Manasseh Azure Awuni | Email address: [email protected]
I abhor any act of terrorism and extremism. Killing journalists no matter how provocative their publication is, and irrespective of how derogatory it is to your religion, defeats the very purpose of that religion. I don’t think the Prophet Mohammed (a messenger of peace as the Holy Quran tells us) would be proud of the bloody murder of journalists at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in France and other innocent people last week. If the God we serve were so cruel to kill us when we wrong Him, I don’t think we would still be alive to worship Him. In fact, any religion that sanctions murders is not a religion worth following. Thankfully, not all Muslims sanction such acts of terrorism and extremism. Some notable Islamic leaders have condemned the killings and such terrorist acts.
However, there cannot be a fair assessment of the Paris tragedy if we look only at the terrorists without looking at those who carelessness fueled their activities. Our elders say if you unjustifiably provoke someone with pebbles, then you are invariably asking for rocks in return. There may not be a French version of this proverb, but common sense should guide every journalist who has access to the microphone, internet or printing press. Unfortunately, the foolhardiness of the Charlie Hebdo folks clouded their senses of reasoning in that regard. As a result, extreme believers in freedom of speech clashed with extreme believers of a religion. The result? Bloody!
Over 40 world leaders went to Paris to march against the murderous acts of terrorism. Among these heads of state were some leaders from Africa. Within the same period, the Nigerian terror group, Boko Haram, had murdered close to 2000 innocent people. Yet these stooges of African leaders spent money and traveled with delegations to France to mourn journalists who died stupid deaths and invited misery upon innocent police officers and shoppers. Ghana’s President John Mahama, the Chairman of ECOWAS, condemned the killing of 17 people in France but I am yet to hear him on the killings in Nigeria, which is in the sub-region he chairs.
Inasmuch as we condemn the Charlie Hebdo killers, let us be bold to condemn the journalists who incited the unfortunate incident. Many have joined the fray, saying the attacks are an assault on freedom of speech. How wrong they are! There can’t be any worse form of attack on freedom of speech than irresponsible application of the freedom.
In September 2012, France closed its embassies, consulates, cultural centers, and schools in twenty countries. This was because Charlie Hebdo had published cartoons satirizing two very different films: “The Intouchables,” and “Innocence of Muslims”. In an article published in the New Yorker on September 28, 2012, the paper’s staff writer Emily Greenhouse wrote:
“The cover of the Charlie Hebdo issue in question is a crude depiction of an Orthodox Jewish man pushing a Muslim man in a wheelchair: “The Intouchables 2,” it reads. (The actual “Intouchables” is a cloying tale of a rich white man who, paralyzed in a paragliding accident, hires a poor black man to care for him. Guess who gets his joie de vivre back). When you turn the pages, you see ungainly caricatures, presented more or less as advertisements for a film—only tenuously connected with the front cover’s spoof—sure to “set the Muslim world ablaze.” Muhammad, labelled as such, is shown naked and bending over, begging to be admired. Then the Prophet is crouched on all fours, with genitals bared. “A Star is Born!” the caption reads—a reference to the attention given ‘Innocence of Muslims.”
The film and the cartoons provoked violent protests across the Muslim world leading to the death of about 50 people, including J. Christopher Stevens, America’s Ambassador to Libya. Eight South Africans were among those killed when a female suicide bomber, 22-year old Fatima, blew up a bus carrying foreign workers in Afghanistan in reaction to the film. I was on internship with The Star newspaper in South Africa so the grief was closer to “home” and I felt the pain of parents, widows and orphans of the dead.
The question I kept asking myself was: why do you mock the object of someone’s faith, knowing very well that they take serious exception to it? What do you gain? What does society gain? It is true that whatever the media publish may annoy some people, but the critical question is: what does the content of the publication seek to achieve? Does it seek to correct a societal wrong, mend broken human right record or it is meant to mock and provoke others?
If a particular practice in Islam or Christianity is detrimental to human existence, the media can criticize it even if all followers of the religion are offended and threaten deadly consequences. But if you portray Prophet Mohammed naked with derogatory remarks, what is your intention? Is that what freedom of speech means? Is freedom of speech a license to be stupid?
At the time of the killings, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stephane Charbonnier, 47, was living under police protection because he had received death threats in the past. He was killed together with the police officer. Protecting him.
“I don’t have kids, no wife, no car, no debt,” he once told France’s Le Monde newspaper when the threats came amidst continues portrayal of Prophet Mohammed in what some Muslims considered offensive. “Maybe it’s a little pompous to say, but I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”
Georges Wolinski, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonist who was also killed in the attack, said he didn’t trust any religion. He once said, “Paradise is full of idiots who believe it exists.”
