Charlie Hebdo

As European blasphemy laws endure, journalists should consider how words can get them in trouble

As European blasphemy laws endure, journalists should consider how words can get them in trouble

Here’s an explosive combination: The democratic demand for freedom of speech and the equally emotionally laden demand that sincerely held religious beliefs not be subjected to indiscriminate insults and scorn.

Religiously speaking, we’re talking about blasphemy, an issue contemporary Westerners are apt to believe is more of a concern in Muslim communities and highly autocratic nations such as Russia — and which they would be correct to conclude.

Journalistically and artistically speaking, we’re talking about the magazine Charlie Hebdo and the novelist Salman Rushdie. Both were victims of blasphemy charges by Muslim. The former ended in horrific violence.

Now, Foreign Policy magazine — on the occasion of the Hebdo attacks fourth anniversary, and the 30th anniversary of the blasphemy fatwa issued against Rushdie by Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini — has published an intriguing analysis piece on this issue. It ran under this headline:

30 Years After the Rushdie Fatwa, Europe Is Moving Backward.

Blasphemy laws have been given new life on the continent.

Here’s a hefty chunk of the Foreign Policy essay.

But despite the unanimous rhetorical support for free speech after Charlie Hebdo, blasphemy bans have become more firmly anchored in some parts of the continent in recent years. In a recent case, the European Court of Human Rights even reaffirmed that European human rights law recognizes a right not to have one’s religious feelings hurt. The court based its decision on the deeply flawed assumption that religious peace and tolerance may require the policing rather than the protection of “gratuitously offensive” speech. Accordingly, it found that Austria had not violated freedom of expression by convicting a woman for having called the Prophet Mohammed a “pedophile.”

Some have argued that the court’s decision was a necessary defense of an embattled Muslim minority vulnerable to bigotry and religious hatred. But laws against religious insult and blasphemy are generally different from hate speech laws—which are problematic in themselves—that purportedly protect people rather than abstract religious ideas and dogmas.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Once again, Charlie Hebdo takes aim at violent Islamists -- this time in Spain

Once again, Charlie Hebdo takes aim at violent Islamists -- this time in Spain

Here we go again.

The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has published a cartoon on its cover page devoted to the August 17, 2017, terror attack in Barcelona that left 13 dead and 130 injured.

Le FigaroEl Pais, and the other European outlets that have picked up the story so far have largely re-published the offending cartoon as has the Qatar based network Al Jazeera.

Newsweek and a handful of American mainstream news outlets have picked up the story, too, but unlike their European counterparts have not reprinted the cartoon. The American press has been down this road before -- engaging in self-censorship so as not to offend radical Islam. And it also revolved around Charlie Hebdo.

The left-wing, satirical magazine entered the conscience of the Anglophone world on January 7, 2015, when two gunmen forced their way into the magazine’s offices and killed twelve of its staff. Brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, Muslims of Algerian descent, carried out the attack in revenge for a cartoon published by the magazine that lambasted the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

In the weeks after the attack, free speech advocates adopted the cry “Je suis Charlie,” (I am Charlie), to show their solidarity with the magazine and the right to free expression. However, support for free speech and Charlie Hebdo’s right to offend was not universal. And this support has further dimmed in recent years.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The Independent takes on journalistic contradictions, faux morality and double standards

The Independent takes on journalistic contradictions, faux morality and double standards

Owned by a Russian oligarch and center-left in its orientation, the British daily The Independent runs a media column that recently addressed the very concerns that prompt me to contribute to GetReligion.

There's no beating around the bush for columnist Ian Burrell.

Here's his opening two graphs:

The need to understand the intersections of religion and civil freedom has never been greater. Hard-won human rights victories of the past century, for women, gays and free thinkers, are still opposed by zealots across the world, while people of faith are under persecution in many lands.
These are complex issues which the news industry has a duty to explain. Instead, however, we have a media rife with contradiction, faux morality and double standards.

I would only make one change to that. I would broaden his lede to include the intersection of religion and the entirety of human culture -- politics, commerce, popular entertainment -- you name it. 

Here's a link to his column; its worth reading in its entirety. I'll return to it below.

Burrell finds fault (as do I) on both sides of the misleading, artificial and media-driven divide that purportedly separates those on the right and left; if only people were that simple to understand and deal with.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Atheist minister fights for credentials; are media fighting not to cover it?

Atheist minister fights for credentials; are media fighting not to cover it?

