Let’s Hear it for (Charlie) Hebdo

Charlie Hebdo has once again been flying an increasingly battered flag for freedom of opinion and expression despite global threats of real fire and brimstone, but will the French hold out as others in the West cave in?

The Untouchables is how Charlie Hebdo caricatures those who make taking umbrage a profession.

The magazine has a long, proud and iconoclastic tradition in France for piercing pompous egos and defending the right to offend. Such rights derive in part from the French Revolution and served as an inspiration for the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights published in 1948.

          ***Scroll down to read the justification by Flemming Rose, culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten for publishing cartoons which provoked a similar storm in 2006.***

However as Owen Bowcott notes in a recent piece in the leftwing London-based newspaper, the Guardian: ” Article 19 of the UN’s universal declaration of human rights in 1948 envisaged few restrictions. ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression,’ it stated. ‘This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’ “. Yet despite the 1948 provisions there are in practice, lots of legal qualifications to these rights, Bowcott adds.

The video clip above (courtesy of the Guardian) well reflects the dilemmas and the cultural clashes involved. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonist-editor Stéphane Charbonnier or Charb as he is known, bravely defends his magazine’s long-standing traditions and decisions against those who wish to “govern by fear”.

Meanwhile France’s Socialist PM Jean-Marc Ayrault had made clear that France will defend and protect its proud traditions of freedom of speech. In an earlier press statement which did not mention Charlie Hebdo he stressed that “freedom of expression constitutes one of the fundamental principles of our Republic… This freedom is exercised within the framework of the law and under the supervision of the courts”, he added.

Charbonnier refuses to be cowed despite the evident physical threats surrounding his stand. As Der Speigel’s Stefan Simons reported: ” ‘The accusation that we are pouring oil on the flames in the current situation really gets on my nerves,’ says Charbonnier. ‘After the publication of this absurd and grotesque film about Muhammad in the US, other newspapers have responded to the protests with cover stories. We are doing the same thing, but with drawings. And a drawing has never killed anyone…There will continue to be no taboos at Charlie Hebdo in the future. It should be as normal to criticize Islam as it is to criticize Jews or Catholics,’ ” Charbonnier says.

According to Radio France International:  “The paper’s editor-in-chief Gérard Biard says that the cartoons are a legitimate response to the violent worldwide protests over Innocence of Muslims, which ‘we all agree … was a stupid movie… It’s always the same thing,’ Biard said on Wednesday morning. ‘Every time we make a cartoon about religions, we are called provocateurs. It’s not provocation. We are a political and satirical newspaper, and every week we make a comment on the news, so we just did our job, we didn’t make any provocation. I don’t think extreme Muslims, or extremists in Muslim countries, need any provocation to kill people.’ “

Earlier, according to Art Goldhammer’s blog: Socialist President François Hollande made a strong speech condemning the fanaticism that claims the mantle of Islam. “L’honneur des civilisations islamiques est d’être plus anciennes, plus vivantes et plus tolérantes que certains de ceux qui prétendent abusivement aujourd’hui parler en leur nom. Il est l’exact contraire de l’obscurantisme qui anéantit les principes et détruit les valeurs de l’Islam en portant la violence et la haine.”

Under the headine Charlie Hebdo and Mohammed, provocation or freedom of expression? Pierre Haski editor and co-founder of the sparky Rue89 online newspaper  says:  “The terms of the debate are known in advance. We are about to replay the big stage classical repertoire: freedom of expression, including that of caricatures vs fundamentalism.”

The website also carries an historical perspective on French cartoonists and their attacks on religion noting that in the 20th century: “Cartoonists tended to prey more readily on the Catholic religion… Thirty years ago, it was the right-wing fundamentalist Catholics who reacted violently, today it is the Islamists. Satire should certainly not be dictated to by those who it targets”.

While two France-based Muslim groups have lodged legal complaints about the Hebdo cartoons it seems unlikely that these will succeed given the legal precedents already established in France and at the Strasbourg Court (see the legal views in the update below).

By drawing its cartoon with “The Untouchables”  as its reference point, Hebdo is making a particularly topical comparison. For earlier this year this low budget film (see Intouchables Touches the ‘Handi-Ignorants’) became an all-time box office hit and sparked a public debate about whether society was accommodating enough to those seeking to live normal lives despite their handicaps.


After the fire of the offices of the satirical...

In November 2011 last time French magazine Charlie Hebdo published a similar cartoon its offices, shown here , were firebombed and its Internet site hacked. (Credit: Wikipedia)


