Charlie Hebdo

Charlie fallout * Blasphemy * Everything else: January’s Religious Freedom Recap

New year, new RFR format. Let’s start with a look at how January’s big story (Charlie Hebdo) played out internationally. We’ll then move region by region, spotlighting challenges to religious freedom and freedom of expression across the globe. If you’re all Charlied out, skip on down to the blasphemy or regional sections.

Charlie Hebdo: solidarity and censorship

Charlie HebdoCharlie Hebdo and subsequent attacks, which left 20 dead including three gunmen, reverberated far beyond Paris.

Cartoonists honored their fallen colleagues, and media groups rallied to keep Charlie alive. Some outlets published the magazine’s most controversial cartoons. Many did not. Free speech advocates and religious leaders sparred over legal and social limits to freedom of expression, civility, respect and tolerance. Everyone had an opinion (everyone but the 24 percent of American cavedwellers who somehow managed to miss the attacks entirely).

My take? Fear, intimidation, even ruthless slaughter must not stop satirists from scrutinizing, criticizing, challenging and mocking whatever they see fit. Religion, just like everything else, is fair game.

The Committee to Protect Journalist’s interactive map tracks some of the rallies, protests and censorship attempts that followed the attacks. Let’s run through the highlights and lowlights that caught my eye and flag other fallout the map missed.


  • A hypocrisy of global leaders descended on Paris, showing their “support” for freedom of expression while quashing it at home.
  • France declared “Je Suis China,” arresting 54 people for “defending or glorifying terrorism” on social media, including controversial comedian Dieudonné.
  • President Hollande announced plans to curb “hate speech” on social media networks by holding companies accountable for racist or anti-Semitic comments.
  • Muslims and Jews questioned their safety in secular France, as Prime Minister Manuel Valls described a state of “apartheid” dividing the country.
  • Charlie prevailed, printing 7 million copies of its “survivors issue” (more than 100x its usual circulation).


  • Arsonists attacked a Hamburg tabloid for reprinting Charlie cartoons.
  • PEGIDA, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, jumped on the “Je Suis Charlie” bandwagon to spout their local brand of xenophobia and racism.


  • The Paris attacks boosted support for the Nertherlands’ anti-Islamic Freedom Party and its faux-Aryan leader Geert Wilders.

United Kingdom:

  • While some stood strong, other institutions succumbed to that ultimate British fear: causing offence --
    • When a former Charlie Hebdo contributor held up a copy of the survivor’s issue during an interview about the survivor’s issue, Sky News cut her feed and apologized for nearly including newsworthy content in its reporting.
    • The Victoria & Albert Museum removed from its website a poster depicting the prophet Muhammad, citing theoretical security concerns.
    • Oxford University Press advised authors against using “pork-related words” in children’s schoolbooks to avoid offending Muslims and Jews. Bacon, sausage, pig, squeal, oink, bologna. Baloney.
  • British Prime Minister David Cameron sensibly stood up for our “right to cause offence.”
(RNS1-july29) Pope Francis addresses journalists on his flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome July 29. The pope spent 80 minutes answering questions from 21 journalists on the plane. Fpr use with RNS-POPE-FLIGHT, transmitted on July 28, 2013, Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service.

(RNS1-july29) Pope Francis addresses journalists on his flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome July 29. The pope spent 80 minutes answering questions from 21 journalists on the plane. Fpr use with RNS-POPE-FLIGHT, transmitted on July 28, 2013, Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service.





  • An anti-Charlie Hebdo rally drew 5,000 people in Lahore as organizers called on Pakistanis to boycott French products.




South Africa:

  • A sheikh told thousands of Muslims gathered to celebrate the life of the prophet Muhammad, “blasphemy and vulgarity must stop,” but “we support free speech.” So we’re cherry-picking now.


  • At least 48 churches were torched and 13 people killed in opportunistic protests loosely tied to Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons. Less violent protests swept Sudan, Somalia and former French colonies Mali, Senegal, Mauritania and Algeria.

United States:


Charlie Hebdo

November 8, 2011, cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine after the magazine's office was attacked by firebombing. The title reads, "Love is stronger than hate."

If there’s a silver lining to the Charlie massacre, it’s that activists and politicians are now challenging outdated blasphemy laws with renewed vigor. Here’s an excellent overview of the problem campaigners are trying to reform, both globally and state-by-state.


  • Secular organizations in Canada have asked the Department of Justice to abolish Section 296 of the country’s Criminal Code, which makes “blasphemous libel” punishable by up to two years in jail.




New Zealand:

  • Blasphemous libel carries a maximum one-year prison sentence in New Zealand. Secular groups say it’s time to kill the law, which hasn’t been used since 1922.


  • A 2009 law punishes “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion" with up to $30,000 in fines. Consensus is growing that the law should be ditched via referendum.

Not all blasphemy news was good news in January.


Saudi Arabia:

  • Liberal blogger Raif Badawi underwent his first (and hopefully last) round of public flogging for insulting Islam. Locals came out in droves to watch the barbaric display.
  • Badawi’s lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair had his 15-year prison sentence reinstated in full, essentially for the crime of supporting human rights.
  • Badawi’s “co-conspirator” Souad al-Shammari was released after 90 days in prison upon signing a pledge to “reduce her activities.”


Now for a few regional highlights beyond Charlie and blasphemy.

Middle East:

Saudi Arabia:


  • An Ultra-Orthodox Israeli newspaper photoshopped female world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, out of a Paris Unity March photo. To which I say:



  • 180 civil society groups called for the government to drop proposed bills aimed at protecting, by discriminating, “nation, race and religion.”
  • How to win friends: The “venerable” venom-spewing monk/“Face of Buddhist Terror” Wirathu called the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar a whore. "You can offer your arse to the kalars if you so wish but you are not selling off our Rakhine State," he said. Kalars is a derogatory word for people of South Asian descent. Classy.
  • Wirathu’s brand of hate is the kind of dangerous religious extremism President Thein Sein is worried about.




  • I’m no Bollywood buff, but religious satirical film PK looks bizarre. It’s now India’s highest-grossing film ever. Delhi’s High Court ruled that it’s not offensive to Hindu culture and religion. The fact that such a ruling was necessary says something about India.


Jewish leaders and heads of state are calling for pan-European legislation that would outlaw anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is bad. Laws banning it are worse.

United Kingdom:

  • Libby Lane became the Church of England’s first female bishop as conservative Reverend Paul Williamson trolled her consecration.


  • Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is suing Fox News for inventing supposed Muslim 'no-go' zones.




  • Tanzania finally banned witchdoctors in an attempt to cripple the market for magical albino body parts. You read that right.

United States:

So. New format. Good? Bad? Meh? Let me know. I might try something new next month depending on what wonderful (or more likely atrocious) news comes to pass. Sign up below and follow me on Twitter for the latest updates.