You can tell it's Canada when a minister comes out as atheist, and mainstream media simply nod and report it. In the United States, we'd be reading and hearing ferocious barrages of rhetoric.

Which is not to say that the Canadian coverage of issues surrounding the Rev. Gretta Vosper has been fair or complete.

The basic facts, according to media accounts: Vosper pastors a Toronto congregation in the United Church of Canada. She joined her current church in 1997, then began teaching atheist beliefs around 2001.  Her congregation backed her until 2008, when she stopped reciting the Lord's Prayer. Then 100 of the 150 members left.

This year, Vosper objected to a prayer written by the denomination's spiritual leader (the articles don’t name him/her) in regard to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. Vosper said the prayer should have added that "belief in God could trigger enthusiasm," according to the Canadian Press wire service.

That got the attention of the Rev. David Allen, head of the denomination's Toronto Conference, who asked headquarters about determining Vosper's "fitness to be a minister." Now, the matter appears headed to a church court this fall.

Much of the coverage cites Canadian Press, which has also produced the longest account and done the most multisourcing thus far. For one, its 600-word piece quotes Vosper extensively:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Good grief, Los Angeles Times: Site of Texas shooting linked to Muhammad cartoon contest is no 'small town'

Good grief, Los Angeles Times: Site of Texas shooting linked to Muhammad cartoon contest is no 'small town'

When you hear "small town," do you think of Mayberry, U.S.A.?

Or do you think of a sprawling Dallas suburb with a quarter-million residents?

The Los Angeles Times' answer might surprise you.

According to the Times, Garland, Texas — site of Sunday night's shooting outside a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest — is a "small town."

The Los Angeles newspaper uses that description in this lede:

GARLAND,  Texas — Pamela Geller is a 56-year-old Jewish arch-conservative from New York, a vehement critic of radical Islam who organized a provocative $10,000 cartoon contest in this placid Dallas suburb designed to caricature the prophet Muhammad.
Elton Simpson was a 30-year-old aspiring Islamic militant from Phoenix who fantasized to an FBI informant about “doing the martyrdom operations” in Somalia and was convicted in 2010 of lying to the FBI about his plans to travel to the volatile eastern African nation.
Their lives intersected Sunday in this small town in north-central Texas, an unlikely venue for a violent collision of cultures. After a Sunday evening shootout outside the contest site between police and Simpson and another man firing assault rifles, both gunmen lay dead in the street. And Geller quickly posted a defiant blog: “This is a war on free speech. ... Are we going to surrender to these monsters?”

Just how "small town" is Garland?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it's a little larger than Mayberry — with an estimated population of 234,566.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Basic facts crucial on shooting outside Texas contest for cartoons depicting Muhammad

Basic facts crucial on shooting outside Texas contest for cartoons depicting Muhammad

Violence tied to a contest for images depicting Islam's Prophet Muhammad is making headlines this morning.

The latest news from The Associated Press:

GARLAND, Texas (AP) — Two gunmen were killed Sunday after opening fire on a security officer outside a provocative contest for cartoon depictions of Prophet Muhammad in Texas and a bomb squad was called in to search their vehicle as a precaution, authorities said.
The men drove up to the Curtis Culwell Center in the Dallas suburb of Garland as the contest was scheduled to end and began shooting at a security officer, the City of Garland said in a statement. Garland police officers returned fire, killing the men.
"Because of the situation of what was going on today and the history of what we've been told has happened at other events like this, we are considering their car (is) possibly containing a bomb," Officer Joe Harn, a spokesman for the Garland Police Department, said at a news conference.
Police are not aware of any ongoing threat and had not received any credible threats before the event, Harn said.
Harn said it was not immediately clear whether the shooting was connected to the event inside, a contest hosted by the New York-based American Freedom Defense Initiative that would award $10,000 for the best cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Such drawings are deemed insulting to many followers of Islam and have sparked violence around the world. According to mainstream Islamic tradition, any physical depiction of the Prophet Muhammad — even a respectful one — is considered blasphemous.

The Dallas Morning News reports:

Before the shooting, the scene was unremarkable outside the Culwell Center, except for the thick security that included Garland police, school district security and private guards.
“We were expecting protests outside the building,” (event attendee Stephen) Perkins said.
But Alia Salem, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Dallas-Fort Worth, said she and other Muslims had wanted nothing to do with the event.
“We were actively ignoring and encouraging the community to ignore it,” she said. “We did not want to be the bearers of any kind of incitement.”
Imam Zia Sheikh of the Irving Islamic Center wrote online that though he was waiting to see how the facts unfold, “as of now condemning any act of terror. No justification whatsoever.”
“Seems like a lone wolf type of attack. Just what we didn’t want,” he wrote.