Story: Ken Pottinger

UPDATE: Over on the US Law Blog The Volokh Conspiracy (a group blog written mostly by law professors) one of the commenters has this useful reference to the legal backing Charlie Hebdo has had in French and European Courts for taking a stand in publishing cartoons depicting Mohammed:
” Kalona123 • − I beg to differ. The editors of Charlie Hebdo, a stirical newspaper that has a history of militant anti-clericalism, are probably more rational than the politically-correct (some would say cowardly) American press which talks a lot about the First Amendment and does nothing to protect it when the going gets tough. The French media know that if they give an inch to the extremists, the easily enraged ones will take a mile. It is not as if the newspaper has not been at the receiving end of extremist violence. Last year, Muslim extremists firebombed the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
In the first Mohammed cartoons controversy sparked by the publication of satirical cartoons of Mohammed by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in 2005, Charlie Hebdo and other European newspapers republished the controversial cartoons in solidarity with their beleaguered Danish colleagues. Charlie Hebdo added its own Mohammed cartoons to the original Danish cartoons. When French and Saudi Muslim groups sued Charlie Hebdo in the High Court of Paris for blasphemy and criminal hate speech (after violent demonstrations failed to stop the newspaper from publishing), the court ruled that the cartoons were protected by French Law of 1881 on Freedom of the Press, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights (1950). The Paris Court of Appeals affirmed, stating that the cartoons that equated Islam and violence had a gist of the truth since many Muslims use violence to squelch criticism of their religion (See Société des Habous et des Lieux Saints de l‘Islam c/ Val; Society of Islamic Properties and Islamic Holy Places v. Val, (2007)). For a detailed, comparative analysis of this case and the Mohammed cartoons cases in Denmark, see Eko,”New Media, Old Regimes: Case Studies in Comparative Communication Law and Policy (2012).
Charlie Hebdo knows that it has French and European Court of Human Rights law on its side. The European Court of Human Rights has actually ruled that Sharia law is “incompatible with democracy” (see Refah Partisi v. Turkey). Charlie Hebdo is just doing what Charlie Hebdo has done for decades: Courageously defend freedom of expression! Apparently, the French courts do not practice viewpoint discrimination. They do not favor Islamophilia over Islamophobia. “

FURTHER UPDATE: Philippe Marlière a French professor at University College London reminds his readers of where the French are coming from over freedom of speech (but qualifies his dissertation by calling the publication of the cartoons ‘unhelpful’): “Since Voltaire and notably since the establishment of a secular republic in 1905, France has regarded religions as systems of belief which can be freely criticised and ridiculed. The entrenched tradition of mocking religions and clerical institutions explains the success of long-living publications such as Le Canard Enchaîné (a satirical founded in 1915) and Charlie Hebdo (founded in 1969)…”

FURTHER UPDATE: In case it be forgotten Flemming Rose, culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten explains in this piece in the Washing ton Post the freedom of speech issues behind the original row over the 12 Danish cartoons which in 2006 provoked an earlier storm in the Islamist world: “I commissioned the cartoons in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam. And I still believe that this is a topic that we Europeans must confront, challenging moderate Muslims to speak out. The idea wasn’t to provoke gratuitously — and we certainly didn’t intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter…if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy… As a former correspondent in the Soviet Union, I am sensitive about calls for censorship on the grounds of insult. This is a popular trick of totalitarian movements: Label any critique or call for debate as an insult and punish the offenders. That is what happened to human rights activists and writers such as Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Natan Sharansky, Boris Pasternak. The regime accused them of anti-Soviet propaganda, just as some Muslims are labeling 12 cartoons in a Danish newspaper anti-Islamic.”  (our underlining).  Read the whole article by clicking the link. Especially inspiring was the aftermath reaction by Muslim moderates in Denmark. Flemming Rose,whose book ­ The Tyranny of Silence ­was recently released in English, focuses in that work on the history of European curbs on free speech post-World War II and the role played by the horrors of the Holocaust in such developments. A long and very worthwhile extract can be found here on the Index on Censorship website  

SOME PERSPECTIVE: The following, which puts matters into some perspective, is from an online archive of images of Mohammed from earliest times to the present day.

David Low Cartoon from 1925

“On August 18, 1925, the British newspaper The Star published this cartoon by illustrator David Low showing cricket sports hero Jack Hobbs towering over other historical figures — including Mohammed (spelled the old-fashioned way, ‘Mahomet,’ on his pedestal). A 2006 article in the London Times stated, ‘According to a Calcutta correspondent, when [this cartoon] appeared in the Indian version of the Morning Post, it ‘convulsed many Muslims in speechless rage. Meetings were held and resolutions of protest were passed’.’ In contrast to the ‘cartoon controversies’ of the 21st century, however, the fury in the Muslim world over this cartoon was almost completely ignored by the Europeans. From The British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent.”

Call for Louvre to display Hindu Art
 Separately a US-based Hindu leader has called on the Louvre in Paris and other museums around  the world to accord exhibition space to Hindu art just as the Louvre is currently doing with Muslim art.  In an email sent exclusively to French News Online Rajan Zed wrote: “Hindus have applauded Musee du Louvre, the world’s top museum located in Paris, for opening an exclusive Islamic Art Gallery, representing a milestone in its history.

Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA), said that ‘it was a step in the right direction’. Interfaith dialogue resulting from such efforts would bring harmony, trust and cohesiveness among the world community and help reducing misunderstandings, Zed added.

Zed, who is President of Universal Society of Hinduism, urged major art museums of the world, including Musee du Louvre and Musee d’Orsay of Paris, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Los Angeles Getty Center, Uffizi Gallery of Florence (Italy), Art Institute of Chicago, Tate Modern of London, Prado Museum of Madrid, National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, etc., to also open Hindu galleries and to frequently organize Hindu art focused exhibitions, thus sharing the rich Hindu art heritage with the rest of the world.

Art had a long and rich tradition in Hinduism and ancient Sanskrit literature talked about religious paintings of deities on wood or cloth, Rajan Zed pointed out.

According to reports, the new Louvre gallery, partly funded by French government, containing significant collection of Islamic art and opening on September 22 in the 19th century Cour Visconti, cost nearly 100m Euros and took a decade to build.

The Louvre has about 18,000 objects of Islamic art in its collection and about 3,000 will be displayed in this gallery, spanning 1,300 years of history and three continents and as old as 8th century, and ‘encompassing decorative arts, objects, miniatures, textiles and carpets, components of architecture’.”

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