On Wednesday morning, the French weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published a series of cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad. The magazine sold 75,000 copies in the first few hours it was on the newsstands.
Following the “Innocence of Muslims” video that sparked attacks on US embassies in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and Sudan, the choice of Charlie Hebdo to publish these cartoons has caused the French government to take precautionary measures both in France and abroad. Riot police were sent to the magazine’s headquarters, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that French embassies and schools abroad will be closed this Friday in 20 countries, the day of prayer for Muslims.
The newspaper reported that its site had been hacked following the publication of the images, making the site inaccessible. Islam forbids representing the prophet Muhammad, and the French Council of the Muslim Faith denounced “this new act of Islamaphobia that aims deliberately to offend.”
The magazine started a similar controversy last November when they had again published cartoons of the prophet, but this year the timing of the publication has more widespread implications. The magazine’s decision to portray the prophet Muhammad at all, and especially in the international climate of tension that has been growing over the past week, is one that is nevertheless justified by freedom of speech.
These same issues were raised in the United States when the “Innocence of Muslims” video appeared on the Internet. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault reminded the French people, and the world that “We are in a country where freedom of expression is guaranteed.”
Charb, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, defended the choice of the magazine: “If we start asking ourselves whether or not we have the right to draw Muhammad, if it is dangerous or not to do it, the next question will be ‘do we have the right to represent Muslims in the newspaper?’ and then, ‘do we have the right to represent people in the newspaper?’…At the end, we won’t represent anything anymore, and the handful of extremists in question in the world and in France will have won.”
Questions about freedom of speech continue to present themselves and while freedom of expression remains of the utmost importance, the timing of this particular act of expression has been called into question.