As someone who draws political cartoons, I wanted to show support and solidarity after the horrific attack on Charlie Hebdo. I didn’t have time to draw a real cartoon, so I grabbed a pen and scrawled a quick message in my remedial (and poorly conjugated) French: Cowards, you fear our pens, but we refuse to fear your guns.
But I thought I should draw something. This is, after all, about cartooning. My first idea was a little sketch of the Prophet Mohammed, thumbing his nose or sticking his tongue out at the extremists who killed in his name. That felt like an appropriate way to honor the spirit and courage of the slain satirists at Charlie Hebdo.
As you can see, I ultimately thought better of that, and went with a simple candle. Why?
Not because I was afraid. I won’t deny having some fear, or that fear gave me pause, but that seemed all the more reason to choose the image that incited such violence, as other brave cartoonists did; to thumb my nose at those who would try to censor me with fear and live the spirit of my message.
But then I gave some thought to what it meant to use that image. Because while the terrorist murderers in this case were apparently Muslims, it wasn’t Islam that attacked Charlie Hebdo–so why use an image intended to offend a whole religion? Roughly 23 percent of the world’s population identify as Muslim, and while not all of them regard images of the Prophet as offensive, far fewer of them–three, maybe a few more, murdered artists and satirists in Paris.
Europe’s recent rise in far-right and fascist rhetoric means the aftermath of this attack is likely to fall hardest on Muslims, and while some commentators have been careful not to point a finger at Islam, the reaction from the right follows the same tired narrative: “Muslims hate us for our freedom. Muslims want to kill us all. Opposing Islamophobia is endorsing these murders.” I don’t want to play into that us-versus-them narrative, and retaliating against extremist criminals by appropriating the symbol of an entire religion just felt wrong.
So I chose not to.
Some artists and groups have come under fire for choosing not to depict Mohammed, which for the most part strikes me as ridiculous. Free speech, after all, includes the right to choose what not to say. Doing or saying something a certain way because others insist it must be so is no more free than giving in to censorship; either way, it’s compelled speech.
That said, some of the criticism is warranted: the AP, for example, has announced that they are purging their archives of any image of the Prophet, a decision apparently made from fear and one that certainly weakens journalism. In their coverage of the attack, for instance, the AP blurred out cartoon drawings of Mohammed that appeared on past Charlie covers–meaning they did what the terrorists could not do, and censored Charlie Hebdo.
But as for me, in exercising my own free speech I chose not to attack a religion in retaliation for the act of a few men. Islam did not attack Charlie Hebdo, extremists did.