We’re Not Charlie Hedbo

The hue and cry going on over the publication of Charlie Hedbo’s objectionable cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, the subsequent deadly assault on the offices of the French publication, Jim Clancy’s reported “resignation” over since deleted Twitter tweets, Pope Francis’ criticism of the magazine’s decision to continue publishing objectionable images of the Founder of Islam, and yesterday’s statement on NBC’s Meet The Press by Charlie Hedbo’s editor-in-chief, Gerard Biard, asserting that those publications who refuse to republish their cartoons are blurring democracy has created a crisis of its own.

We don’t know what we are talking about any more. First of all, free speech went by the board some years ago, when the government starting reading everything we write and listening to everything we say, looking for the terrorists among us, just as personal freedom went out the window when the Patriot Act became law in the United States. While the U.S. is not yet the most surveilled nation on earth (Great Britain is), we are moving up in the rankings as our security systems co-opt everything from traffic cameras to your Instagram posts to build a composite image of where everyone is just about all the time.

Years ago, a man was caught by a video camera at a Knicks game with his mistress instead of his wife. He sued, and lost, because his ticket included a disclaimer to the effect that he was giving permission to use his image by purchasing the ticket. That story may be apocryphal but it illustrates the issue.  The question of whether we are alone in the universe has been answered: We’re not. We’re not even alone in our own homes.

What has the one got to do with the other? Everything.

The hue and cry about graven images of the prophet isn’t really about how the prophet is being depicted, although the unflattering portraits don’t help matters. On the contrary, the issue is over whether the Prophet is depicted at all, not how he is depicted. Even the least sophisticated Islamists realize that no one knows what the Prophet looked like and, therefore, no depictions of the Prophet can be considered accurate. However, simply by presenting an image and claiming it depicts Mohammed, the malefactors doing so are breaking one of the most basic of Islam’s taboos….and confusing the issue because some people might actually believe that was what Mohammed looked like.

There is, however, another side to the story, the free speech side. While we have never really had such a thing as free speech (there are always consequences when you speak ill of people, whether the ill is true or not), it is only recently that we have been brought up short by the sudden realization that there are occasionally fatal consequences descending from the unbridled exercise of free speech…but that doesn’t mean we should stop speaking our minds when we want to.

Any abridgement of free speech is censorship, whether we ourselves are the censors or someone else is. When we abridge our own speech for fear of the possible consequences, we are being both cowardly and discrete. If we were to refrain from offending Muslims with our free speech because we were genuinely concerned about their feelings….we would still be wrong. It’s not our job to worry about the feelings of others when speaking truth to power, or even truth to annoying little people who keep telling you to shut up. That’s not consideration, that’s giving in to intimidation.

Jim Clancy’s error, in addition, apparently, to Tweeting while drunk, was his confused rejection of the presumed reason for the attack on the French publication.  The context didn’t matter, Jim.  The depiction of a graven image of the Prophet was enough to get you beheaded in some places, regardless of the text that went along with the image. (Going off on a rebuttal exercise claiming that the naysayers were spreading Israeli propaganda simply greased the skids, because that’s where his covert anti-Semitism suddenly reared up into view. The fact that people disagreeing with him about his interpretation of the Charlie Hedbo matter happened also to be Jewish was then conflated with the lobbying efforts of the Jewish community on behalf of Israel…thoroughly cooking Clancy’s goose.)

Pope Francis, who started off batting a thousand with the media during his early months in office, brought his batting average down significantly by suggesting that Charlie Hedbo had gone too far in its depictions of the Prophet, because there is no “too far” in this matter.  Any depiction of the Prophet is verboten, not just the unflattering ones…but that doesn’t mix well with the American standards for freedom of expression, which the French seem to have inherited from us.

In reality, of course, this is all literally nonsense. There is no prohibition against depicting Muhammad in the Qur’an. There are, however, several Hadith (presumed sayings of the Prophet) that appear to forbid the depiction of any sentient being or, indeed, any created thing. Therefore, in fact, all graphic images, regardless of subject, violate these Hadith…but the faithful only take umbrage when the depiction concerns Mohammed, and not the Whopper in the Burger King advertisement.

If that is true, and it is, what this is really about is a group of Islamists who want to take control over the way their religion is depicted in the “Western” media. That’s not the prevention of sacrilege; it’s censorship, and the objective of that censorship is to discourage the media from portraying their movement in a negative light.

The truth is that groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, and al Qaeda are trying to control the international conversation about their movements and prevent negative comments about them from appearing in the media by intimidating the members of the news media. That’s not likely to work in the long run, because there are always going to be people who are more interested in fame and fortune than in longevity and therefore more willing to risk retaliation in pursuit of notoriety. In fact, it might even induce some to  break the boundaries of good taste simply to get noticed. By giving in now, the news media simply creates a pattern that the bad actors can exploit over and over again to squelch debate.

Throughout this article, we have been conducting a little experiment: we have deliberately misspelled the name of that French publication specifically to give you an object lesson about how silly it is to get upset over trivialities such as the depiction of a long-dead wise man who would hardly recognize the religion his political movement has become. (Remember: Mohammed didn’t write, and never read, the Qur’an because it wasn’t created until after he died.)

Were you annoyed? Did you think us stupid?  Did you get angry enough to bomb our offices? (Good luck finding us; we’re spread out all over the place.)  Okay, now answer this:  What difference did the spelling of a name make in your life, or your understanding of reality?

That’s not a rhetorical question. We want to know what you think. Send us comments. What’s really important about this story, other than the tragedy of people dying for no good reason, or killing people for no good reason?

And, no, we’re not going reproduce the cartoons from Charlie Hedbo, but that’s not because we’re afraid of retaliation. (Well, we are, but that’s not the reason.) The reason that we’re not going to reproduce them is that we don’t want to succumb to Gerard Biard’s extortive exhortation that failing to do so is “dimming democracy.”   Democracy has been “dimming” for quite a while and it may very well be that true democracy is impossible in a modern post-industrial society, but that’s fodder for a different discussion. (The cartoons are also, quite frankly, not very good. If they were better, we might have reprinted them.)

What is germane is that, while we would never want to suspect this without evidence, Charlie Hedbo is making a killing on its recent notoriety. The small Parisian weekly publication, which is really more like an underground newspaper than a popular magazine, normally prints around 60,000 copies per issue. This week, they will print one million copies, according to Newsweek magazine. They are no longer a small magazine, and they don’t need any additional publicity from us, hence the misspelled name.

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