Charlie Hebdo cartoons spark debate over free speech and Islamophobia

Just days after an American anti-Islam YouTube video set off deadly riots around the world, a French newspaper has stoked the outrage by releasing a set of cartoons that insult the prophet Muhammad.


Publishing director of Charlie Hebdo, Charb, displays the front page of the newspaper in Paris on Sept. 19, 2012. (Michel Euler/AP)

French authorities stationed riot police at Hebdo’s headquarters and denied a permit to a group that sought to protest the “Innocence of Muslims” film Saturday. The French government also ordered the immediate closure of the French Embassy and a French school in Tunisia, the AP reported. France has the largest Muslim population in western Europe.

Online, reactions were mixed, with some arguing that Hebdo was within its rights as a news organization, and others contending that now is an ill-chosen time to make free speech statements at the expense of Muslims.

Muslim leaders reacted with disappointment, but some urged the faithful to refrain from violence.

“We reject and condemn the French cartoons that dishonor the Prophet and we condemn any action that defames the sacred according to people’s beliefs,” the acting head of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Essam Erian, told Reuters.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby called the drawings outrageous but said those who were offended by them should “use peaceful means to express their firm rejection,” Reuters reported.

The magazine, which has a circulation of about 55,000, was fire-bombed last year after it published a previous set of cartoons that mocked Islam.

In an interview with the BBC, Charlie Hebdo editor Gerard Biard said the decision to publish the images was in keeping with France’s proud history of secularism.

“There is only one reason [for the cartoons] — it was the news of the week. We have the silly movie, the silly film, about the prophet Mohammed, and we have the burning of the American embassy in Libya. We are a satirical, political magazine, we publish in France ... which is a laic [secular] nation and ...we are against all religions,”

Biard argued that the cartoons’ publication was not in itself a violence-provoking act.

“We’re not killing people. We’re not the violent ones, we are just journalists to who do their job.”

 France plans to temporarily close its embassies and schools in 20 countries Friday as a safety precaution. (Protests are more common after Friday Muslim prayers). The magazine’s Web site was also down Wednesday after an apparent hacking attempt.

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- U.S. troops to cut missions with Afghan forces

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