Op-Ed: Charlie Hebdo – the untold irony

Following the incidents in Paris this month, I feel compelled to write an editorial in an uncharacteristically serious tone. This is partly due to running an independent satirical news website, and partly due to questions from friends and colleagues as to my opinion on the Charlie Hebdo attacks and their ramifications.

It is impossible for me to clearly express those views in a short statement, as many politicians and commentators seem worryingly capable of doing. Which is why I have decided to write this op-ed.

As any reader of The Rough Times will know, we love to highlight hypocrisy wherever we see it. However, we also recognise that we all have the tendency to by hypocritical at times. By examining our own hypocrisy we are better able to address our own beliefs and discover where we are inconsistent or unfair. The aim of The Rough Times has always been to highlight inconsistencies and lack of fairness in those wielding power and, in doing so, attempt to hold these people to account.

This, in our view, where satire is most useful. Through comedy we can highlight and illustrate why particular rhetoric by an individual or group is unfair, unfounded and/or inconsistent. This may include, but not be limited to, politicians, religious leaders and groups, celebrities, scientists, and, indeed, any individual or group with an opinion.

Western hypocrisy

As many commentators have been quick to point out, the Unity Rally in Paris ‘led’ by political leaders was a clear demonstration of hypocrisy and Western exceptionism. Apparently we are all Charlie Hebdo because we believe in freedom of speech, yet even in the UK freedom of speech is being curtailed by political leaders on both sides of the bench. The rule seems to be: “Freedom of speech is sacred, but exemptions apply if you criticise us.”

Comedian Frankie Boyle summed it up best in a tweet which read:

“Glad everyone’s celebrating free speech in Trafalgar Square, and not in Parliament Square where they’d be arrested.”

Frankie Boyle

Similarly, the irony of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu pushing to the front line after Israel killed at least 13 journalists during offensive operations in Gaza last year was not lost on many. Nearby was the President of the Palestinian Authority, who has reportedly arrested a number of people who criticised him on Facebook. And just metres away was King Abdullah II and Queen Rania of Jordan, where protestors were reportedly arrested for chanting criticisms of the King.

In fact, it is pretty clear looking at any of the political leaders that none are above the label of ‘hypocrite’. It is also amusing, though perhaps not particularly relevant, to notice that this aspect of the unity rally was little more than a stage photo op: There is no one actually marching behind these leaders.

But that is not to take away from the solidarity and unity we all feel when our own are attacked for beliefs we take to be a foundation of our society. We are all still Charlie.

…or are we?

With great power…

Arguably, the right to free speech is one of the greatest powers we have. With it we can make our own thoughts and feelings known, openly criticise whomever we like, challenge orthodoxies and ideologies, and respond to that criticism, all without fear of reprisal.

This is perhaps why the attack on Charlie Hebdo has struck such a nerve in the Western world: it is an unforeseen and, in our view at least, inexcusable attack on a fundamental value.

But I would argue that, and excuse the Spiderman quote here, with great power comes great responsibility. It would be completely irresponsible for us to go around indulging in hate speech simply to exercise our freedom of expression. It would be incredibly distasteful for us to mock the victims of atrocity. And, as the Pope rather crudely pointed out this week, most of us would feel violently offended if someone began criticising our deeply held beliefs.

It should not need saying, but this is not an excuse or justification for murder. End of.

At the same time, for those of us with a platform to have our speech or expression recognised by a wider audience, it is beholden upon us to use that power with intelligence, compassion, understanding, and creativity. To crassly use images of any religious, political or other figure in a way that seeks to deliberately offend needs a damn good justification. Otherwise it is, in my opinion, hate speech.

Muslim offense

People that stopped reading before this point may think that I am an apologist for Islamic extremism. An unfortunate result of much of the discourse around the massacre, is that it becomes categorised as either apologising for extremism or condemning Islam. Yet we should be capable of condemning murder while also having debate about the issues it pushes into the spotlight.

