Less than a week after a controversial, anti-Islamic film incited violence throughout the Middle East, riots and protests gained momentum from a French satirical magazine’s publication of crude representations of the Prophet Muhammad. Meant to mock violence sparked by the American-made film Innocence of Muslims, the French weekly, Charlie Hebdo, included pornographic and demeaning illustrations of the Prophet. With an arguable numbness to self-mocking animations and illustrations, some in the Western World are confused by the intense response, which has resulted in at least 49 deaths, to a filmmaker’s ignorance and a publication’s poor humor. While cartoons like South Park and Family Guy continuously poke fun at people of all religious affiliations, the recently published lewd cartoons and film raise issues about protecting freedom of speech and expression at the price of provoking anti-religious sentiments and triggering international unrest.
Initial shockwaves reverberated throughout the Middle East after the Internet circulation of Innocence of Muslims. Riots in Libya led to the murder of the American ambassador to Libya and threeembassy staff members. Crowds stormed the American Embassy in Cairo, and other American and Western embassies were attacked. In response to the viral video and the violence it catalyzed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, addressed the world, saying, “I hope it is obvious, that the United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message.” Despite the American stance against anti-Islamic productions, and itscontinued commitment to religious tolerance, the American government continued to receive backlash from the film.
Less than a week later, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad stoked anger created by Innocence of Muslims, catalyzing protests outside the French embassy in Tehran. Demonstrators burned American and French flags while chanting, “Death to France,” and “Down with the U.S.” In a September 21st news conference, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls banned all protests of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. As a precaution, that same day, many French embassies and schools were closed throughout the Middle East.
Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists and writers defended the paper’s caricatures, stating that in a democracy no groups should be off limits from discussion. Although the publication is notorious for producing proactive material, targeting many religions and groups, its Islam-centered copy is not only highly criticized and controversial, but it had the added effect of exacerbating already heightened tensions between Muslims and Western societies.
While outrage over the obscene portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad is understandable, it is confusing why anger is directed toward countries’ governments and citizens. While boycotting a magazine and film may seem like potential solutions, recent protests and violence target more than the latest anti-Islamic productions. Instead, outbursts throughout the Middle East and Europe challenge the negative aspects of “freedom of speech and the press,” a government defended right throughout the Western World that enables, and does not punish, anti-Islamic media.
The First Amendment is, arguably, the cornerstone of America’s “free society.” Similarly, other Western countries uphold similar ideas about the importance of freedom of speech and the press. The ultimate question is whether there should be a religious sensitivity boundary, and if so, has the Western World crossed it?