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Charlie Hebdo [insert 'offence' here]

Why did hundreds of media outlets across the world publish the most offensive images of all? (And I'm not talking about cartoons...)

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Mary Fitzgerald
22 January 2015

On January 7 2015, a car bomb exploded in Sanaa, Yemen, killing at least 38 people. Nine people, including two children, died in attacks in Afghanistan; hundreds of men, women and children were slaughtered by Boko Haram; an unknown number died as violence continued to rage in Syria and Iraq. And 10 journalists and two police officers were killed in France.

That last incident – and the subsequent murders of a policewoman and four people in a Jewish supermarket on the outskirts of Paris – is now the subject of more than 40 articles published on openDemocracy. What limits (if any) should there be on free speech? Should we ignore the fact that the murderers claimed to be acting in the name of Islam? Is insulting a religion racist? What socio-economic, geopolitical, religious, ideological context is relevant here – or is none relevant? Is it the same thing, in France, to mock Catholicism as it is to mock Islam? Should satire only target the powerful? In our coverage you will find a wide range of thoughtful, soul-searching, sometimes provocative questions posed by writers from all over the world, and we encourage you to pose your own. If the Charlie Hebdo murderers wanted to shut down debate, they have, of course, failed: the more questions that get asked, the more they fail.

To publish or not to publish

Because this is openDemocracy, we did not take a single ‘line’ on publishing the cartoons. Some contributors decided to feature them. See David Krivanek using them to make the case that love is stronger than hate; see also Umut Ozkirimli and Spyros A. Sofos debating their subtext.  

Others gave strong reasons for not using them. “I respect your right to show solidarity with the victims of this horrible crime by reposting those drawings, but only if you respect my right not to do so because I happen to find them bigoted and incendiary,” wrote Ben Hayes, lambasting the “monoculture” which tells us that “standing up to terrorism and ridiculing Islam are two sides of the same coin.” Morten Sjaastad argued that the cartoons were designed to humiliate a vulnerable minority: “Once Muslims seek a modicum of respect, the cry of censorship is raised by some, to justify how the right to offend them is taken up in ways that the right to offend women, gays, Jews, Africans, or Gascons is not.” Cas Mudde’s “No, we are NOT all Charlie (and that’s a problem)” – an article which has now been read by nearly 200,000 people – prompted one reader to comment: “I am not Charlie, though I stand in solidarity with them as victims of murder, BUT I want nothing to do with the content of their racist work”.

Meanwhile, John Smith took issue with the British left’s 'misguided' focus on whether or not Charlie Hebdo was a ‘racist’ publication, asking: “Does writing for a “racist publication” mean they had it coming?” And ourKingdom co-editor Adam Ramsey made a persuasive case for “not doing what Charlie Hebdo murderers want”: 

“They want to polarise our communities, so that we turn on each other. They want to make most of us more racist, more Islamophobic. They want to push liberals into republishing cartoons that offend Muslims and to make Muslims feel more isolated, more afraid. They want to create martyrs for their enemies to rally around. They want secular Europe all to be Charlie Hebdo, all to go out of our way to offend. Because that's how they plan to bait the majority into driving more recruits into their arms. That's how they plan to break apart our multicultural communities. Polarisation is always good for those on the fringes, and they know that only too well.”

What you won’t see here

In my opinion, there is only one set of images arising from Charlie Hebdo which are universally offensive. And yet media outlets across the world published them without a second thought. Those images show policeman Ahmed Merabet being “shot like a dog” as he lay wounded in the street. His partner Morgane saw them before she knew it was him. “How dare you take that video and broadcast it?” his brother Malek asked journalists days later. “I heard his voice. I recognised him. I saw him get slaughtered and I hear him get slaughtered every day.”


There have been many eloquent expressions of solidarity with Ahmed: “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed, the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so,” retweeted many thousand times, was perhaps the most powerful. And the witness to Ahmed’s murder who posted the footage on Facebook has spoken of his regret at having done so. (The fact that he took it down after 15 minutes and refused to sell it to any media outlets did not, apparently, deter hundreds of websites and newspapers from reproducing the footage anyway.)

Yet in all the debate that has raged about whether or not to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons; in all the acres of column inches devoted to defending editors’ decisions either way; a very basic point illustrated by the Merabet family’s suffering appears to have been missed. It is so given that we publish things which hurt people all the time that this question – should the most disgusting images of all have been published? – has barely been asked. Those images are the only ones you won’t see on openDemocracy. And this isn’t an act of censorship, just a gesture of sympathy and respect. 

See our continuing coverage of the issues raised here.

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