Charlie Hebdo and avoiding offence - two popular liberal arguments refuted

January 10, 2015

In the gallery of satirical art there’s a largely blank space where the work satirizing Islam should be. Here I argue that, where satirical work has been removed out of fear, it should be put back. I also deal with a couple of objections against doing so. 

Wander my (hypothetical) gallery of satirical art and you’ll find rooms devoted to work satirizing and lampooning a great many belief systems, including, of course, religious belief systems. First we enter a cavernous chamber devoted to work lampooning Christianity. It contains innumerable cartoons, writings, films, and so on. Later we find ourselves wandering round smaller rooms containing work satirizing Scientology and Mormonism. Later still, we enter a large room where the work lampooning Islam should be displayed. Only we discover that room is mostly empty. There are just a few isolated exhibits hanging from the walls. Where has all the missing satirical work gone?

The reason that work is missing is of course that those who produce or exhibit such satirical material are afraid, literally, for their lives, and also the lives of employees and families.

That fear-induced blank space where the work satirizing Islam should be has had two seriously bad consequences. First, those brave or foolish enough to continue to exhibit their work stand isolated and exposed – they are obvious targets running a very significant risk. Second, caving into such threats just encourages more. We’re showing the perpetrators that their violence, and threats of violence, work.   

Liberal opinion is divided over whether we should now put the work satirizing Islam removed solely out of fear of violence back on public display. Some liberals think that our now publishing such material would be a mistake. Here are a couple of the arguments for that view that I’ve have spotted over the last couple of days:  

First argument: There’s no justification in upsetting all Muslims, most of them peaceable, just for the sake of thumbing our noses at a violent few.

Jonathan Freedland, editor-elect of the Guardian, said something similar today, writing:

… this is the key point. It is not only violent jihadists who resent representations of the prophet: such pictures trouble many millions of peaceful Muslims too. To print one now would be to take a stand against the former by offending the latter. (Source.)

The prominent Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, also writing in the Guardian today, shares Freedland’s view:

there is the issue of media organisations intent on publishing the most offensive Charlie Hebdo cartoons, claiming that it would strike a blow for free speech. I support free speech, but I would urge them to desist, for what they plan to do is not courageous and will do nothing to afford people dignity. It will be another example of targeting all Muslims. (Source.)

I don't think there's a case here for not now publishing that satirical material that would have been published had we not been afraid of the violent consequences. 

What I think should be reinstated is the kind of work publishers do show regularly when the subject matter happens not to be Islam but some other religious or revered system of belief. Remember that work lampooning Christianity and other religions is regularly published across the media, despite the fact that it offends many (and there are regular complaints from other religions about the offence such satire casues, of course). If the argument for not reinstating work self-censored out of fear of violence is that it will offend even peaceable Muslims, why are many of these publishers more than happy to publish similar work lampooning other faiths? 

If a newspaper would not have printed images of Mohammad anyway, notwithstanding the threats, then I don't think they're under any obligation to do so now (P.S. though I don't think they're duty-bound to do so, I would still encourage them to do so - see my previous post). But many of them would have done and so should do so now. And even those that wouldn't should at least now make a point of reinstating all that satirical work they would have published had it not been for those threats. 

Second argument:  If a racist had just been murdered for producing racist satirical imagery of blacks and Jews, we would not now be obliged to publish racist satirical imagery across the press. So why, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, are we obliged to publish images satirizing Islam?

Jonathan Freedland raises just this objection. He begins:

Wednesday’s deaths brought a loud chorus insisting that Charlie Hebdo was vulnerable because it had been left out on a limb. That was down, they said, to the cowardice of the rest of the press, lacking the guts to do what the French magazine had done. Now, if the declarations of Je Suis Charlie were to mean anything, papers like the Guardian ought to make amends and either republish the magazine’s offending cartoons or do its own depictions of the prophet – just to prove that it could.

But Freedland finds the case for publishing such offensive work unpersuasive, as he immediately goes on to explain:

Behind this argument is an assumption that Islam is a unique case. Yet for that to be true, a paper like the Guardian would be running images every day that it knew trampled on the sensibilities of, say, women or Jews or people of colour or myriad others – holding back only when it came to Muslims and what matters to them. But that’s not how it is. Mostly we do our best, not always successfully, to avoid causing that kind of pain. (Source.) 

But of course we won’t always avoid causing that kind of pain, will we? For again, the kind of satirical material publishers have held back from publishing - and should be publishing now - is the kind of material they have been happy enough to publish when lampooning other faiths, despite the fact that it also causes offence. And, as I say, Christians etc. do indeed regularly complain about such satire and insist that it offends them.

Yes, there are good reason for not satirizing racial and other minorities and representing them as stupid or greedy or whatever. We shouldn’t do that. But there’s no such reason for not satirizing religious beliefs. Or if there is such a reason, why have the media been prepared to publish similar material satirizing other faiths?