Is freedom of speech absolute? If you don’t trust any religion and you don’t believe in paradise, it is your right. But don’t you think those who believe in it also have the right to do so? And is this what the whole world wants us to call attack on free speech or risk being called names?
The most striking contradiction about Charlie Hebdo, which exposes their hypocrisy, was when they fired their cartoonist, Maurice Sinet, in 2009. Maurice Sinet was subsequently charged for anti-Semitism for suggesting Jean Sarkozy, the son of the French president, was converting to Judaism for financial reasons. The Jewish community in France found his comments distasteful and he was accused of “inciting racial hatred” against the Jews.
Charlie Hebdo editor asked Maurice Sinet to apologise to the Jews to which he replied, “I’d rather cut my balls off.” He was fired from Charlie Hebdo for his refusal to apologize. So why would this magazine dare not offend the Jews but does not care about the feelings of Muslims? Why would they fire a journalist for a less offensive comment about the Jews, but defend what the Muslim world considers offensive and threaten to do it over and over again?
There are currently calls for the BBC’s Tim Willcox to resign because of a question he asked and which is considered by some as offensive to the Jews. During a live report from the streets of Paris, Willcox was speaking to a number of participants in the march, including one woman who expressed her fears that Jews were being persecuted, and ‘the situation is going back to the days of the 1930s in Europe.’
Tim Willcox, who was broadcasting on the BBC News channel, replied: “Many critics, though, of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well.”
The greatest threat to the world today is not terrorism. It is hypocrisy. And hypocrisy is what is fuelling terrorism and turning many moderate Muslims into beasts of death.
In one breath, we cite and condemn the role of journalists in the Rwandan genocide. We use it to show how irresponsible application of freedom of speech can be. But when it is Charlie Hebdo, we think nothing is wrong with the publication and they are going ahead to publish more of Prophet Mohammed’s cartoons. “They published what they believed it,” some say. “There’s nothing wrong with it.” Really? How would the world be if we all published what we believed in or did everything we believed in? Well, are the Muslim extremists not doing what they believe in by insisting that their religious leader should not be cartooned?
The assumption that nobody should attack the journalist over such publications does not hold for religious extremists. Generally, there is no complete rational thinking in religion. If President Mahama tells me in 2016, his government will increase power generation to 5000 megawatts, I will give him reasons why that cannot be achieved. But if my pastor tells me I will marry this year, I am tempted to believe it even though I am yet to meet my potential wife.
Jesus Christ, the object of my faith, tells me that “blessed is he who has not seen yet believes.” The Bible also tells me that with God all things are possible. This may not pass any intellectual test but I believe it. No matter one’s intellectual strength, religion defies common sense. People act mainly with their hearts, and not with their heads. Beyond the moderate and reasonable worshipers, however, are extremists. We have extremists in Christianity, Islam, Budhism, among others. They represent the extreme forms of religious irrationality. For reasons that are well known, it is Islamic extremists that are at the forefront of terrorism. If you are rational, you don’t go provoking extremists.
The stance taken by Charlie Hebdo and many such publications is not the best way to deal with terrorism of this nature. Confronting religious extremists with such brazen defiance is like wrestling with a suicide bomber. They have nothing to lose. But could France not have avoided the loss of 17 precious lives and prevented the cost these attacks brought? Could authorities there not have stopped the foolhardiness of Charlie Hebdo?
As a journalist, I know many will attack me for betraying my colleagues but circumspection is needed if such avoidable attacks can be stopped in future. It is good to be brave and fearless but sometimes, it is better and sensible to be a coward. In this regard, I will ask every journalists to answer what my managing news editor often asks in such murky situations: “What will the nation/world gain or lose if we do or don’t do that story?” If the answer is “nothing” it is better to ignore such “offensive” publications.
When I raised this debate on a WhatsApp platform, I was asked how I would feel if I was killed for exposing corruption as an investigative journalist and someone calls it stupid. My answer is simple. If someone thinks fighting the corruption sinking my country is the same as mocking someone’s object of faith, then they are right to call my death stupid. The fact that I am a journalist does not mean I should defend every action of journalists.
Martin Luther King Jr. stood for a cause. Many Americans at the time hated him with passion. But some white extremist went beyond hatred and killed him. He stood for a worthy cause and died for it. Today, the likes of President Obama are beneficiaries of that cause. But can the same be said of the cause the Charlie Hebdo journalists stood for?
Many have joined the fray and social media is awash with the hush tag #I am Charlie. I want to say that though I am a journalist, I hold a different view on this. I condemn the attacks, yes! But I also condemn the senseless provocative publications by Charlie Hebdo. I am not Charlie. As far as I am concerned, they died for a worthless cause, and though I sympathize with their families, I will always remember them as martyrs of stupidity.
The writer, Manasseh Azure Awuni, is a Senior Broadcast Journalist with Joy 99.7 FM. His email address is [email protected]