In February 2006 French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published a series of 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad which had been featured in the Nordic daily Jyllands-Posten the previous year. The Danish publication triggered anti-Danish protests across the Muslim world. It was the start of the story that would ultimately lead to the magazine becoming a prime terrorist target.
Twelve people were shot dead at the Charlie Hebdo office today.
Depictions of the prophet are strictly taboo in Islam. The French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM) and the Grand Mosques of Paris and Lyon had unsuccessfully attempted to sue Charlie Hebdo to prevent publication of the images on the grounds that they were offensive to France’s Muslim community.
Their failure, however, led to much more serious repercussions.
As the debate over the publication of the images intensified in France, a group of 12 prominent writers including Salman Rushdie and Bernard-Henri Levy
published an article in Charlie Hebdo speaking out against Islamic “totalitarianism”. They wrote:
“Like all totalitarian ideologies, Islamism is nurtured by fear and frustration…Islamism is a reactionary ideology that kills equality, freedom and secularism wherever it is present.”
By publicly denouncing Islamism, the magazine became a target of threats forcing some staff to be placed under police protection. But the attempt at intimidation failed. In fact, it had the opposite effect, emboldening the magazine’s staff.
In 2011, the magazine named the Prophet Muhammad as its “editor-in-chief.” The cover once again carried a cartoon depicting him making a glib remark.
This time, however, the response was not just threats. A day after its publication the offices of the magazine were firebombed and its website hacked. Fortunately, no-one was injured.
Stephane Charbonnier, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, responded as robustly as ever.
He said: “If we can poke fun at everything in France, if we can talk about anything in France apart from Islam or the consequences of Islamism, that is annoying.”
In response he set out to publish the most controversial editions yet. They first produced an issue with the cover showing a man dressed in traditional Muslim garb passionately kissing a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist.
This was then followed up by a cover showing a Muslim man in a wheelchair pushed by an Orthodox Jew under the title “Untouchables 2”, an imaginary sequel to a recently released French film. The pair are saying (rough translation) “You must not mock us!”.
The publication was condemned by the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius as a “provocation”. The French government was so concerned about the possibility of a backlash in Muslim countries, following the response to the 2006 cartoons, that it decided to temporarily closed 20 embassies as a precaution.
Yet Charlie Hebdo was not done yet. In 2013 the magazine went further still, publishing what it called a “halal” comic book on the life of Islamic prophet Mohammad. The book was created with the help of a Islamic Franco-Tunisian sociologist and Charbonnier claimed, somewhat implausibly given his experiences, that there was no reason why anyone would take offence.
Even those who have defended the magazine’s right to publish have admitted the articles have been crass. But Charbonnier told Al Jazeera in a 2012 interview, that his argument has always been that free speech must be upheld and cannot be bounded by what will and will not cause offence.
Today, the Charlie Hebdo story took a gruesome turn as two gunmen burst into its offices and shot dead at least 12 people. They shouted “we have avenged the prophet!” according to Sky News.
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