The point of reinstating the missing satire on Islam is not to offend Muslims for the sake of a cheap laugh (and it's important to remember that by no means all Muslims will be offended by images of Mohammad - see this very well-informed article on Muslim attitudes to depictions of Mohammad), but because such satirical work has a valuable role to play alongside similar work lampooning other faiths and belief systems (I explain why here). Sure, satire can be cheap, tacky, and pointlessly offensive, but it can also be much, much more than this, and the loss of almost all satire on some important topic is a very great loss indeed.

Publishers may refuse to publish the missing satire on the grounds that they don’t want needlessly to upset Muslims. But if these same publishers are happy enough to publish similar satire that upsets other religious folk, then they’re not being honest with themselves. The reality is that they're refusing to publish not for fear of causing offence but because they’re frightened. That’s understandable. But I’d urge them to think again.


Perhaps some will suggest it's the greater depth of offence felt by (some) Muslims that explains why we should be less inclined to satirise Islamic beliefs than other religious beliefs. I am not convinced. First, I would question whether it's even true that religious satire provokes greater offence amongst (some) Muslims than those belonging of other faiths. How do we know this? Does the fact that a few Muslims exact murderous revenge on those who satirise their beliefs show that Muslims generally feel the offence more deeply? Is their murderous rage a reliable measure of general offence caused? Second, in any case I suggest those demanding far greater levels of deference, reverence, and respect for their particular beliefs - and who subsequently get far more enraged when they don't get it - are surely more deserving of having their beliefs satirised, not less.


#1 Gapho (Guest) on Saturday January 10, 2015 at 3:46pm

How are we going to post satire criticising islam for its bad ideas if people like you find that it is “racist”?

#2 Angra Mainyu on Saturday January 10, 2015 at 6:12pm

Gapho, I don’t understand your comment.
What do you mean by people “like you”?
In which sense are the people you have in mind like Stephen?

#3 Stephen Law on Sunday January 11, 2015 at 2:15pm

Hi Gapho - I think you might have misunderstood. I have now edited the piece quite a bit so my point should be clearer. See what you think.

#4 Alvaro Caso (Guest) on Sunday January 11, 2015 at 6:00pm

The article on depictions of Mohammad is interesting. However, it seems to me it does not help you dismiss the argument that muslims may take greater ofense at satiric depictions of their prohpet: Even if there exost these pious depictions, they are not generally known (as the article says). As a result many, if not most, muslims do believe that it is scripturally forbiden to draw Mohammad. Even if they are mistaken, they do sincerely believe that the mere depiction is a sinful act in a way that perhaps is not as poignant for christians who have a rich tradition of blasphemous adoration. To me, your best point is your last of your postcript: it is those who believe it is sinful to depict their prophet on (misconceived) scripture who most stand in need of being satyrized.

#5 JeffHaley49 on Monday January 12, 2015 at 12:31am

It is the DUTY of ALL publishers to republish the Hebdo cartoons.

Freedom of speech is essential to secularism.  Thus, it is essential to ensure that legal speech is not chilled by threats of illegal aggressive acts.  Whenever illegal aggressive acts are perpetrated against anyone as a result of speech, no matter who it offends, it is essential that the offensive speech be multiplied by a thousand.

The reason for this is like the US policy of never paying ransoms.  If illegal acts to stifle speech are met with multiplication of the offensive speech rather than self-censorship, the threats will gain nothing and instead backfire.

This is why the offensive Hebdo cartoons must be republished a thousand times.  It is not because the cartoons are newsworthy.  It has nothing to do with whether the editors think people should see the cartoons.  The merit of the cartoons, or lack thereof, is irrelevant.  The cartoons should be republished a thousand times simply because violence was perpetrated in response to them in an attempt to stifle such speech.

Do publishers - those with access to a publication platform - have a duty to republish the cartoons?  Yes.  If they don’t, who will?  All publishers have to duty to republish the cartoons, including publishers who are offended by them, including religious publishers of all stripes.

Any publisher that does not republish the offensive cartoons is tacitly supporting censorship, including all religious publishers. 

My blogsite is a publication, so I have a duty to republish the offensive cartoons.  They appear on my site.  I am not encouraging my readers to look at them.  I am merely doing my duty.

— Jeff T Haley

#6 Kris Diehl (Guest) on Monday January 12, 2015 at 8:43am

Stephen Law, I believe your argument on both items, especially the second, is weak. Supposing whether a publication would or would not print Islamic-ly offensive images prior to last week is a very low bar for gauging the morality or rightness of posting such images, and places such morality squarely in subjective territory, rather than the objective space where it belongs.

The point is not whether some people will or won’t be more or less offended by such images. The point is whether the images are indeed morally offensive in and of themselves. Religiously “forbidden” images, (or any religiously proscribed actions,) are not in themselves immoral. It is a personal choice to ascribe to that religion and therefore a personal choice to be offended. However, some actions or images are immoral independent of religious beliefs, such as racist or misogynistic jokes, and there should lie the justification for if a publisher chooses to not print such images.

Further, for any publication to justifiably claim to stand for freedom of expression, I’d be willing to argue it is morally incumbent on them to indeed print the Charlie Hebdo images in question, as a failure to do so would stand out as an unjustifiable tacit endorsement of subjective religious morality trumping objective morality.

