Al Jazeera: ‘I Am Not Charlie’

Al Jazeera is not among the throngs that believe “Je Suis Charlie.”

The Qatar-based news outlet did not fall into lockstep with other news organizations that deemed the murders of cartoonists at an anti-religion and satirical magazine in France an affront to journalism and an attack on freedom of the press.

After the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Al Jazeera English editor and executive producer Salah-Aldeen Khadr sent out a staff-wide email.

“Please accept this note in the spirit it is intended — to make our coverage the best it can be,” the London-based Khadr wrote, in the first of a series of internal emails leaked to National Review Online. “We are Al Jazeera!”

Khadr suggested Al Jazeera employees ask if the attack at Hebdo was “really an attack on’‘free speech’ and to discuss whether “I am Charlie” is in fact an “alienating slogan.” 

“Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile. Baiting extremists isn’t bravely defiant when your manner of doing so is more significant in offending millions of moderate people as well. And within a climate where violent response — however illegitimate — is a real risk, taking a goading stand on a principle virtually no one contests is worse than pointless: it’s pointlessly all about you.”

His emails have brought into the open a debate that Americans and the world must have. At issue is one prime question to those who claim “I Am Charlie”: Are you really?

Charlie Hebdo published dozens of cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed and other religions — one cover showed Christianity’s holy trinity engaged in a vile anal sexual threesome. The Jewish faithful weren’t spared, either. No one was. In fact, that was pretty much the goal of the fringe magazine: To incite anger from those with faith — any faith. 

And it did so. The mag has been condemned by French presidents (several) and religious leaders of many faiths (numerous). Editors of the magazine reveled in the hatred they could stir up (and then pointed to such angry rhetoric accusingly, saying: ‘Look, they’re as intolerant as we say!”).

The internal Al Jazeera memo brought some blow back from staffers. 

“I guess if you insult 1.5 billion people chances are one or two of them will kill you,” wrote Mohamed Vall Salem, who has worked at the English wing of the organization since 2006. “And I guess if you encourage people to go on insulting 1.5 billion people about their most sacred icons then you just want more killings because as I said in 1.5 billion there will remain some fools who don’t abide by the laws or know about free speech.”

Later, the same staffer wrote: “What Charlie Hebdo did was not free speech it was an abuse of free speech in my opinion, go back to the cartoons and have a look at them! … It’ snot [sic] about what the drawing said, it was about how they said it. I condemn those heinous killings, but I’M NOT CHARLIE.”

Now that the violent week in Paris is over, some are looking back at the emotional impact the massacre had on the French and wondering if we are all, indeed, Charlie. 

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, was bold enough to say “no.”

“Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated,” Donohue wrote. “But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.”

And he was clear about what he sees as the legacy of Charlie Hebdo.

Those who work at this newspaper have a long and disgusting record of going way beyond the mere lampooning of public figures, and this is especially true of their depictions of religious figures. For example, they have shown nuns masturbating and popes wearing condoms. They have also shown Muhammad in pornographic poses.

While some Muslims today object to any depiction of the Prophet, others do not. Moreover, visual representations of him are not proscribed by the Koran. What unites Muslims in their anger against Charlie Hebdo is the vulgar manner in which Muhammad has been portrayed. What they object to is being intentionally insulted over the course of many years. On this aspect, I am in total agreement with them.

He noted that Stephane Charbonnier, the magazine’s publisher, once said, when asked why he insults Muslims” “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.” 

“Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive. Muhammad isn’t sacred to me, either, but it would never occur to me to deliberately insult Muslims by trashing him,” Donohue wrote. “Anti-Catholic artists in this country have provoked me to hold many demonstrations, but never have I counseled violence. This, however, does not empty the issue. Madison was right when he said, ‘Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as the abuses of power.’ “

So therein lies another philosophical puzzle: Should we ridicule and demonize those of other faiths — or those of any faith at all — simply because we can? Is that demanded by pfreedom of the press? How does that advance the cause of freedom of expression? And, quite simply, what is the point? If Charlie Hebdo wanted to anger Muslims, it succeeded — but was there ever any higher purpose, any constructive goal, in doing so?

Many U.S. news organizations decided against running the controversial cartoons. CNN President Jeff Zucker said “protecting and taking care of the safety of our employees around the world is more important right now.” Others said they just don’t do that sort of thing (the Associated Press said “It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images,” but the Washington Examiner reports that policy doesn’t appear to pertain to Christians. For a price, the AP will sell you a print of “Piss Christ,” a photo of a Christian Crucifix sitting in a jar of urine.”).

On Saturday, Fox News host Neil Cavuto, a solid journalist and a real nice guy, said that the Muslim terrorists in Paris were “killing journalists for doing their jobs.” 

But the question remains: Is it really the “job” of journalists to belittle faith, to mock the faithful’s beliefs, to denigrate those the faithful deem most holy — in any religion? 



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