When faith and controversy have clashed: a timeline in the wake of Charlie Hebdo

The bloody massacre that occurred at the offices of the weekly Parisian newspaper Charlie Hebdo earlier this month were not the first time the publication was targeted. On the early morning of November 2, 2011, the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were set on fire, destroying everything that was inside. There were no deaths, but it set a terrifying tone for the future of satire. Despite the right to free speech, controversial satire would always be prone to acts of terrorism because although freedom of speech allows the media to speak whatever it likes, it does not protect anyone from the consequences. That still rings true almost three years later as the survivors of the shooting that occurred on January 7 reel from the loss of its victims, among them editor Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier and several cartoonists.

However, controversy and terrorism do not follow the offices of Charlie Hebdo alone; Violence has thrived on the intentionally vulgar and the misunderstood time and time again.


The blasphemous teddy bear

For instance, on November 25, 2007, school teacher Gillian Gibbons was arrested and interrogated in Sudan for naming a teddy bear “Mohammed”, which was seen as an affront to Sudan’s legal system, as it is strongly influenced by sharia, religious law that prohibits any depictions of prophets like Mohammed.

What they hadn’t taken into account was the fact that Gibbons did not mean any harm by it, nor did she even specifically name the teddy bear herself. Her class, mostly comprised of Muslim children, chose the widely popular Muslim name “Mohammed” to dub the teddy bear.

Gibbons was eventually pardoned for her crime by the Sudanese President, but not before being threatened with 40 lashes and spending 15 days in prison. Even then, organized groups marched through Khartoum, demanding an execution for her blasphemy. Still, the outcome of that controversy was quite tame compared to what could have happened.



Three years earlier than that on November 2, Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh was murdered in public by Mohammed Bouyeri, a radical Muslim who was one of many that took offense to Van Gogh’s film “Submission”, a film that criticized misogyny in the Koran.

“Submission” featured intentional shock imagery, including women’s naked bodies only barely covered by transparent shrouds as they told their stories. The film served to portray the negative aspects of the Koran, translating “Islam” into the word “submission”, a word with obvious negative connotations. Nevertheless, Van Gogh refused protection in the face of constant death threats.

Bouyeri stuck a small knife inside Van Gogh’s body, accompanying it with a note that threatened Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had written the film’s script. Not only did it threaten Hirsi Ali, but also Western countries and Jewish people.


The Satanic Verses

A similar situation took place when Salman Rushdie wrote his provocative novel “The Satanic Verses” in 1988. The title was enough to start off the controversy surrounding the book; the aforementioned “satanic verses” referred to verses supposedly spoken by Mohammed himself, but removed from the Koran due to the belief that Mohammed had been tricked into believing that the verses were from God when in fact they were from the devil.

On February 14, 1989, Shi’a Muslim cleric, and Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ayatollah Khomeini called for Rushdie’s death.

Once there was significant backlash, Rushdie attempted to apologize for his supposed insensitivity to Islam and its followers. However, Khomeini did not retract his condemnation of Rushdie. Instead he said that “even if Salman Rushdie repents and become the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send him to Hell.”

Salman Rushdie spent roughly the next ten years in hiding with police protection following the controversy.


Lars Vilks and Mohammed

When it comes to vulgar cartoons featuring Mohammed, Charlie Hebdo is not the only culprit.

In 2007, Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks portrayed Mohammed as a “roundabout dog”, a form of street installation in Sweden. His drawings were rejected both from an art exhibition based on the theme “The Dog in Art” and from the Gerles School of Fine Art in Bohuslän, Sweden. The basis for both of these withdrawals was due to security concerns.

However, the drawings ended up being published by several Swedish newspapers, including Nerikes Allehanda, Aftonbladet, Dagens Nyheter, Expressen and Upsala Nya Tidning. Nerikes Allehanda in particular defended its decision to run the drawings, stating in an editorial that “the right to freedom of religion and the right to blaspheme religions go together. They presuppose one another.”

Following that there were several protests outside the offices of Nerikes Allehanda and Upsala Nya Tidning, and a threatening audio message said to be spoken by Mujahideen Shura Council leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, calling for Vilks to be “slaughtered like a lamb”. Various threats led to Vilks booby-trapping his home and keeping an ax by his bed.


Innocence of Muslims

In July 2012, two YouTube video were uploaded, titled “The Real Life of Muhammad” and “Muhammad Movie Trailer” both written and produced by U.S. writer Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who called the religion of Islam a “cancer”. According to The New York Times, Mohammed was depicted as being “a child of uncertain parentage, a buffoon, a womanizer, a homosexual, a child molester and a greedy, bloodthirsty thug.”

On September 11, 2012, protests in opposition to the videos began, spreading throughout Yemen, Greece, Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Benghazi, Indonesia, and India, as well as other areas of the world such as Africa and the Americas. In Cairo, protesters climbed the U.S. Embassy and replaced the American flag with the Islamic flag. Protests were followed the next week by a wave of violence in opposition to the videos.

According to The World Post, many of the protests were targeting “U.S. diplomatic posts throughout the Muslim world”, despite the videos having not been created by the U.S. government.

Clashes between protesters and security forces ultimately led to over 50 deaths and many more injuries.