti-Mohamed cartoons which first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005. That threatened its continued existence.
At the time, French President Jacques Chirac warned against “overt provocations” which could inflame passions. But future presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Hollande and a number of public intellectuals took the side of Charlie by expressing support for the French art of satire. Still, the violent demonstrations set off by the Danish cartoons in front of Danish embassies in the Middle East and other parts of the world prompted the French government to tighten security measures around its diplomatic missions.
However, Islamist anger was quickly diverted to the “Innocence of Muslims,” a 2012 US-made 14-minute “trailer,” which portrayed Mohamed as a “child of uncertain parentage, a buffoon, a womanizer, a homosexual, a child molester, and a greedy, blood-thirsty thug.” This set off a wave of anti-US demonstrations in the Middle East and everywhere else.
For all of Charlie’s anti-Islamic pitch, it was not known whether all those killed were personally involved in lampooning Mohamed. Nor were they previously warned of their oncoming fate, as was the Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie, whom Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned to death in a fatwa issued on Feb. 14, 1989, for his 1988 novel, Satanic Verses.
The fatwa on Rushdie carried a $3.3 million reward for his killer, and compelled him to go into hiding in Britain, with full security protection from the British government. In 2007, he was knighted by the Queen of England, but in 2012, he became the subject of an (anti-Rushdie) Iranian computer game. Those who might have thought Rushdie had survived the fatwa were quickly disabused a few days ago when Iran’s senior cleric Ahmad Khatami said the fatwa “is as fresh as ever.”
The victims of the Paris attack have been celebrated in the media as martyrs to press freedom. The emotion is understandable, but perhaps the statement could stand some examination. Certainly, none of the victims deserved to die, whether or not they had a hand in satirizing Islam. For murder can never be justified as a response to blasphemy or sacrilege or political satire. But it is easier to see the journalists as victims of a deranged fundamentalism rather than as martyrs to press freedom.
Freedom can exist only with justice, even in the hands of those who consider it their business to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. A journalist may feel free, even without any provocation, to deflate inflated political egos and deride the mighty and the powerful; but he may not be free to ridicule what other people hold as sacred or inviolable. There is no human right to offend, contrary to what some people may want to preach from their self-created thrones, and the ability to attack God or any religion has never been the proof of individual freedom. Christians, particularly Catholic Christians, may have a way of taking such abuses on the chin, but Jews or Muslims may not easily put up with them.
Thus, if Carlos Celdran, whom some conscript columnists would like to promote into some kind of icon for abusing Catholics and other Christians gathered inside the Manila Cathedral in 2010, had walked into a Muslim prayer assembly and behaved in the same manner, his misguided fans would probably have been eulogizing “the late Carlos Celdran” instead of merely lamenting the court sentence that failed to recognize his non-existent “right to offend.”
Weekly Charlie’s own history should have reminded its staff that satire is a great art form, but not everything may be satirized, without risking undue consequences. We have no way of controlling how people would react to what we say or write. In 1970, when former French president Charles de Gaulle died in his country home at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, eight days after a fire killed 146 people at nearby Club Cinq-Sept, the earlier version of Weekly Charlie, known then by the name of Hebdo Hara-Kiri (Weekly Hara-Kiri), deployed its most potent satirical skills to spoof the two incidents under the headline, “Tragic Ball at Colombey, one dead.” This was high political satire, worthy of the worthiest French man of letters, but the paper did not escape censure from the Ministry of the Interior, which banned the publication.
In fact, it was to circumvent this ban that the magazine changed its name to Charlie Hebdo, in honor of Charlie Brown, the lead character in the widely-read Peanuts cartoon, and as some kind of private joke on Charles de Gaulle.
Given the outpouring of support for the victims of the Jan 7, 2015 carnage and for Charlie itself, and anticipating a much stronger reader’s demand after the tragedy, there is every possibility that the magazine’s editorial vigor would geometrically intensify. After all, this is France, the original seat of liberte, egalite, fraternite, and the Rights of Man, and this is what freedom of expression in this century is supposed to mean.
But there may be something worth learning from the example of the original offender, the Danish Jyllands-Posten, which has refused to reprint Charlie’s own Mohamed cartoons, out of regard for the safety and wellbeing of its own people.
This restraint is admirable; it shows a genuine appreciation of the need to balance rights and responsibilities in defending our shared freedoms.