There is a reason why we call them “sacred cows.” The reference is to religious symbols and concepts revered as holy — as cows were in some cultures ancient and contemporary — and thus considered untouchable and unassailable.
Interestingly, the term is almost always used as a negative: “There are no sacred cows here.” In other words, nothing is sacrosanct or beyond criticism.
That was the spirit of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, where 12 people were shot dead on Wednesday by two brothers, Frenchmen of Algerian descent, who were caught on film just after the act, boasting that they had avenged the Prophet Mohammed for the insults that they believed the magazine made against him and Islam.
As Europe and the rest of the world follow with horror the worst terrorist attack on French soil in recent history, we are faced anew with questions about the media’s role in a troubled world. Is there a place where free speech ends and hate speech begins? In a democratic society, should it be OK to rip on religious figures that, while sacred to some, are fair game to others? Is it appropriate to publish images that cross the line into defamation by some definitions, but for others are all in a day’s work as a political cartoonist?
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For Charlie Hebdo’s editors, pushing the lines of decency was exactly the point. Similar to the cartoons featured in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten depicting the Prophet Mohammed almost a decade ago — one of them featured a memorable image of the prophet wearing a turban-as-bomb — Charlie Hebdo knew its cartoons would upset Muslims. But they published not to offend or incite, but to amuse, to question, and yes, to slaughter sacred cows.
Their cartoonists also published depictions of Jews that were only a few hairs shy of a Der Stürmer depiction, as well as images that were insulting to Catholics, gays, French politicians, and even those ugly English tourists coming across the Channel. In short, Muslims were not the only target of Charlie Hebdo’s biting, and sometimes crude, lampoons. But Islam was certainly a regular subject, and as avowed secularists, Charlie Hebdo’s editors seemed to delight in any chance to skewer a religion whose most radical fringe in ISIS has been dominating world headlines.
In a democracy, that’s their right. Although some of their images were offensive, it’s important to recognize that they never crossed the line into inciting anti-Muslim violence. In fact, one of the most insulting issues of the magazine for some Muslims was a not a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed — considered sacrilegious by some — but a 2011 edition in which “Mohammed” was listed as an editor. Afterward, the office was firebombed, but the staff members recommitted themselves to their mission.
In the wake of the massacre in Paris, responsible news editors across America and around the world have struggled over whether to publish some of Charlie Hebdo’s images to illustrate the story. Anyone who runs these cartoons runs the risk of insulting readers and viewers. Anyone who doesn’t could be said to be caving in to those sacred cows, working so hard to avoid offense that they end up hiding relevant facts and practicing self-censorship.
When I was at the at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism years ago, we spent much time debating what editors should and shouldn’t publish. Graphic images, which can help drive home the horror of war or terrorism? Pictures from a famine, even if they’ll ruin your appetite for the rest of the day? Generally, we leave out the stomach-churning photos and opt for the ones that are more artistic or show an impressionistic “slice of life” from the conflict zone rather than a harder-to-view loss of life.
Perhaps it is time we have a similar debate about what’s appropriate to publish in the world of cartoons. And when we’re done with that, we must tolerate the inappropriate. Insulting that which someone holds dear may be provocative, but it is not criminal — and not punishable by death. While we should think twice before publishing images that might insult religious sensibilities and consider the impact a picture may have, no level of ridicule can justify such a murderous act.
Ilene Prusher is a journalist and lecturer based in Jerusalem, and is the author of the novel “Baghdad Fixer.”