When discussing the massacre, the first thing to note is, as many people have highlighted, the Charlie Hebdo attackers have about as much to do with the majority Muslims as Joseph Kony has with the majority Christians. They were two deranged individuals who convinced themselves that their interpretation of their religion demanded that they “seek revenge on behalf of the Prophet”.

The second thing to note is the massive contradiction of the subsequent protests in Islamic countries. Muslims in these countries did not protest when the offensive cartoons of Mohammed were printed. They protested when the recent Charlie Hebdo cover was published – the one showing the Prophet as being a compassionate, forgiving person, saddened at the brutal murder of people in Paris.

They claim it is blasphemy to create any picture of the prophet. Yet, this assertion is not supported by the Qur’an. At no point in the Qur’an does it forbid the drawing of Mohammed. It suggests that attempting to depict Allah would not capture his full essence and beauty, and thus should not be done.

Chapter 42, verse 11 of the Qur’an: “[Allah is] the originator of the heavens and the earth… [there is] nothing like a likeness of Him.”

This has been viewed by some scholars as an attempt to rid Islam of idolatry.

For example, chapter 21, verses 52-54 of the Qur’an read: “[Abraham] said to his father and his people: ‘What are these images to whose worship you cleave?’ They said: ‘We found our fathers worshipping them.’ He said: ‘Certainly you have been, you and your fathers, in manifest error.'”

So the idea that Muslims place the prophet on the same level as Allah is actually painfully ironic.

However, many Muslims are Sunni Muslims who regard six authorized collections of hadiths as the highest written authority in Islam after the Qur’an. So what do the hadiths say on the matter?

There are many passages within the hadiths that refer to the prophet explaining to people that drawings of any human or animal was against the wishes of Allah and that, on judgement day, people who did draw any human or animal would be asked to breathe life into their creation, and when they couldn’t they would be punished.

For example, Sahih Muslim vol.3 no.5268 (p.1160) says, “Ibn ‘Umar reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) having said: Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created.2519″

Notice that the prohibition was not just against idolators who made pictures, or even Muslims who made pictures for other reasons, but for anyone who made pictures.

Sahih Muslim vol.3 no.5271 (p.1161) gives a little more detail: “This hadith has been reported on the authority of Abu Mu’awiya though another chain of transmitters (and the words are): ‘Verily the most grievously tormented people amongst the denizens [inhabitants] of Hell on the Day of Resurrection would be the painters of picture.”

“Narrated ‘Aisha: Allah’s Apostle said, ‘The painter of these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection, and it will be said to them, Make alive what you have created.’”

Bukhari vol.9 book 93 no.646 p.487. no.647 p.487 is the same except it is narrated by Ibn ‘Umar.

So, the irony is compounded when you consider those Muslims who post on Facebook, or appear on television, to decry the depiction of Mohammed. They are breaking the very law that they are arguing to be enforced.

Furthermore, the prophet at no point suggested that anyone but Allah has the power to judge people who draw picture of humans or animals. So to take that power into their own hands is, in itself, an act of blasphemy. Why is it that they think they are better placed than Allah to make that judgement?


Overall, the Charlie Hebdo massacre was a great tragedy that has gone on to shine a light on misunderstandings and hypocrisies. I am glad that many of these misunderstandings and hypocrisies are coming to light in the media, yet so often they are approached with divisive rhetoric and finger pointing.

To truly move the debate forwards we need language of compassion, of understanding, to understand the true causes of anger and judgement. For those in Islamic nations this means understanding that free expression is our way of holding people with power to account. In the West, we need to understand that we implicitly support the oppressive regimes in the Middle-East and elsewhere that contribute to anti-Western sentiment, and perhaps, just perhaps, that oppression is why some Muslims become so radicalised.

In the end, we all want the same thing: to live, love and die free.

So let’s focus on what brings us together, not what pulls us apart. Otherwise we risk walking blindly into another anti-Semitic*, racist, xenophobic Europe, capable of the most monstrous of atrocities.


*The word “Semite” may be used to refer to any member of any of a number of peoples of ancient Middle East including the Akkadians, Assyrians, Arameans, Phoenicians, Hebrews (Jews), Arabs, and their descendants. (source: Encyclopaedia Britannica)

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