Thursday 15 January 2015

Did Charlie Hebdo's cover get it right?


 President Hollande and other heads of state in Paris

Millions of French people took to the streets at the weekend to express their unity against terror attacks, but it has taken just 48 hours to undo this spirit. Because that's exactly what the new cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine risks doing. In depicting the prophet Muhammad it is deliberately offending the vast majority of Muslims around the world. And in caricaturing him holding a "Je suis Charlie" placard, they are adding insult to injury by claiming the prophet would support the values of the magazine, which for years has been widely criticised for targeting Muslims, in particular, under the cover of free speech.

Yes, of course Charlie Hebdo has the right to do this; but why would they want to, given the symbolism of Sunday's gatherings across France? Surely now is the time to move forward, to isolate the extremist murderers and bring the nation together; not to trumpet your rights by trampling over others' sensitivities, losing friends in the process.

At its core is the common misunderstanding in the west – that because all Muslim extremists hate depictions of the prophet, therefore all people who hate such depictions are Muslim extremists. The vast majority of Muslims object to these depictions but despise the terror attacks even more. So to retaliate against two terrorists by lashing out at potentially 1.6 billion people simply doesn't make sense.

This confusion is apparent on another level. Above Charlie Hebdo's drawing of the "prophet" it says "All is forgiven" (Tout est pardonné). But who is being forgiven? Is this aimed at the killers – which would be strange because they barely deserve this after their acts of terror, and they are not referenced in the drawing?

More likely, given the image of the prophet, it's aimed at Muslims in general. But why do Muslims need to be forgiven? They have done nothing wrong. In claiming to be about forgiveness the cover therefore achieves the opposite, spreading guilt by association.

In affirming its "right" to free speech, Charlie Hebdo has used a blunt instrument to smash apart a genuine moment of hope and togetherness. France will be the poorer for it.

• Joseph Harker is assistant editor, Comment, at the Guardian

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