#7 Tom Lawson (Guest) on Monday January 12, 2015 at 8:59am

I think the greatest offense here is facing the truth. Sura 9:24, I think, says that Muslims must hold Allah and Muhammad above all, including family. Same as NT Matthew 10:37, about family.

When choosing between your family and Allah/The Prophet, you must choose the latter or risk being charged with blasphemy or apostasy. There is no wiggle room. If a terrorist were holding a gun to a Muslim’s wife’s head and told to draw Muhammad and spit on it or his wife will be shot, a good Muslim would have to sacrifice his wife to uphold the prophet’s honor. That isn’t interpretation, that’s not opinion. That’s the truth. What Muslims are afraid of, and offended by, is having to contemplate that particular scenario.

#8 DougEBarr on Monday January 12, 2015 at 10:17am

As I skimmed through this article I was distracted by the thought of satirizing a philosophy lecturer weighing the pros and cons of satirizing religion. I imagined a face representing humanity being cut by representatives of the various religions and the lecturer saying, “It’s ok to cut but not to deeply.

#9 Gary (Guest) on Monday January 12, 2015 at 12:50pm

A few points that people constantly leave out of this issue, which I’d urge you to point out in further articles Stephen.

1) If you don’t like the cartoons, don’t read the magazine. It’s incredibly easy to avoid seeing them. People are acting like the second the cartoons are published, they’re instantly teleported into every Muslim’s view. (to the extent that that is true, it’s because of our controversy-loving media, not the cartoonists) If it was simply seeing the cartoons that’s the problem, muslims would despise these events because they always make the cartoons more famous.
The real issue isn’t the actual cartoons. It’s about a culture that demands to be respected on certain issues. If it really was the actual cartoons, they’d just happily cancel their subscriptions to the magazine.

2) Ridicule is hugely important for how we come to form beliefs. Young people form beliefs hugely based on how they see various issues being dealt with by their contemporaries. The real reason nearly every religion hates mockery isn’t necessarily cos it hates their feelings, it’s because it’s a public display of the fact that people don’t take their beliefs seriously. It’s the one little boy in a society of people who are quietly pretending the emperor is clothed.
I remember being furious as an adolescent when I started to realise that a huge number of well educated adults actually found religion a bit ridiculous. I was furious because they didn’t make it clear. And I therefore had doubts that my own position (of religion being ridiculous) had merit.
This is a form of social brainwashing. It’s just another way religions constantly avoid participating in the marketplace of ideas, a marketplace they know they can’t survive.

#10 stephen Law (Guest) on Monday January 12, 2015 at 3:17pm

Many thanks for all the comments above. I agree with much said above. I don’t agree with you, Kris, that even those who would not have published images of Mohammad irrespective of threats now have a moral duty to doso. But I’m certainly not criticising anyone who now publishes them. Nor am I saying they would unjustified in doing so (see my previous post for a justification).

I want to digest all this debate before I say any more. But at some point I will return to the issue, raised by a colleague of mine, that perhaps we ought not to be ‘adding insult to oppression’.

#11 Kris Diehl (Guest) on Monday January 12, 2015 at 4:15pm

That’s helpful, Stephen. I now see you you said so initially, but only after this comment did I recognize you were speaking of those who would not have published the images *due to the danger in doing so.* I was initially reading it as, say, a publication that had never printed such images for no good reason, or perhaps for a poor -read: morally unjustified- reason, (such as deciding all religions should not be criticized, but that all governments should.)

I would agree that it is not our place to call cowards those who justifiably fear for their safety and wish to stay the safer course. Or even those who used to publish such images, and have decided to stop for safety’s sake. However, I do think it noble and heroic -read: highly moral- those who publish such images despite threats. Perhaps I could back down from a moral duty, however.

#12 Domingo Soria (Guest) on Monday January 12, 2015 at 9:16pm

What about satire of political figures, sports figures, celebrities, dictators, or military figures? Where do we stop? There cannot be any compromise with Freedom of Speech, and Freedom of the Press, and religious prophets or leaders don’t deserve any more special treatment than John and Jane Doe do.

#13 DR. T M Murray (Guest) on Monday January 12, 2015 at 10:52pm

I agree with Stephen.  Those who argue that Muslims (or people of faith) are more profoundly injured by satire than anyone else have no evidence for such a claim.  As a female and a homosexual, I find that these arguments tend to completely ignore and vastly underestimate the offense women and homosexuals feel when seeing Muslim women’s lives constrained in ways that would NEVER be acceptable were it done to an ethnic minority group. Those who want to protect the exceptionally important feelings of religious people are giving them an immunity from ‘injury’ that no one else enjoys.  Such double standards are not acceptable.

#14 gpell on Saturday January 24, 2015 at 9:25pm

Just as I was reading this article, I was listening to some wonderful gritty blues music by Reverend Raven and the Chain Smokin’ Altar Boys.  Just imagine all the similar art that could come from a light hearted ridicule of islam.

#15 DR. T M Murray (Guest) on Sunday January 25, 2015 at 4:30am

Thank you Stephen for being so clear and cutting through the rubbish.  We need more Stephen Laws blogging in the liberal media!  If you ever want to tag-team with me on a panel, I will be ready and willing.

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