12 dead in Paris terror attack; magazine criticized Muhammad

In what is being described as the deadliest terrorist attack in France in decades, 12 people are dead after 3 masked gunman shouting “Allahu Akbar” — “God is great,” in Arabic — burst into the headquarters of a satirical magazine and shot the staff and two policemen to death.

The men then ran from the scene, hijacked a car, and fled. There’s an ongoing manhunt in Paris for them.

The magazine, Charlie Hebdo, had previously been firebombed after its cover featured the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The magazine subsequently published caricatures mocking Muhammad, and more generally has been critical of radical Islam. In the Muslim religion, such things are forbidden.

UPDATE: The world has rallied as a result of this attack.

From NPR:

Many Muslims consider any depiction or mockery of Muhammad to be blasphemous. In a 2005 episode, Danish newspaper cartoons satirizing Islam provoked protests there and in several other countries, some of them violent.

The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo pulled no punches. They included drawings of Muhammad naked and were accompanied by sexual commentary.


Frenchmen are rallying in Paris to honor the victims of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo.

Our Jon Green has written a number of stories about religious extremism in general, and radical Islam in particular. And the deadly attack in Paris certainly raises a number of issues, again, about freedom of speech, Islamic extremism, and to what degree some in the west continue to poke a stick at people with a known penchant for responding violently to such pokes.

Now, my reaction to this crime is more in line with Jon’s thinking in his various pieces. But it’s easy and obvious to write a piece today about how radical Islam is out of control. I think the more interesting question is how to challenge religious extremism, especially violent Muslim extremism, and whether these naked cartoons of Muhammad are the best and most effetive way of doing that.

There’s an interesting theory in the law called contributory negligence. The idea is that while the other guy hurt you, and it’s certainly his fault that he hurt you, the law recognizes that you kinda sorta helped as well. Wikipedia gives a few examples:

For example, a pedestrian crosses a road negligently and is hit by a driver who was driving negligently. Since the pedestrian has also contributed to the accident, they may be barred from complete and full recovery of damages from the driver (or their insurer) because the accident was less likely to occur if it weren’t for their failure to keep a proper lookout. Another example of contributory negligence is where a plaintiff actively disregards warnings or fails to take reasonable steps for his or her safety, then assumes a certain level of risk in a given activity; such as diving in shallow water without checking the depth first.

Now, it’s not very PC to discuss whether victims’ own actions play a role in any particular crime. But it’s an interesting, and I’d argue useful, means of trying to understand incidents like this that have much larger societal repercussions.

Generally speaking, I’m not a big fan of killing people for insulting any deity. But I also wonder sometimes at people who insist on poking Islam in the gut by continually taunting them with depictions of their prophet, in this case, naked in a sexual context. That surely is begging for an angry response. Though, no reasonable person in the West would argue that even righteous anger merits violence.

Frenchmen are changing their Facebook photo to a black square to honor the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terror attack.

Frenchmen are changing their Facebook photo to a black square to honor the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terror attack.

But let’s take this a bit further. While violence isn’t merited, it is sometimes anticipated. We know that factions of radical Islam respond to criticism of Muhammad with violence. So what’s a sardonic editor to do? Stand by her principles, knowing that she’s risking the lives of her staff; or take a pass on treating Islam as one would other religions?

The question I’m really asking is this: When you choose to walk home at 3am, through the worst neighborhood in town, knowing that everyone who walks that path ends up getting mugged — and lo’ and behold you get mugged — do you really share none of the blame for what happened?

In this case, I’m playing a bit of a devil’s advocate. I’m shocked and sickened by the crime, and it’s renewed my ongoing concerns about the dogmatic extremism of many modern religions and their followers — particularly Islam. But I also wonder what benefit there is to publishing images of anyone’s deity naked. You could argue that it’s a blow for free speech, but is it? Is this really the best way to teach uber-conservative religionists about freedom — by turning their deity into a sex object?

I think back to Salman Rushdie, a British novelist who was sentenced to die by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. No one in the West has any sympathy with Iran over that issue. And I have no sympathy with the attackers in Paris today. But I do wonder whether all of these cartoons mocking Muhammad are the same thing, morally and ethically, as what Salman Rushdie did.

In fact, Salman Rushdie spoke out today about this crime:

Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.

Perhaps it all comes down to pornography. Hustler is not “A Farewell to Arms,” and the Nazis are most certainly not the VFW, but all are protected by our western notions of freedom of speech. The vileness of the message does not alter the degree to which we protect the messenger. And my gut reaction to the attack in Paris is most certainly not any kind of sympathy with the attackers — the attack has only heightened my ongoing concerns about our tendency to coddle religious extremism. But, I do think it’s interesting to think about this issue in terms of how best to respond to intolerance. And I’d welcome some comments below exploring this further.

UPDATE: The BBC had an interesting take on the tradition of French political satire:

Charlie Hebdo is part of a venerable tradition in French journalism going back to the scandal sheets that denounced Marie-Antoinette in the run-up to the French Revolution.

The tradition combines left-wing radicalism with a provocative scurrility that often borders on the obscene. Its decision to mock the Prophet Muhammad in 2011 was entirely consistent with its historic raison d’etre.

The paper has never sold in enormous numbers – and for 10 years from 1981, it ceased publication for lack of resources.

But with its garish front-page cartoons and incendiary headlines, it is an unmissable staple of newspaper kiosks and railway station booksellers.

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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