We were glad that Vox decided to publish the cartoons of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Though their portrayal of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed has offended many Muslims, they are an important part of the story and readers have a right to see them. We were also glad that we covered the cartoons critically as well as sympathetically, praising them on the grounds of free speech and satire.
The decision of American media organizations to publish or not publish the cartoons has typically been framed of one of bravery or cowardice, based on the assumption that publishing invites physical risk from some number of the 2.6 million Muslim-Americans who will take offense and perhaps action. Vox.com was praised on MSNBC for its bravery, even though this purported risk did not actually enter into our calculus, and other outlets have presented their decision to publish as a way to defy the Islamist radicals who threaten free speech.
Writers at Vox have indeed been bombarded with threats for our Charlie Hebdo coverage. But not one of those threats has come from a Muslim or in response to publishing anti-Islam cartoons. Revealingly, they have rather all come from non-Muslims furious at our articles criticizing Islamophobia.
The threats that we did and did not receive
Though we do enjoy a readership among Muslims inside and outside of the United States, some of whom have not hesitated to express displeasure or worse at our coverage of stories such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, none has seen the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as worth sending an angry email or even an annoyed tweet, much less a threat of violence.
The most common states a desire that jihadist militants will murder the offending writer: a recent email hoped that Muslims will "behead you one day" so that "we will never have to read your trash again." Some directly threaten violence themselves, or imply it with statements such as "May you rot in hell."
Others express a desire to murder all Muslims — one simply read "I agree with maher Kill them all" — also often implying the emailed journalist is themselves Muslim. One pledge to attack Vox writers begins, "Fuck you and any cunt who believes in allah."
As is often the case, the strongest threats have been reserved for women. One writer received a message arguing that someone should "put a gun up your ass" to make her understand terrorism.
Ironically, these threats are typically couched in arguments that Muslims are inherently irrational and violent. Further, threats made with the explicit intention of silencing journalists from discussing Islamophobia are positioned as necessary "defenses" of free speech against the threat of Islam. The people making the threats seem unaware that they are themselves seeking to curb the very free speech they pretend to uphold.
Receiving threats of any kind forces journalists to go through the calculation of whether it's likely that they could lead to real harm, and weigh that against the value of writing more on the subject in question. Any journalist or activist who has written or spoken publicly about a controversial subject will be familiar with the arithmetic of threats and fear. Add the value of speaking out, subtract the costs of silence. Multiply by the likelihood that the threats are empty, divide by the chance that they are not.
In our case, that arithmetic works out. The people who threaten us are crazies and there is no indication that they are representative of any greater whole or are considering doing any more than sending an email. But we are not the only outlet being targeted, and receiving dozens of threatening emails can have a real effect on journalists, even if we suspect the threats will come to nothing.
The discrepancy between assumptions and reality
More to the point, though, the discrepancy between the kinds of threats that we are supposed to have received for our Charlie Hebdo coverage and the kinds of threats we actually did receive points to larger issues.
The possibility of radical Islamist threats against American outlets has received wide attention; there are media stories, solidarity rallies, and meetings of government officials. This has included media praise specifically of Vox for our supposed bravery, though for our team at least that threat has fortunately not materialized even in the form of an angry tweet.
Meanwhile, the demonstrable and ongoing threats from anti-Muslim extremists — a well-known phenomenon among American journalists who write about Islamophobia or are themselves Muslim — has received next to no attention.
This is not to argue that the threat from Islamist extremism doesn't exist; as the attacks in Paris demonstrated, this threat is all too real, and has included the actual murders of 17 people, something far beyond the danger of mere email threats.
Still, it would be a mistake to conclude that terrorist attacks are the only form of free speech curb, or that Islamist radicals are the only threat to free speech. The effort to silence journalists who cover Islamophobia has so far not come to violence in the US and hopefully never will — though anti-Muslim attacks in France have spiked alarmingly in the past week — and their threats are a relatively mild form of free speech curb. But it is a threat to free speech nonetheless, and one that has been largely missed amid the concern of Islamist violence.
The discrepancy in what sort of coverage has attracted threats of violence matters for reasons beyond immediate constraints on journalism as well. There was a wide assumption that publishing Charlie Hebdo cartoons in the United States would produce a barrage of threats from Muslims; those threats have so far not materialized, for us at least, which perhaps speaks to the readiness with which many will assume the worst of Muslims.
Meanwhile, there has been next to no discussion of the threats of violence from Islamophobes, though in our experience those threats are rampant. That distance between the kinds of threats we are supposed to have received and the threats we actually did is a reminder of how easy it can be to misjudge our own society and its problems.