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'Charlie Hebdo' shooting reinforces risks satirists face

In recent years, the satirical treatment of Islam has attracted a particularly virulent backlash.
Papers with the written words \"We are Charlie\" lie on the ground while people gather at a vigil in front of the French Embassy following the terrorist attack in Paris on Jan. 7, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty)
Papers with the written words \"We are Charlie\" lie on the ground while people gather at a vigil in front of the French Embassy following the terrorist attack in Paris on Jan. 7, 2015 in Berlin, Germany.

Satire has held a key role in civil discourse for centuries -- and likewise has been targeted with reprisal (think North Korea and "The Interview"). But in recent years, the satirical treatment of Islam has attracted a particularly virulent backlash.

Wednesday's deadly shooting inside the offices of a French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo -- perhaps the deadliest reprisal against satire in modern history -- reinforced the risks artists and writers face when taunting aspects of the Muslim faith.

It's no surprise Charlie Hebdo was a target: The magazine has a long history of controversial cartoons that target Islam. But the magazine has managed to lampoon other major religious faiths as well. Just last month, the cover featured a cartoon of the Virgin Mary, spread eagle, birthing Jesus. In 2011, a caricature of Muhammad, the holiest prophet of the Muslim faith, appeared on the magazine cover and the issue was renamed "Charia Hebdo," a play on Muslim Sharia law. Muhammad was also listed as a guest editor and featured in a cartoon promising “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!”

The magazine's offices were firebombed after the cover appeared, but the editorial team was undeterred. The next week’s cover featured a magazine cartoonist kissing a bearded Muslim man, with the caption reading "love is stronger than hatred."

Why does satire, particularly in the form of cartooning, provoke such a strong reaction? “Cartoons are very close to people, they tell them the reality,” prominent Arab cartoonist Khalid Albaih told msnbc. “A kid can understand it, an intellectual can understand it. For the people in power to be ridiculed in a joke that even a kid can understand, that really hits home for them.” Albaih, who said he publishes exclusively online to avoid censorship, said that “cartoonists fight everything – not only religious extremists.” But, he added, farcical depictions of Muhammad, which are generally considered blasphemous, hit a particularly raw nerve.

Salman Rushdie, whose 1989 novel "The Satanic Verses" made him the target of a fatwa from Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and forced him underground for a decade, issued a statement Wednesday offering support for Charlie Hebdo and standing up for satire. “[R]eligious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today," he wrote. "I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. He added, “Respect for religion' has become a code phrase meaning 'fear of religion.' Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect."

The Paris attack is just the latest in a slew of angry reprisals and threats in recent years. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of Muhammad in 2006, prompting international protests, flag burning, and bounties on the cartoonists' heads. When Denmark arrested people planning an assassination of the cartoonist who depicted Muhammad with a bomb for a turban, more than a dozen other papers published the cartoons in 2008 as a sign of solidarity, spurring even more protests. In 2010, threatened by fatwa, the animated series "South Park" was censored by Comedy Central. In 2012, a fatwa was issued in India on a satirical Bollywood film and its maker. The next year, Islamic clerics in India issued a broader fatwa against all cartoons, saying they mock Allah's creations. 

Charlie Hebdo republished the Danish newspaper’s cartoons of Muhammad, prompting criticism by then-French President Jacques Chirac. Editors pushed back, publishing a joint letter – signed by 12 writers including Rushdie -- opposing "religious totalitarianism." They wrote, “We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all."

Just a year after the 2011 firebombing, Charlie Hebdo published more cartoons of Muhammad, prompting France to temporarily close its embassies and schools in more than 20 countries amid fear of attacks. At the time, French officials said the cartoons poured "oil on the fire" of the controversy created by anti-Muslim a YouTube video entitled "The Innocence of Muslims" -- without any clear satirical roots -- that disparaged Muhammad and played a role in the attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

Some believe that satire may help strip extremists like al-Qaida of their appeal, curbing the image that attracts followers, though it's a risky strategy for the satirists themselves. In the Middle East, comedic news programs – encouraged by the government -- have begun satirizing the Islamic State, in an attempt to undercut it. A report by liberal think-tank Demos argued that “angry young men” often seek to rebel and join the extremist group because it’s “cool” or “glamorous" -- an illusion satire could help strip from the “al-Qaida brand.” 

Albaih agreed. “This might be a shock for you, but thousand of people die over here every day because they have a different opinion,” he said, pointing particularly at the Syrian Civil War. “That’s really what we’re trying to fight, that extremism and restriction of thought." 

“We know our lives are threatened, we know we’re not stable, but we have a message and we want to deliver that message in a way that our people understand,” he said of political cartoonists. "I’m really sorry to see fellow cartoonists get killed in such a savage way."