Why the Charlie Hebdo attack is not about images or free speech (COMMENTARY)

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Hussein Rashid is a professor of Religion at Hofstra University, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Truman National Security Fellow. He works at the intersection of religion, art, and national identity. Photo by Ali Ansary

Hussein Rashid is a professor of Religion at Hofstra University, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Truman National Security Fellow. He works at the intersection of religion, art, and national identity. Photo by Ali Ansary

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(RNS) to view the assault as simply about images of Muhammad is to accept a long-standing narrative about Muslim sensitivity to portrayals of Muhammad, which plays into conceptions of Muslims as superstitious savages.

  • The Great God Pan

    “In no way is there any justification for violence against the paper.”

    And yet the paragraph preceding this disclaimer reads an awful lot like a justification.

  • “However, this is a community that sees itself as besieged.”

    Excuse me.
    Have they seen how besieged people are under Sharia law – The very law Islam is advocating for some of France?

    I have no sympathy for crying about Racism in your argument as long as there are apologists for a racist, woman-hating, gay-hating, infidel-hating book which defends slaughter of non-believers and people who draw pictures of Mohammed.

    “Slay the infidels wherever you find them” – SURAH (9:3)

    Good Grief!
    Never did the Government of France or Charlie Hebdo
    publish any statement remotely comparable.
    No drawing of Mohammed is so vile as the words in such holy books.

    If France published a book which said,
    “Slaughter Muslims wherever you find them”
    How long would it take before someone called it a threat?

    Show me such a direct threat before you tell me how much siege these people in France are under. I don’t doubt the frictions, but please!

    France is a free country – Freedom of speech.
    ISLAM needs an education on what that means.

    The Muslim terrorists killed a Muslim policeman – tell me how that helps a community ‘Under Siege’.

    I’ll tell you who is under siege. Muslims themselves.
    They are victims of relentless bullying by Imams and Ayatollahs
    who refuse to let Muslims think for themselves and get out of this primitive mind trap of religion and escape into a modern world.

    For Peace, Civility and The Separation of Church and State

  • Re: “At the same time, the material was racist.”

    Uh … no. No way. Charlie Hebdo’s Mohammad cartoons may have been inflammatory and offensive toward Islam and Muslims, but Islam is a religion and Muslims are not a “race.”

    It’s OK if you don’t like the cartoons, or Charlie Hebdo for having published them, but it’s absolutely, positively, 100% not true that their doing so was “racist.” It’s the wrong word to describe it. “Race” is not a consideration here.

  • Re: “And yet the paragraph preceding this disclaimer reads an awful lot like a justification.”

    Yeah, I’ve seen that a lot. “Violence over the cartoons is wrong, but I understand why there was violence over them” is NOT an unconditional condemnation of said violence.

    I also heard similar arguments before from other folks about other things. Such as when militant Christianist Scott Roeder murdered Dr George Tiller … lots of folks in the Religious Right were quick to say they didn’t approve of killing over abortion, but they also admitted they “understood” why someone might felt driven to do so.

    Both examples are, essentially, triangulation: People trying to appear to oppose extremism while, at the same time, granting it lukewarm approval. They’re being transparent, and it’s a ridiculous game. Personally I’m tired of it.

    If someone really wanted to condemn the violence, they’d condemn it … and stop right at that point, without offering any other excuses or caveats.

  • Re: “I’ll tell you who is under siege. Muslims themselves. They are victims of relentless bullying by Imams and Ayatollahs who refuse to let Muslims think for themselves and get out of this primitive mind trap of religion and escape into a modern world.”

    I used to think Christians were unique in the extent they love to play the “persecution” card. But I was wrong. Muslims play that card a lot, too. I really think the two faiths share a rather paranoid psychopathology. The real irony, of course, is how closely militant Christians and militant Muslims resemble one another, even though they consider themselves polar opposites.

  • @Psi,

    “Muslims are not a “race.”

    So true.
    Ideas do not have rights. People have rights.
    Unfortunately, it is hard to explain this.
    It requires demonstrations:

    My brother said, “I believe Bigfoot is a God
    and he has magic powers over California.”
    “That is ridiculous idea,” I said.
    “You RACIST!”, shouted my brother.

    Religion is like a skin cancer. Easy to cure if caught early.

  • Frank

    The Muslims who are responsible for this attack are superstitious savages.

    Just trying once again to justify violence by criminals.

