USA Today column: Why did France allow satirists to attack Mohammed?

USA Today caused a stir last night when they published a column from Anjem Choudary, whom they describe as “a radical Muslim cleric” from London specializing in shari’a law. Earlier in the day, the Financial Times attracted a raft of criticism for publishing a column that insinuated that Charlie Hebdo‘s staff brought on their massacre themselves, but Choudary doesn’t even bother with a sop to free speech, which he dismisses as a non-Islamic concept.  Instead, Choudary blames France for not protecting “the sanctity of a Prophet,” and says we should not expect anything else other than murder from Muslims when that doesn’t happen:


Muslims consider the honor of the Prophet Muhammad to be dearer to them than that of their parents or even themselves. To defend it is considered to be an obligation upon them. The strict punishment if found guilty of this crime under sharia (Islamic law) is capital punishment implementable by an Islamic State. This is because the Messenger Muhammad said, “Whoever insults a Prophet kill him.”

However, because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.

Critics slammed USA Today for publishing Choudary at all, but it might have been a public service. Critics of militant Islam had been making this same argument in the aftermath of the massacre in Paris, only to get accused of Islamophobia. It’s interesting to see one of the prominent Islamists in Europe make that same case, and to argue that “many” of his co-religionists don’t feel themselves bound to the laws of the nations in which they live. How many, of course, is up for debate, and it’s worth noting that Choudary isn’t exactly leading a throng.

We’ll come back to that in a moment. Later in the evening, Sean Hannity invited Choudary to appear on his Fox News show, where the cleric defended his post-massacre remarks. Choudary told Hannity that he wants shari’a law imposed worldwide, and Hannity stepped through the various tenets of the system, including rights for women and LGBT, which goes about as well as one would think. At the end, Hannity tells Choudary, “I still think you’re an evil SOB, but I really want people to hear you.”


Hannity asked him, “So you’re saying anything offensive about the prophet Muhammad should be illegal and it should be worldwide?”

Choudary told Hannity that in Islam, that carries capital punishment.

Hannity pressed, “But every country should adopt that, and it’s convert or die? It’s either you agree with us or we will go into your newspaper and we will slaughter you, we will put a fatwa out on you?”

Choudary reiterated that he wants Sharia Law everywhere. He said that all women should “of course” cover up in public, and that both adultery and “sodomy” should be punished by death.

It seems fairly clear that the Islamists, from Choudary on down, do not have any intention of assimilating into Western culture, and no interest in adopting Western values. Choudary seems to think this is a feature rather than a bug in Islamist thought, although millions of Muslims do live peacefully and lawfully in Western nations, so there is certainly an element of exaggeration (and self-importance) in Choudary’s claims. The attack on freedom of speech and expression is evident, in the massacre yesterday and in other such events over the last few years, and I argue in my column today for The Fiscal Times that the West had better start paying attention to those threats, whether they are internal or external:

The deaths caused an outpouring of condemnations for the attacks – and oddly, a few for the victims. Columnist Tony Barber wrote in the Financial Times that Charlie Hebdo had “a long record of mocking, baiting, and needling French Muslims.” Barber scolded that “editorial foolishness [had] prevailed … Common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.” (The magazine’s editors took a much different view.)

The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue declared himself aligned with Muslims angered over being intentionally insulted by the magazine while helpfully prefacing his remarks by opposing murder over personal insults. “Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter,” he wrote. “It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death.” Many others took to social media to declare that the biggest threat in the wake of this massacre was “Islamophobia” in reactions to the shooting.

Charlie Hebdo is not above criticism, certainly, but this is a strange moment to deliver it. The issue at hand stopped being a matter of etiquette and taste when the first bullets flew, and instead became a moment to stand for free expression. It’s also possible to overdo criticism and push it into hate speech. But twelve people dead in the streets of Paris make it clear that commentary is not the real threat. In fact, this should make it clear that commentary is the target.

Perhaps we have grown too accustomed to free speech to appreciate it. Some among us are too eager to push for silence in exchange for a modicum of ease and peace. One does not need to approve of Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures to understand that its editors and contributors had every right to publish them – and that its critics had every right to scold them over its content — without either having to be concerned over whether it would cost them their lives. The only way one can conclude that Charb played “a role … in his own tragic death” is to accept that the price of staying alive is to refrain from criticism, especially of Islam and its extreme adherents.

It took centuries for Western values to develop to the point where we could enjoy and exercise our right to speak out, dissent, criticize, and even be wildly wrong without that choice becoming a life or death matter. Those values are under attack from both within and without, as this episode clearly demonstrates. If this does not serve as a wake-up call to those threats, one may never exist.


Joe Carter and I had a brief exchange on this issue:

Free speech includes the freedom to criticize other speech; in fact, that’s fundamental and necessary, because it then removes the need for violent resolution to debates and conflict, and makes it entirely illegitimate. But we do not need to criticize everything at all times, and there are times when such retorts miss the forest for the trees. That’s what Barber and Donahue did yesterday, scolding Charlie Hebdo for its content while the bodies of its murdered staff reached room temperature. Yesterday was a day to stand with the speakers, not gripe about their vocabulary.

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David Strom 6:00 PM | May 21, 2024