Yet again depictions of Islam's prophet Muhammad are causing controversy. The French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo has published a special edition released in January 2013 entitled La Vie de Mahomet, 1ère partie: Les débuts d'un prophète ("The Life of Muhammad, Part One: The Debut of a Prophet"; part two will follow in June 2013). Press reaction in both France and Germany, however, has not been uniformly welcoming, demonstrating once more a media aversion to open examination of Islam.
Charlie Hebdo has previously published cartoons involving Muhammad and sharia Islamic law, with the weekly magazine's offices becoming in the process the victim of a firebombing attack. Charlie Hebdo describes online its latest presentation of Muhammad as a factual transposition of "Muhammad's life as told by Muslim chroniclers into images." "In the West," the magazine explained, "everyone is able to cite episodes from the life of Jesus, but who is able to cite episodes from the life of Muhammad? Is this normal in a country like France, where Islam is presented as the second religion?" "If the form appears to some blasphemous," Charlie Hebdo argued, "the substance is perfectly halal."
Other publications, though, reacted with reservation towards this latest rendering of Muhammad. An April 17, 2013, online article about the Muhammad special edition in Germany's Die Zeit weekly newspaper pictured a battle scene cartoon from the booklet, but with Muhammad himself hidden under a black square. While conceding a free speech right to depict Muhammad, the article author Gero von Randow justified this blacking out with the "suspicion" that the Charlie Hebdo authors only wanted "to provoke the followers of a religious community. And indeed one that is discriminated against in France." Yet the remaining article discussed various interpretations of Islam allowing for depictions of, among others, Muhammad.
L'Express's Didier Houth similarly in France had called on January 2, 2013 for a "stop to Charlie Hebdo's provocations" following the appearance of its Muhammad special edition. Houth thereby attributed to the "press an important role to play in a democracy," namely giving "support to the understanding between citizens so that democracy can live, live in peace." Although Charlie Hebdo might have had a "noble goal" of showing journalistic solidarity when the magazine republished the Danish Muhammad cartoons in 2006, since then the magazine had led a "crusade against the Muslim religion." Charlie Hebdo's repeated Muhammad caricatures raised the suspicion of being an "appeal to hate towards the practitioners of a religion," something prohibited by the French penal code.
Some viewed Charlie Hebdo's Muhammad cartoons a "sane struggle against a religion whose practices are incompatible with French democracy." Yet, Houth asked, "up to what point does the editorial board of a journal have the right to declare religious practices incompatible with our democracy." Houth instead entrusted political and legal authorities with "weighing religious practices according to the canon of our democracy."
Neither Randow nor Houth make much sense, and their arguments are all the more depressing coming from members of the media. Randow never explained how Charlie Hebdo was any more provocative towards Muslims than the numerous other groups satirized by the magazine in the past, as discussed by Randow. Nor did Randow explain how Muslims in France face more discrimination than other groups such as, for example, Jews. Whether Randow, described by his Wikipedia page as a "confessing atheist," and others will themselves never engage in speech deemed provocative by, say, Catholics, meanwhile, remains to be seen.
Houth likewise did not substantiate his claim of a Charlie Hebdo "crusade" against Islam. As the magazine itself indicated, any emphasis on Islam could be due to other factors, like this religion's relative obscurity or present newsworthiness. Nor did Houth explain why any campaign against a given faith or faith in general is wrong, other than to dismiss such a campaign as a matter of "hate" and not enlightenment.
Houth's conceptions of the media are also rather strange. His demand that the press serve an undefined "calm dialogue" and "understanding between citizens" is at variance with traditional views of the media as an unfettered intellectual forum. Houth's indicated attribution of the third-party bloodshed to media criticism of a given belief like Islam would similarly eviscerate free speech with a "heckler's veto." Houth's reservation of "weighing religious practices" to governmental authorities, meanwhile, completely ignores the press's fundamental informational and oversight roles.
Die Zeit's black box Muhammad and Houth's Charlie Hebdo condemnation are just the latest examples of how media outlets around the world uniquely defer to Islamic sensibilities. Yet such deference calls into question the sometimes unwarranted expectation of free societies that the media be an objective observer of the world. A media fully fulfilling its mission of shining a light on the truth simply cannot darken out Muhammad.
This article was sponsored by The Legal Project, an activity of the Middle East Forum.