  • Islam (Muslims) is aggressively attacking anyone who opposes their idea of “religion”. This is not new. It has been the case since its inception. What is different today is that every time Muslims carry out their attacks on non muslims they have their own people in the press and on the inside telling everyone that it does not represent Islam or most Muslims. Really? How long are people going to buy this lie?????????????????? The Koran teaches: “kill the infidel where you find him”. and who is the infidel? that would be any non Muslim. Lets speak clearly on this matter and not dance around the truth. Muslims just like anyone else need to turn from their sin and rebellion and receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord to receive God’s forgiveness of sins. Then they like all of us will know God’s peace and joy and promise of eternal life. God Bless

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  • Jack

    What a lame and incompetent attempt to sever any link between the perpetrators of these murders and their connection to Islam.

  • Brian Pellot

    “It did not matter if the images were going after Muslims, blacks or Jews; it was always about reinforcing racial and religious hierarchies.”

    -Charlie Hebdo has always been about satire. “Reinforcing religious hierarchies” is far from its raison d’etre. Yes, it uses racist depictions, but given the nature of satire, I don’t think you can say the intention of doing so has always been about “reinforcing racial hierarchies” – satire is not clear cut like that.

    “We now understand that the attackers were nonreligious thugs, who became thugs using the name of religion.”

    How do we know they were “nonreligious?” I haven’t heard them say as much.

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  • Earold D Gunter

    “Ostensibly, the horrific attack against Charlie Hebdo in Paris was because of the publication’s satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad.”
    No, the attack was because these murders based their reality in faith based belief. To blame the attack on anything the victims did, is to justify the reason for the attack and that is immoral.

    “But to view the assault as simply about images of Muhammad is to accept a long-standing narrative about Muslim sensitivity to portrayals of Muhammad, which plays into conceptions of Muslims as superstitious savages.”
    200 People world wide were killed over the Danish cartoon of mohammed, and in cities across the world streets were filled with protesters. Denial of reality doesn’t make it fact. Also, not all faith believers are savages, but they are all superstitious.

    “Just as important, arguing that this attack is about free speech misses what may be the attackers’ true motivation, which is to wreak havoc and destruction.”
    Perhaps you missed the news about what one of these animals shouted as they murdered these humans. Each murderer individually had there own motivations,and with what is known now it is not possible to know each one’s motivation “true” motivation. However, the evidence looks more likely at least for the one who was revenging mohammed what his motivation was.

    This is all of my time I’m willing to spend on commenting on your article. So far your words do nothing but attempt to justify these acts. If that is representative of how muslims with the ability to have public voice communicate, do not be surprised by the reaction of non-muslims.

    It would be better for muslim PR if you wholeheartedly lead the way in condemnation of these kinds of actions, and explained that these murderers do not represent your beliefs. What you write does neither.

  • Earold D Gunter

    Frank, That description fits all faith based believers who commit violence in the name of their beliefs.
    Also, superstitious fits ALL faith based believers.

    “Just trying once again to justify violence by criminals.”
    Although it freaks me out that you finally said something sensible, I agree. 😉

  • At the same time, the material was racist. It did not matter if the images were going after Muslims, blacks or Jews; it was always about reinforcing racial and religious hierarchies.

    Nice try. The black population in France is minimal, the influence of the Catholic Church in France is minimal, and the influence of the Huguenot organizations is less than minimal. The only ‘hierarchs’ are the high priests of laicite.

    By all appearances, the editors, staff, and contributors of Charlie Hebdo made for a collecting pool of elderly adolescents engaging in an activity that gets old very quickly. That noted, even vulgarians should get to die in bed.

    Political cartooning is not a particularly insightful or worthwhile endeavour, and its disappearance in the United States due to commercial pressures is a small loss (Ted Rall, I’m looking at you).

  • Frank

    Yes that’s true. Killing in the name of religion is an anathema.

    We may have some profound disagreements but that doesn’t mean we don’t agree about anything.

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  • Allie

    Very well said! Thank you!

  • The Great God Pan

    Couldn’t Professor Rashid have been bothered to present actual arguments for either of his points? This is lazy even by current post-Slatepitch standards of contrarian clickbait. You’re supposed to at least pretend to believe what you’re saying.

    The professor first asserts that the shootings were “not about images” of Muhammad, his only evidence for this surprising claim being that some Muslim traditions don’t prohibit images of the prophet. That’s fine, but obviously others do prohibit it. We know this because their followers tell us so, loudly and often threateningly. Remember the teacher in Sudan who was nearly sentenced to 40 lashes for allowing her students to name a teddy bear “Muhammad?” The argument was that once the bear was named “Muhammad,” it became a depiction of the prophet. Yet by Professor Rashid’s logic, that incident had nothing to do with images of Muhammad. Most curious.

