Charlie Hebdo

I’m not proud to say that in the over half-dozen times I’ve been to France, I never even noticed Charlie Hebdo. But I think it’s safe to say that Charlie Hebdo was unknown to many other Americans before the tragedy earlier this month. 

Americans’ lack of knowledge was clear when the public outcry, “Je suis Charlie,” seemed to morph into what sounded like “Je suis Charlie?” followed by “Wait, who exactly is Charlie?” The media seemed equally confused. Reports, broadcasts and tweets documented a mixture of assertions about freedom of speech and voices of anger about a lack of sensitivity toward French Muslims. 

Weeks after the event, I’m still struggling to come to a resting point on the issue.  My understanding has reached a frustrating dead end and I feel conflicted and powerless. 

The only solution, I believe, is to shift the debate to an arena where I have some influence. Here at UT, we can all learn from the events at Charlie Hebdo to start building our own brand of satire. We’re in a perfect microcosm for debating free speech, cultural issues and the merits of irreverence, and we have the luxury (and liability) of instant feedback from the campus community. Let’s start the experiment! 

We already have our very own humor publication, the Texas Travesty. These Onion-ites in training have the capability of pushing our buttons for a higher purpose and I think we should let them push a little harder.  

The Travesty is primarily an entertainment and humor paper. Chris Gilman, the Travesty’s editor-in-chief, says the publication is open to covering controversial issues in a tasteful manner. But would our student body be open to this?  

A recent discussion about satire and Charlie Hebdo with my fellow journalism students showed just how divided and sensitive we are. Some were offended by the magazine’s apparent mocking of religion in general, not just Islam. 

“I’ve seen the cartoons of the pope,” said Teresa Mioli, a Latin American studies master’s student and journalist. “That like makes me mad as a Catholic.”

Others vented frustration at how uptight everyone seems lately.  

“People will keep getting offended,” said journalism master’s student Andrea Nedorostova. “That’s something you cannot change.”  

But, Nedorostova says, the blow of pointed commentary can be softened with humor that can appeal to everyone.  

“If they make it really funny and let’s say 90 percent of people laugh at it, I think that’s a success,” she says, especially when international students and people of various ethnicities and backgrounds all get the joke.  

The portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad offended the Travesty’s own illustrator and graphic designer, Hazel O’Neil, who says she doesn’t accept the excuse that Charlie Hebdo is an equal opportunity offender.   

These interactions have taught me that students value cultural sensitivity just as much as the ability to have a thick skin. So how do we translate these values into our own campus legacy of satire?  

For starters it should exist. The Travesty does a good job of lightly poking fun at issues, and has rightly avoided attacking “low-hanging fruit,” Gilman said. But they could shape themselves into a respected voice for dissent, or at least irreverence, on major issues that affect the campus community. 

The Travesty already has the will and intelligence to do this. Gilman has said that UT’s Student Government is ripe for satire. He wants to poke fun at how its insular nature may lead to a lack of perspective from student leaders. 

“It’s pretty much predetermined who’s going to run and who’s going to win [in Student Government],” Gilman says.  

We also need to utilize the hundreds of experts on campus to help make our brand of satire intelligent. These experts can push our satirists to be as informed as possible before taking a crack at an issue. We can harness this knowledge to make our satire legacy less about provoking and more about starting a discussion.  

And the discussion certainly wouldn’t be one-sided, with the Travesty holding all the cards. Social media provides readers the opportunity to give instant feedback. This would either help build a thick skin for Travesty writers, or help refine their message. The Travesty’s increasing presence over the past two years is evidence that it’s prepared to engage with the campus community, but its meager record of complaints, says Gilman, may mean it’s not challenging readers enough. 

Lately, it feels like we’re in an era of apathy. Perhaps our devices are satiating our emotional needs, but that can’t last forever. Now is the perfect time to shake things up and grab students’ attention. Satire is the perfect medium to bring difficult issues to the fore without boring students or scaring them away. 

Most of us will never fully relate to the French experience after Charlie Hebdo. All we can do is create our own legacy of satire at UT to know what it’s like to balance free speech with the sensitivities of marginalized groups. We can’t be afraid to offend, but let’s let our offenses serve the highest purpose possible. 

Covington is a journalism graduate student from Laguna Niguel, California.

On Jan. 7, gunmen attacked the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing a total of 12 people, including the Editor Stephane "Charb" Charbonnier and two policemen. Later, a third shooter was killed during a hostage situation at a grocery store, but not before he murdered four of the 19 hostages and a policewoman in a separate incident. The gunmen were Islamic radicals, and by committing this act of terror and violence they have clearly demonstrated their ignorance of Islam and rejected their human conscience. Tragedies like this demand prayers for the victims and their loved ones and condemnation of the transgressors. Such a faraway incident affects us even here in Austin. For good reason, ideas of life, speech and cultures play an integral role in our diverse community. 

However, I am compelled to shed light on two issues concerning the general reaction to this tragedy. The first issue is this incident being mainly portrayed as an attack on freedom of speech. Such a claim would give the terrorists too much credit. They are not enemies of freedom of the press as much as they are enemies of civil society by the standards of any moral person. Consider the perspective of these gunmen. In their words, they claim that they "avenged the Prophet." What they really sought was to provide retributive punishment for the sin of blasphemy.