As this story develops, presenting basic facts will be crucial for media coverage.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Your weekend think piece: Concerning the ratio of Paris coverage to that of Boko Haram

Your weekend think piece: Concerning the ratio of Paris coverage to that of Boko Haram

I am not a Calvinist, but it became very clear this past week that my "think piece" entry this weekend was predestined to be about this question: Why did the Charlie Hebdo massacre receive so much more coverage than the massacre of thousands of Christians and moderate Muslims in Nigeria?

On Twitter, I tried to point this out with a simple appeal: #IAmANigerianChristian. There weren't many takers.

How bad was this latest wave of death and destruction by Boko Haram? By the end of the week, GetReligion readers were sending in URLs about the fact that the best way to assess the damage was through satellite images. Check this out in The New York Times:

DAKAR, Senegal -- Thousands of buildings were burned, damaged or destroyed in northern Nigerian towns in recent days when Boko Haram militants stormed through, using scorched-earth tactics against civilians, according to a new analysis of satellite images by human rights groups.
In a succession of attacks, fighters from Boko Haram, an Islamist insurgent group that has gripped northern Nigeria and battled the government for years, have swept through a cluster of villages along the shores of Lake Chad in a “systematic campaign of arson directed against the civilian population in the area,” according to Human Rights Watch.
About 57 percent of one town, Doro Gowon, the location of a now-destroyed military base, appears to have been leveled, probably amounting to several thousand residential and commercial structures, Human Rights Watch said.
Amnesty International, which has also analyzed the satellite images, said Thursday that about 3,100 buildings in the town had been damaged or destroyed, demonstrating a “deliberate attack on civilians whose homes, clinics and schools are now burnt-out ruins.”

How bad was it? Eventually, journalists were so tired of hearing questions about the imbalance between the coverage of these two big stories -- almost always framed as lots of coverage of white, French secularists vs. minimal coverage of black, Nigerian Christians -- that some journalists began to fight back.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The new (actually rather old) debate: Is it really time for French Jews to flee? Why?

The new (actually rather old) debate: Is it really time for French Jews to flee? Why?

Several times during my years working as a religion-beat reporter in mainstream newsrooms, I heard editors, usually with a moan, say something that sounded like this: "Why in the %*&# is it taking so $%^*&@# long for the leaders of (insert name of religious group here) to make up their mind about whether or not to (make a historic change in this or that doctrine or rite, usually in the name of cultural relevance, often linked to the Sexual Revolution)?"

The problem, of course, was that I had been saying things like: This is a major story. Big issues are at stake and we need to cover it, because XYZ could happen." Then, as often happens, the religious group's leadership would settle for some kind of tiny, subtle victory, after realizing that it was too risky to make a major change and, thus, there were no big headlines.

The bottom line is that radical changes take place very slowly in institutions that are hundreds or thousands of years old and lots of money, property, power and, for many people, eternal truths are at stake. If you are going to cover religion, you have to be patient enough to cover big changes that are taking place over time. This is not a beat for people with short attention spans. I like to say that covering religion news is rather like covering politics and opera at the same time.

This brings us, of course, to the truly historic story unfolding in Jewish neighborhoods in France, where Jews are hitting the exits.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Three things I liked about The Washington Post's story on French Muslims torn by 'I am Charlie' slogan

Three things I liked about The Washington Post's story on French Muslims torn by 'I am Charlie' slogan

In an excellent story on French Muslims, The Washington Post introduces readers to a different side of Paris. 

The Post steps off the beaten path of reporting in the wake of last week's terror attacks and ventures into a heavily Muslim suburb.

Here's the nut graf (aka the summary up high that tells readers why they should care):

Within France’s Muslim community of some 5 million — the largest in Europe — many are viewing the tragedy in starkly different terms from their non-Muslim compatriots. They feel deeply torn by the now-viral slogan “I am Charlie,” arguing that no, they are not Charlie at all.
Many of France’s Muslims — like Abdelaali (a 17-year-old high school senior) — abhor the violence that struck the country last week. But they are also revolted by the notion that they should defend the paper. By putting the publication on a pedestal, they insist, the French are once again sidelining the Muslim community, feeding into a general sense of discrimination that, they argue, helped create the conditions for radicalization in the first place.

This story succeeds on at least three levels.

Please respect our Commenting Policy