    His second point, that the shootings were not an attack on freedom of speech, is so clearly a flight of fancy that he doesn’t bother to offer even a flimsy argument, instead leaping sideways to the non sequiturial assertion that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were “racist” and “bullying.” Granting for the sake of argument that these descriptions are accurate, they don’t change anything. The only way these murders were not attacks on free speech is if they had nothing to do with what Charlie Hebdo published, which does not seem at all likely. Shooting someone for publishing a racist or bullying cartoon is still shooting someone for publishing a cartoon, no?

    On the bright side, if Professor Rashid applies the same standards to his students’ work that he applies to his own then I suspect his classes are “easy As.” Hofstra students, take note!

    “If a group of three atheists shot 12 people over editorial cartoons mocking atheism, the ‘social justice’ crowd and ‘progressive’ pundits would not be larding up their condemnations with healthy dollops of hand-waving and equivocation, nor would they be worried about any violent backlash toward atheists.” Respond.

    OPTION 2:
    Within the confines of ‘social justice’ rhetoric, does storming a workplace and shooting unarmed targets constitute ‘punching up’ or ‘punching down?’

  • The Great God Pan

    Sorry, that was meant to be a general comment rather than a response to Brian.

  • Rob_S

    “We now understand that the attackers were nonreligious thugs, who became thugs using the name of religion.”

    Perhaps. We do not know how devout they are — news sources have witness who say they heard the gunmen shouting “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great).

    It’s possible, but for the nonreligious to take the time to yell religious things in the middle of a mass execution terrorist attack does not seem as likely.

  • Backbeat1

    The article has merit. Truth is that the muslim community in France does feel disenfranchised, and the attacks play into that. Also, all the credible research I’ve seen demonstrates that the majority of that community, in fact, do NOT support Sharia law in France – see the PEW studies.

    Furthermore, Islam is not alone in it’s violence laden verse… let’s see here:

    “This is what the Lord Almighty says… ‘Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (1 Samuel 15:3)
    “Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” (Psalm 137:9)
    “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter 2:18)
    “Whoever utters the name of the Lord must be put to death. The whole community must stone him, whether alien or native. If he utters the name, he must be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:16)

    It’s too easy for you and others to label someone as an apologist when they are simply digging deeper into the confluence of factors at play.

  • Ian Colte

    I for one am not Charlie Hebdo. And while we should be relieved that this particular incident is over, I don’t think the media’s portrayal of this as an attack on “free speech” is necessarily thorough or honest. France is a society, more so than any other in Europe, where the secular aggressively and incessantly mocks people of faith. Charlie Hebdo does not simply challenge “the powers-that-be” – an important role that Western values champion. It is also a platform that the radical left routinely uses to obscenely mock the sacred images and beliefs that other people hold dear. And before we pat ourselves on the back for having thicker skins than Muslims, remember also that this supposedly tolerant, liberal, French society has essentially ghettoized and alienated it’s large population of Muslim immigrants (remember the riots 10 years ago – things are not any better now). Its all well and good to defend free speech. But in addition to the staff at Charlie Hebdo, 4 completely innocent people in a grocery store were killed as part of this explosion of violence too. And that had nothing to do with free speech. That was pure hatred and frustration. It would be wise to humbly consider how we should we respond to that. I submit it should not be by claiming solidarity with those who intentionally incite anger. Respect and compassion go a long way to repairing anger and hatred.

  • Ming Qua

    As Weinberg said, without religion, good people will do good, and bad people will do bad, but it takes religion to make good people do bad things.

  • One person speaks with a cartoon.

    The other speaks with a gun on the table – and by killing cartoonists because he claims nobody has the right to offend him!

    The ONLY issue here is freedom of speech vs. barbarians
    who don’t know what Freedom means.

    Don’t like the cartoons? THEN TURN AWAY FROM THEM.

    Don’t bother me with your pleas for ‘respect’ or ‘compassion’
    until after freedom of speech is restored
    and these religious nuts learn how to have more RESPECT and COMPASSION for humans.

    Religion deserves no respect – it is all pathetic garbage for ridicule – but claiming that one is so superior he must kill an artist who drew an offensive picture is worse than worthless. It is depravity! For shame!

    For Peace, Culture and the Separation of Church and State

  • samuel Johnston

    Hi Lan,
    “France is a society, more so than any other in Europe, where the secular aggressively and incessantly mocks people of faith. ”
    Christian beliefs assert that humans are not capable of goodness, but are of necessity corrupt, and therefore deserve to be punished (in hell) unless they repent and accept bla, bla, bla. Have you ever ever thought about the contempt that your “faith” has for others? Mocking is the least of your problems.

