Journalism and blasphemy: Can The New York Times cover Charlie Hebdo images with words, alone?

So who is forgiving who and for what?

In the world of religion, and human rights, there is one story out there that must be discussed today and that's the post-massacre issue of Charlie Hebdo. The problem, of course, is that print journalists are trying to discuss a visual image -- yet their decision to show, or not to show, the image itself is affecting their coverage.

The New York Times -- one of the key players in this debate -- has a lengthy report on this subject that, to be blunt, quotes an admirable array of experts on what the cover may or may not mean. It's a fine story, in many ways. However, as GetReligionista emeritus M.Z. Hemingway notes with near fury at The Federalist, where's the art? We'll be back to that in a minute.

Here is how the Times states the crucial issue: What does the cover say?

The cover shows the bearded prophet shedding a tear and holding up a sign saying, “I am Charlie,” the rallying cry that has become synonymous with support of the newspaper and free expression. Above the cartoon on a green background is the headline “All is forgiven.”
While surviving staff members, at an emotional news conference, described their choice of cover as a show of forgiveness, most Muslims consider any depiction of their prophet to be blasphemous. Moreover, interpretations quickly swirled around the Internet that the cartoon also contained disguised crudity.

So forgiveness mixed with, yes, blasphemy. I would also like to raise another question: While the "All is forgiven" statement is not in a thought balloon, is it completely clear who is being forgiven and who is doing the forgiving?

For example, does this image depict the Charlie Hebdo team forgiving Muhammad, and thus Islam? That would imply that Islam is to blame for the actions of jihadists that, as everyone in elite culture knows, do not represent Islam. Or perhaps this image portrays the prophet forgiving the sins of the Charlie Hebdo team, which is why he is holding an "I am Charlie" sign? This would be an even more radical interpretation.

Either way, everyone knows that -- for millions -- this is war.

One of Egypt’s highest Islamic authorities warned that the cartoon would exacerbate tensions between the secular West and observant Muslims, while death threats circulated online against staff members.
A preacher, Anjem Choudary, the former leader of a radical group that was banned in Britain, was quoted by a British newspaper, The Independent, as saying that the image was “an act of war” that would be punishable by death if judged in a Shariah court.

As I said, this article does a fine job, in words, when it comes to discussing the debates that are swirling around this image. For example, cartoonist Renald Luzier -- who drew the cartoon -- was gently defiant:

“We have confidence in people’s intelligence, and we have confidence in humor. The people who did this attack, they have no sense of humor.”
“I’m sorry we’ve drawn him yet again,” he added, “but the Muhammad we’ve drawn is a man who is crying.”
Laurent Léger, an investigative journalist with Charlie Hebdo, shrugged off the idea, circulating on social media, that the cartoon contained one or even two hidden renderings of male genitals. “People can see what they want to see, but a cartoon is a cartoon,” he said. “It is not a photograph.”

So it is clear that this cartoon is, well, an image and, thus, different people -- when offered the chance to see it -- will have different opinions about its content.

In terms of journalism, the larger question is whether media, especially in the West, will extend a courtesy to some Muslims that they do not extend to believers in other major world religions. That debate was certainly taking place, in the past week or so, in the the offices of the Associated Press.

What is the key word in the following passage from the Times report?

Some American newspapers, including The New York Times, did not reproduce the Charlie Hedbo cartoons that mocked Islam. The Times called the decision an editorial judgment that reflected its standards for content that is deemed offensive and gratuitous.
The decision drew criticism from some free-speech advocates who called it cowardly in the face of a terrorist attack, which the newspaper disputed.
“Actually, we have republished some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, including a caricature of the head of ISIS, as well as some political cartoons,” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, said in a statement. “We do not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities.”

The key word? That would be "normally." The rules, you see, are more like, well, guidelines.

This is kind of like the First Amendment, these days. People are not so sure when to proudly defend it and when to look the other way. As Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher noted the other day, if a security guard had not been able to stop a certain gunman (spouting what?) in the lobby of a Washington, D.C., think tank, would members of the American left have tweeted out, "I am the Family Research Council"?

This is beginning to affect journalism, on the religion beat and elsewhere. Thus, it is affecting public discourse.

Here, as promised, is how M.Z. sees the issue:

... I happen to think the Charlie Hebdo cover might have more messages in it (or might not). I remember what a surviving Charlie Hebdo cartoonist said about all the newfound friends the news-weekly had discovered in the aftermath of the attacks: “We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends.” That’s a very Charlie Hebdo message, and was likely directed at those who don’t really believe in free speech or the right to satirize others. Was this cover mocking those of us who claim we’re Charlie Hebdo -- holding signs and all! -- when we’ll be fair-weather fans? Was it mocking religious concepts of forgiveness, or the failure to practice such forgiveness?
I have no idea. But I do know that people don’t get to experience different reactions to art when that art is censored or hidden. Some of the media outlets that missed the hidden images at least allowed readers to have a chance to catch them. Others simply declared from on high that the image conveyed forgiveness, later declaring from on high that the image might have more to it. Misinterpretations and a limiting of interpretations are both journalistic problems that are easily solved by simply showing the most newsworthy image of the day.

I would be interested in knowing the views of readers on this one. In the cartoon, who is doing the forgiving and what is being forgiven?

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