“Since when is bigotry reconciled with first ammendemant rights?” a question posed by a long time friend. It is not a rhetroical question. By this time tomorow, Charlie Hebdo will publish yet another cover with the Prophet Mohamed’s (PBUH) visage. Many will perceive this as a corageous stance for free speech. I am not one of those.
There are a million nuances to issues of free speech and a billion more to the sensitivities of writing about faith. Both subject matters , historically, have been highly controversial and areas of verbal , and in many cases phyical, conflict. Voltaire, Racine and Moliere were French thinkers/ writers that I grew to adore during my intellectual development. Indeed, they assisted in developing one’s abilities to deconstruct, reason and analyze. The first of these, famously said, ‘I may disagree with what you say but I will defend, to the death, your right to say it’. That notion has guided my own writing, both in short story and journalism, in Arabic and English. But the central question is: where does your freedom begin and mine end? Just as ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ freedom of speech ends where hate speech begins. It is precisely this question that the Grand Mufti of Egypt, one of the preemininent Muslim authorities, posed today. The Mufti did not hold back, calling the publication “a racist act that would incite haterad and incite Muslims around the the world”. Reaction was also swift from Muslim leaders in France where one explained that what is ”uncomfortable for us is the representation of the Prophet”.
But these pungant critiques did nothing to stop Hebedo. Ronald Luzier, who drew the cover with a tear rolling down the Prophet’s right cheek and words “tout est pardonne” All is forgiven, said he cried after completing the caricature. But another editor was more militant in his defense of free speech “we will not back down…you have the right to blaspheme“. But does Hebedo have the right to throw gasoline upon a burning fire?
As both a Muslim and a journalist I find myself torn to no end. On the one hand, I, chiefly, cover a nation, Egypt, that killed 6 journalists in 2013, injured many more, and jailed many others, inlcuding most famously the Al jazeera 3: Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Gerste and Baher Mohamed. Freedom of speech, and the fight for it, has a hefty price in Egypt: death. That threat, for many journalists, is real and material but does not stop those who believe words can uncover much that is dark about our world. Silumtaneously, as a Muslim, there are fewer lines more Red than the one Hebedo consistently chooses to cross. The insistence on caricaturing the Prophet (PBUH) is not merely potentially irresponsible, as it can trigger deadly riots as it has previously , but it reeks of something more sinister. Many have spoken of an underlying racism guiding the insistance of dragging the Prophet into discourse seeking to attack radical Islam. There is also something more cynical at play here: financial gain. The average publication size for Charlie Hebdo, as widely reported, is aproximately 45,000 copies. Tomorow’s highly charged cover is schedualed for 3 million copies along multi lingual publication; you need not a degree in mathmatics to understand the fiscal gain involved. Moreover, for the millions , world wide, who had never heard of Charlie Hebdo its name is no longer secret.
Tomorow’s cover says ‘All is forgiven’. Many indications to the contrary exist. It is high time that the humane notions implied in words of forgivness become a true guiding force for Charlie Hebdo; not mere words used in conjuction with highly offensive imagery.