  • Terry Firma

    Religion is delusion. In our time, Islam is a particularly vexing and dangerous one.

    “Muslims do cherish Muhammad, and are hurt by those who ridicule him.”

    Hurt? You want to talk about being HURT BY A PICTURE in a week that your brethren in Paris murdered 17 innocent people over those same drawings?

    Bullets hurt a lot more than freakin’ cartoons. And for the families, that pain will be life-long.

    With your offensive piffle about being “hurt,” you dishonor the victims and their families.

    Muslims are infamous for demanding respect without wishing to give it. Your unpleasant diatribe is but the latest example.

  • The Great God Pan

    Shorter Ian Colte:

    “Frustrated Muslims killed four people in a Jewish grocery store. I blame the staff of Charlie Hebdo and French secularism in general for forcing their hand. We must respond by claiming solidarity with those who did the shooting.”

  • R Cavanaugh

    “Superstitious savages”? If the shoe fits… Others above have commented on Rashid’s lack of logic, so I’ll simply second their comments. But “reinforcing hierarchies”? Are you kidding? Weren’t they doing their best to tear down hierarchies by mocking them? (And not just Muslim hierarchies, ALL hierarchies.) Does Rashid REALLY not get that? And to argue that if SOME Muslims allow depictions of Muhammad, then…I’m not sure. Is he saying that the Muslims who don’t want Muhammad portrayed are not real Muslims? That they’re misguided somehow? That–the common thread of these apologists–somehow ALL of these terrorist attacks are not by “real” Muslims? Because we all know that Islam is a “peaceful religion.” Unless you read the Qur’an, sira, and hadith. Then it’s a blood bath. I have a challenge for Rashid: Go live in Saudi Arabia for five years (as I have) and continue to write your various blogs and columns. If you make it through a full month without ending up in jail or beaten, it will be a real miracle. Rashid should be on his knees thanking Allah that he lives in a country that allows him to publish whatever rubbish he wants without fear.

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  • Fran

    There is no place of fiery torment forever for wicked ones after death, which is also unfortunately taught by many false religions as being truth.

    There is only the common grave where the dead (both good and bad persons) are not conscious of anything (Ecclesiastes 9:5,10), asleep in death. God and his qualities of love, justice and righteousness are so misrepresented these days!

  • Fran

    False religion deserves no respect but yet expects it. What you reap you will sow; and false religion, including extremists and terrorists such as these, will meet their fate from God (death; not eternal torment) for their utter lies and misrepresentation of hIm.

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  • Who is God?

  • Leah


  • Jack

    Ted Rall….yeah, I remember him….a vicious, angry man with a wretched, shriveled view of reality. His cartoons revealed more about himself than the people he was attacking.

    You’re right on all counts about the massacre — those who died never grew up yet obviously did not deserve to be killed.

    The massive rally in Paris was encouraging — symbolic but still encouraging.

  • Jack

    The bottom line, though, is that violent adherents to the radical Islamist ideology behind the attack does not distinguish between killing people who sketch vile cartoons and other people who are simply buying groceries in a Paris store or working on a trust-and-estates matter in a downtown New York City office.

    In other words, we would have radical Islamism as our enemy even if no cartoonist on the planet acted like an adolescent. It must be crushed either way.

  • D. R. Greg

    You are right. Tiller was a man who murdered hundreds, maybe thousands, of “trying to be born” infants, sometimes up to the ninth month of pregnancy. Then he smugly held mock funerals for the dead infants. Certainly, when a monster like that is killed, there is a certain part of me that is glad he is gone. Most of the world celebrated when Hitler was killed, and Saddam Hussein too. I suppose a good Christian is not supposed to be happy when any other human dies, but Christians are not saints. Tiller was not a normal man. He was a cold-blooded mass murderer. And if the law protected the rights of all human beings, then people might not be so happy when a man like Tiller is taken out by a vigilante.

  • Fran


    The only true God is Jehovah, (Psalm 83:18), Almighty God, who is our Creator and Heavenly Father.

    He is also the Father of Jesus, his son, who was Jehovah’s first direct creation (Colossians 1:15) and through whom all other things and persons were created (Colossians 1:16).

    All others who claim to be Almighty God, such as Allah and others, are false gods.

    They will be proven to be false by Jehovah at the end of this wicked era, when God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44) comes (Matthew 6:10) and starts its millenial rule over mankind on earth.

