It’s Not Just About Free Speech: The “Charlie Hebdo” controversy


The publisher of “Charlie Hebdo” stands in front of their offices after the January 7th attacks, with a copy of the most recent issue. photo:

In a recent attack on the offices of “Charlie Hebdo,” a French satirical magazine, two Muslim gunmen opened fire, killing twelve and wounding eleven others. The magazine “Charlie Hebdo” has often been criticized in the past for its use of satire to make fun of various religious groups. Recently, many of their covers have depicted the religion of Islam in a negative light, which is what provoked the attack. The incident, which Al-Qaeda Yemen has taken responsibility for, has been widely regarded as an attack on freedom of the press. Millions of people from all across the world have come together in support for the magazine. The slogan of the movement is “Je Suis Charlie,” which reads in English “I Am Charlie.” The slogan represents standing in solidarity with the victims of the massacre, and the protest over free speech rights. The attack has prompted outrage, and has raised many discussions on religious extremism, freedom of speech, and if privately owned companies should be required to draw a line as to what is too far.

Al Qaeda in Yemen claims responsibility for Paris attack

Al Qaeda Yemen claiming responsibility for the “Charlie Hebdo” attack in a YouTube video.


According to French law, newspapers have the right to print what they want, as long as it does not go against the interests of the government. This is very similar to freedom of press laws here in the US. Basically, “Charlie Hebdo” can print whatever it decides do, even if it is a sexually inappropriate depiction of Muhammad. Many Muslims consider any depiction of Muhammad to be sacrilegious, and “Charlie Hebdo” has a long history of placing prominent religious figures, including the Prophet Muhammad and the Pope, in sexually explicit and pornographic positions on their covers.


Despite these objections, “Charlie Hebdo” has a received a lot of support from around the world. The magazine, which normally prints about 60,000 copies, printed nearly 5 million of its new “survivors” issue. The issue’s cover features another picture of the Prophet Muhammad. On the cover, he sheds a single tear while holding a sign that reads “Je Suis Charlie,” the slogan of this free speech movement. Above the Prophet Muhammad reads “All Is Forgiven.” Only a few issues were originally made available in the United States, but almost two weeks after the massacre, “Charlie Hebdo” will release 20,000 editions for America on January 23rd.  


An editorial cartoon by David Pope, commenting on the massacre in France. photo:


While the media has shown an overwhelming outpouring of support for “Charlie Hebdo,” some people are hesitant to associate themselves with the magazine. Pope Francis, while condemning the attacks, said in a statement that “You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity.”

Pope Francis has a point. While freedom of speech is and should be a right, “Charlie Hebdo” cartoons has a history of mocking Muslims, Catholics, and other religious groups, often in pornographic and sexually inappropriate ways. While violence is in no way acceptable in this situation, and Muslims around the world have condemned the attacks, many Muslims are hesitant about standing behind the slogan, “I Am Charlie.” Most Muslims consider any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad to be sacrilegious, and “Charlie Hebdo” often went beyond what would be considered appropriate by most, often capitalizing on shock value. Many Muslims are disgusted with the cartoons that “Charlie Hebdo” printed, which makes the newspaper hard to stand behind, even if you are in support of the victims.

The incident has created a lot of controversy because of its unusual nature; the magazine is hard to stand behind because of its previous cartoons, and it appears that its most recently published issue is no different. Freedom of the press is a very important right, as it allows newspapers and magazines to inform the public, no matter how sensitive the topic. However, “Charlie Hebdo” was not built to inform the public, but rather to be disparaging towards Islam and other religions. This raises a very important question: Just because publications have the right to print something, should they exercise that right if they are well aware it could provoke violence?   


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