Charlie Hebdo, Satire, Religion and the Banning of Books

The recent attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a bitingly satirical French magazine, and the slaying of a number of its cartoonists and editors drew worldwide attention. The attack was carried out by terrorists hiding behind the Quran who objected to the magazine’s use of drawn images of the Prophet Mohammed. While there is no question many of the images the magazine published of the Islamic Prophet and Founder were intentionally insulting, the deeper question raised by conservative Muslims is whether all depictions of the Prophet are to be prohibited.

That is apparently not necessarily found in the Quran; the teaching relies on Hadith, a collection of stories about the Prophet’s life and teachings assembled during the first century or so after his death. And while Islam teaches that the Hadith are subordinate to the Quran, many Muslims, particularly those of a radical persuasion, have elevated Hadith to a level equal or nearly equal to that of the Quran. (See this good piece from the BBC on this subject.)

In the broader social context, the issue here is censorship, specifically a form of censorship called “prior restraint.” And while the term is generally limited in legal terms to rules and laws imposed by a government on a society, censorship of the more informal kind is no less real. So in some circles the argument surrounding Charlie Hebdo’s publication of images of Mohammed centers on whether it was inappropriate and insensitive for the magazine to do so in light of Muslim sensibilities.

Part of the reason it is difficult for us in the United States to identify with those who oppose the magazine’s right to print content that is insulting to another person’s religion is that we don’t have such a prohibition. In our country, freedom of speech and of the press is nearly absolute. So when Pope Francis opined that, ““You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others,” New  York Times columnist Timothy Egan begged to differ. “In fact, you can. Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe such provocations are in poor taste, or degrading. Yet an enlightened society should be able to take the punch of satire and ridicule, even coarse satire and savage ridicule.” As Egan continued, “A faith that cannot withstand ridicule is no faith at all. And a faith that cannot laugh at itself is a faith that defies human nature.”

But we Americans are holier-than-thou when it comes to the freedoms we’ve enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Unless, of course, their exercise results in Power being offended. We are a country that has, over the centuries, banned some great literature on the grounds that it offended the pure eyes and ears of our more conservative people. And although much of this censorship took place during historic periods, it is worth noting that James Joyce’s Ulysses, e.g., was barred from the United States as obscene for 15 years, and was seized by U.S Postal Authorities in 1918 and 1930. The lifting of the ban in 1933 came only after advocates fought for the right to publish the book. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders was published in 1749 but until 1966, its legal status as uncensored was unclear in the United States! That year, the U.S. Supreme Court had to declare its censorship to be unconstitutional.

So where does all this take me? Censorship is and always has been more of a social issue than a legal one. Sex is very often at the root of attempts in this country to censor or challenge books and most censorship in recent years has taken place quietly at a local level where librarians and school boards and teachers have been urged to remove books from reading lists and bookshelves because one or another minority of parents or citizens was offended. So perhaps before we are too quick to judge the condemnation of many conservative Muslims of allowing images of their Prophet to be displayed, we should think about the sensibilities Americans show with respect to the display of books and other artifacts that offend someone.

In recent decades, we Americans have become more sensitive to what we brand as “hate speech.” There are even laws against it which make speaking your opinion on many subjects illegal. I’m not condemning such laws, but we seem hypocritical when we question other nations’ right to pre-censor certain kinds of publication or speaking when their basic goal is to protect people from offensive encounters in the public arena.

The violence must be condemned. Its perpetrators must be pursued. But the attack on Charlie Hebdo must be viewed in the broader social context of offensive speech and in the social milieu in which it occurred. France has laws against speech which offends people based on their religion. That very un-America shouldn’t be surprising; France (and several other European nations)  has a law punishing people who deny the Holocaust. Tolerance is relative.

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