  • WTG

    During my college years, a fellow student of mine was an Iranian Shiite Muslim.

    One day he showed me a golden religious medal which he wore that had an engraving of Muhammad on one side and Ali on the back. Both depictions had men with full faces, beards, turbans, and robes. I was told that this medal was made in Iran and is worn by many muslims from that country. The medal did look like it was made from a die was was mass produced.

    Since then I have seen that medal around, here and there, from time to time.
    You probably have seen it yourself, Professor.

    Maybe Professor can tell me why such a medal is produced in a muslim country and worn by muslims if any type of physical depiction of Muhammad (and/or Ali, Hussein, etc.) is forbidden in the Moslem religion.

    I have read about differences between the Sunni and Shia, but wouldn’t this be a article that both of them should agree on since it is important to the Moslem religion not to have physical depiction of its prophets?

    So Professor Hussein Rashid, if you are still around after this article has been written, I would like to hear what you would have to say on this subject.

    All the Best!

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  • Fran,

    “All others who claim to be Almighty God, such as Allah and others, are false gods.”

    You have no evidence for this claim at all.
    The whole ball of wax is in your mind.

  • Re: “Tiller was a man who murdered hundreds, maybe thousands, of ‘trying to be born’ infants, sometimes up to the ninth month of pregnancy.”

    I can see you’re one of those Christians who’d like to have pulled the trigger on Tiller, and I give you credit for expressing your fierce, unrelenting hatred honestly.

    But with that said, calling what Tiller did “murder” does not, in fact, actually make it murder. He performed legal medical procedures. That you personally disapprove of them, does not make them illegal. Your subjective wishes are not law, even if you’d like it to have been so.

    Thanks for demonstrating conclusively by your words above, that you are, as it turns out, far more of a “monster” than the man you’ve labeled such. It takes courage to reveal yourself as such; I must tip my hat to you for having exposed your own evil wishes.

    And thanks for living down to all my expectations of devout Christianists. Well done! You must be so proud, I’m sure. Keep up the good work!

  • Spiritoftruth

    Charlie Hedbo was a abomination their works the works of the serpent, Satan was in full support of it as it was a medium to mock, insult and violently in word and image attack the very souls of humanity. It has a effect on a person more than they realise just in seeing it. It is Antichrist work inspired by that ever prowling spirit, it is nothing to do with free speech but everything to do with rebellion against law of morality. It is not good and should not be seen as good it is evil and those involved with it are evil also. They have attacked and mocked so many people including the Saviour Jesus Christ, they surely will reap as sowed. I tell you those souls whom died are now in hades suffering for their evil works on earth for God does not abide in such wickedness, nor will they receive forgiveness until the time of judgement. Any whom supports their works shall take part in the consequence of their works as it is determined by eternal law.

  • frenchy

    The ‘journalists’ (?) of CharlieHebdo surely do not rest in peace , and i hated the flood of predictable politically/religiously correctness than came in the following days. You are right SpiritofTruth, they have mocked Jesus-Christ more often than not, in fact dozens of times more than Muhammad. Were lives threatened by angry french christians, of course never. That tells quite a bit about what Islam can produce.

  • Timothy Paul

    “And the ten horns that you saw and the wild beast, these will hate the prostitute and will make her devastated and naked, and they will eat up her flesh and completely burn her with fire. For God put it into their hearts to carry out his thought, yes, to carry out their one thought by giving their kingdom to the wild beast, until the words of God will have been accomplished.” -Rev. 17:16, 17

  • @Spiritof truth

    “Charlie Hedbo was a abomination…”

    They spoke truth to power. You just want to surrender to religious gas bags. Fine. Surrender for yourself – but don’t call it piety when you do.

  • Fran,

    “And the dead ZOMBIES popped up out of their graves and walked around in Jerusalem visiting with everyone….” (Matthew 27:52)

    Only when people actually read the entire Bible
    Will they realize they have been sold a bunch of bunk.

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  • Lamont Cranston

    Appalling, disgraceful and contemptible. You, sir, are an offense against civilization. Please move to a ignorant third world Islamic republic where your personal barbarism will blend in with the superstitious nonsense used by thugs to control the gullible. Your living in a civilized country is offensive.

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  • Jack shmoe

    “Slay the infidels wherever you find them” ?
    Where did you find that gem? From a Danish translation of the Quran?
    There is no such thing that even slightly resembles what you wrote included anywhere in the Quran. In the actual translation of the segment you wrote, it says: “Those who argue you with your own book should be ignored. Let them speak as if they know what they say.”

    Try learning the thing you want to talk about, before you spread a blatant lie.

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