A terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday has raised issues about freedom of the press and how much the media should or should not censor itself — a debate that the magazine itself has been raising for years, with covers and cartoons lampooning religious figures, including the Prophet Mohammed.
Charlie Hebdo's satirical, provocative cartoons often made the point that laughing at extremism was not just an exercise in free speech but a defense of it — a way to minimize the power of extremists to silence or intimidate. What the magazine's critics get wrong is that this was not attempt to insult Islam or Muslims, but rather to maintain the balance between free speech and self-censorship, in part by limiting the power of extremists and in part by not allowing offense-takers to dictate standards for everyone else.
Charlie Hebdo staffer Laurent Leger told BFM-TV in 2012, "The aim is to laugh.... We want to laugh at the extremists — every extremist. They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept."
The New Yorker's Robert Mankoff, writing in 2012, perfectly summed this up with one cartoon, by the cartoonist Michael Shaw, which the New Yorker had published in 2006. "When dealing with a subject like religion or ethnicity in cartoons, it's hard to avoid offending someone somewhere sometime - I'm sure I have," Mankoff wrote, going through past New Yorker cartoons on Judaism and Christianity that had upset some. He concluded with this cartoon:
It's a point that Charlie Hebdo has been making for years.
Update: To clarify, the cartoon was actually drawn by Michael Shaw in 2006. It was just brought to wider attention by New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff in 2012.