We’ll have to forgive what’s left of the staff at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo if they don’t take much comfort from the ostentatious displays of sympathy and support from their colleagues in the Western media today, and from the similarly defiant words of Western political leaders. For the hysterical reaction of mainstream Western media outlets and politicians to the publication of cartoons mocking Mohammed — first by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and then by Charlie Hebdo – set the stage for Wednesday’s atrocity.
By turning what was little more than a teacup storm on Islamist websites into a major international story when Jyllands-Posten published its Mohammed cartoons back in 2005, and by providing extensive coverage of Charlie Hebdo’s subsequent “provocations,” the media ensured that the cartoons came to the attention of a global Muslim audience.
The tone of the coverage back then, particularly in the U.S. and British media, was largely sympathetic to Muslims.
Newspapers and pundits criticized the cartoonists and publishers, and at the same time portrayed the paranoid rage of Muslim extremists as a legitimate and understandable grievance of the entire Islamic world. This incited anger among more moderate Muslims who might have otherwise been merely irritated by the cartoons, and engendered sympathy and accusations of “Islamophobia” among non-Muslim liberals and leftists.
Reporting on the 2005 Jyllands-Posten affair, the New York Times condemned what it called “callous and feeble cartoons, cooked up as a provocation by a conservative newspaper.” When the Charlie Hebdo offices were firebombed in 2011, Time’s Bruce Crumley blamed the magazine for bringing the attack upon itself.
Western politicians were equally obliging to the extremists. In 2012 in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney criticized Charlie Hebdo for publishing its latest cartoons.
A week later President Obama clearly had the magazine in mind, as well as the filmmaker responsible for Innocence of Muslims, when he made his speech to the United Nations in which he proclaimed: “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.” He also uttered the requisite platitudes about violence never being justified. Unfortunately, once you’ve acknowledged on a global stage that a group of people with a long track record of violence and mayhem has an issue about which they should justifiably be angry, you can’t expect to successfully dictate how they should seek redress.
The politicians and media lit the fuse. Then — though several European newspapers have reprinted cartoons from Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo — most of the West’s major news organizations refused to do so. They offered high-handed but paper-thin excuses about not causing needless offense. Their cowardice ensured that publications like Charlie Hebdo and Jyllands-Posten stood alone and exposed, lightning rods for Islamist violence. But many others were targeted anyway — some 200 people were killed around the world in protests after Jyllands-Posten published its cartoons in 2005.
Yesterday, much of the traditional media doubled down on its shameful behavior by again refusing to show the cartoons. Many web outlets, including The Daily Beast, Buzzfeed, and PJ Media, did publish them. One of the first newspapers spotted keeping its head below the parapet was the UK’s Telegraph — its website pixellated out a drawing of Mohammed in a photograph of a Charlie Hebdo cover. The New York Daily News followed suit. CNN ordered its staff not to show the cartoons. The major networks refrained from doing so. The Associated Press claimed its policy was to “refrain from moving deliberately provocative images,” a policy which, it was quickly pointed out, hasn’t prevented it from selling photos of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ.
Those organizations that bothered to offer an excuse fell back on the “offense” line, but it hardly needs saying that they’ve never felt compelled to extend the same courtesy to Christians or Jews.
The double standard can in part be explained by the fact that the liberals who dominate the U.S. media, and Britain’s globally influential BBC, believe that Islam is to be respected because it’s broadly the religion of brown people and victims of Western oppression, while Christianity can fairly be ridiculed because it’s the religion of white people and Western oppressors. And don’t, of course, get them started about the Jews.
But mostly, it comes down to the fact that journalists of every political hue have long been wary of provoking Muslims because they fear they’ll be murdered, while they know they have nothing to fear from Christians or Jews beyond strongly worded statements and perhaps a boycott.
Yesterday’s horrific events have borne out that calculation. While the talk now is of solidarity, it’s notable that in those self-regarding newsroom group shots that were doing the rounds last night the journalists were holding up “Je Suis Charlie” posters, but not Charlie’s cartoons. Because the next news organization to take a high-profile stand against Muslim extremism will find themselves every bit as alone and unloved as Charlie Hebdo did.