The Wahhbi/Takfri extremist ideology that these gunmen took on before they were killed by police without a doubt puts limits on freedom of speech where it violates their interests, but that does not justify murder. The issue at-hand is not that there is an organization hell-bent on destroying the institution of freedom of speech, but it is the very existence of the Saudi-funded Wahhbi/Takfri movement, born against the backdrop of western colonialism. Does anyone really believe that these terrorists saw themselves as people who would limit free speech by shooting up a cartoonist that saw a decline in circulation in recent years, publishing only up to 60,000 copies and only selling 30,000? The terrorists’ immediate effect was to violate the freedom of life, not the freedom of speech, of these people. That is an issue that has not received enough screen time — witness the barely audible story of Ahmed, the Muslim cop, who died protecting the magazine's staff. 

But for those still compelled to rally behind the cause of freedom of speech, I would argue that we must have an honest discussion that does justice to an issue that I value dearly. Let’s be clear, Charlie Hebdo should not be revered as the flag-bearer for freedom of speech like Martin Luther King, Jr. was for civil rights, Ghandi was for nonviolent protests or Hussain ibn Ali was for fighting against oppression, because Charlie Hebdo fired French cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for making an allegedly anti-Semitic remark. Furthermore, the magazine's cartoons are not particularly renowned for their quality, but instead, have become more racist and sacrilegious. Charlie Hebdo's cartoons attacked and ridiculed a revered Prophet for billions of people, in addition to attacking others such as black French justice minister Christiane Taubira, who was drawn as a monkey. As we honor the deaths of the staffers as an attack on freedom of speech and a violation of civility, we must not view their work through rose-colored glasses if we wish to honor the very value that their lives were taken away for. While supporting freedom of press we must abstain from promoting obscene and racist content. As the pope recently suggested, there is a bright line between what is legal and what is immoral.  

Furthermore, through a quick consideration of the status of freedom of speech in the western world, we would find it in pieces. Because of the various policing and anti-terrorism laws in the United States and across Europe, French bans on expressions of religion in public spaces, freedom of speech is restricted and even violated to meet the interests of governments. Even the general public, using social media, has shout down blatant racism, such as the case of former owner of the L.A. Clippers who was forced to sell his NBA team as a result of his racist remarks against African-Americans. We must recognize that the type of freedom of speech that we exalt and support in light of the murders of the magazine's staff and their peers simply does not exist.  

We regulate, both informally and formally, the press, speech, religion, etc. In the process, we apply a double standard. Case in point, since the "glorious free speech march" France has already "ordered prosecutors around the country to crack down on hate speech, anti-Semitism and glorifying terrorism,” resulting in 54 criminal cases. Here in America, an NAACP office in Colorado was bombed the same week as the Paris shootings; yet, most major media organizations seemed to gloss over this attack, as did celebrities touting pins with "I am Charlie." 

The extent of regulation on freedoms varies by country and society. Yet what has become increasingly and disproportionately acceptable is the hatred toward Muslims. This trend of collective punishment and marginalization of the Muslim community plays into the hands of extremists because tensions between peaceful Muslims and their neighbors will further escalate and provide extremist recruiters real evidence to their claims of Muslims being attacked and oppressed by the west. This serves as a reminder for us to be more vigilant in the fight against forces that will disunite our community here in Austin and abroad.   

Stephane Charbonnier, publishing director of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, displays the front page as he poses for photographers in Paris on Wednesday. Police took positions outside the Paris offices of the satirical French weekly that published crude caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad on Wednesday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

PARIS — France stepped up security Wednesday at its embassies across the Muslim world after a French satirical weekly revived a formula that it has already used to capture attention: publishing crude, lewd caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Wednesday’s issue of the provocative satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, whose offices were firebombed last year, raised concerns that France could face violent protests like the ones targeting the United States over an amateur video produced in California that have left at least 30 people dead.

The drawings, some of which depicted Muhammad naked and in demeaning or pornographic poses, were met with a swift rebuke by the French government, which warned the magazine could be inflaming tensions, even as it reiterated France’s free speech protections.

Anger over the film “Innocence of Muslims” has sparked violent protests from Asia to Africa, and in the Lebanese port city of Tyre, tens of thousands of people marched in the streets Wednesday, chanting “Oh America, you are God’s enemy!”

Worried France might be targeted, the government ordered its embassies, cultural centers, schools and other official sites to close on Friday — the Muslim holy day — in 20 countries. It also immediately shut down its embassy and the French school in Tunisia, the site of deadly protests at the U.S. Embassy last week.

The French Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning urging French citizens in the Muslim world to exercise “the greatest vigilance,” avoiding public gatherings and “sensitive buildings.”

The controversy could prove tricky for France, which has struggled to integrate its Muslim population, Western Europe’s largest. Many Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad should not be depicted at all — even in a flattering way — because it might encourage idolatry.

Violence provoked by the video, which portrays the prophet as a fraud, womanizer and child molester, has left at least 30 people dead in seven countries. It began with a Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, then quickly spread to Libya, where an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi left the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead.

A lawsuit was filed against Charlie Hebdo hours after the issue hit newsstands, the Paris prosecutor’s office said, though it would not say who filed it. The magazine also said its website had been hacked.

Chief editor Stephane Charbonnier, who publishes under the pen name “Charb” and has been under police protection for a year, defended the Muhammad cartoons.

“Muhammad isn’t sacred to me,” he told The Associated Press. “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Quranic law.”

He said he had no regrets and felt no responsibility for any violence.

“I’m not the one going into the streets with stones and Kalashnikovs,” he said. “We’ve had 1,000 issues and only three problems, all after front pages about radical Islam.”

A small-circulation weekly, Charlie Hebdo often draws attention for ridiculing sensitivity around the Prophet Muhammad. It was acquitted in 2008 by a Paris appeals court of “publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion” following a complaint by Muslim associations.

Printed on Thursday, Setember 20, 2012 as:  French cartoon offends Muslims