The attacks on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris that ended in the death of the two suspects on January 9 has sparked a global conscience about the need to defend the right to freedom of speech. But this type of attack is nothing new. In 1859, when Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species,” he faced fierce opposition from the Church of England, which controlled the scientific establishment. Darwin found a friend in TH Huxley, who publicly defended him. Now his theory is the basis for evolutionary biology, but it’s ironic to see how little we ourselves have evolved as a species when it comes to freedom of expression. It may be a universal right, but it’s also a complicated subject, as proven by these events in history leading up to the Charlie Hebdo attack.
1988 – British Indian author Salman Rushdie publishes the magical realism novel “The Satanic Verses,” inspired in part by the life of the Prophet Muhammad, offending Muslims around the world as it references the pagan verses that the prophet is said to have temporarily included in the Qur’an while being tempted and deceived by the Devil, only to remove them later. Most conservative Muslims deny the verses’ existence. A year later, in one of the most significant events in literary history, Iran’s then-Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issues a fatwa, calling for Rushdie’s assassination for mocking the Islamic faith. There are hundreds of protests around the world and attacks on bookstores that sell the novel. The author is forced to live under British protection for several years. In 2000, Rushdie moves to the U.S., where he frequently does lectures on the topic. In 2012 he published a book about living at the center of the controversy.
2001 – Two days after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, French cartoonist Denis Leroy submits a cartoon to a Basque weekly newspaper depicting the attacks on the World Trade Center with the caption: “We have all dreamed of it…Hamas did it.” He was convicted by the French courts for complicity in condoning terrorism and ordered to pay a fine, despite the fact that he used freedom of speech as a defense.
2004 – Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh is murdered by a Muslim extremist after releasing a short film called “Submission,” criticizing the violence toward women in some Islamic societies. His killer, Dutch-Moroccan citizen Mohammed Bouyeri, had ties with the extremist group Hofstad Network, and was later convicted to life in prison.
2005 – Denmark’s newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, publishes 12 drawings by 12 different artists, showing their individual interpretations of the prophet Muhammad. Depictions of Muhammad are forbidden in most teachings of Islam, though not outright by the Qur’an. Muslim leaders and ambassadors around the world express their disapproval. Several European newspapers re-print the cartoons, including Paris’ Charlie Hebdo. Danish embassies are attacked in several cities, protests around the world turn violent, leaving more than 200 people dead. Following the January 7, 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo, the Danish paper printed an editorial on the subject, explaining their decision not to reprint the satirical French weekly’s cartoons which led to the most recent attack: “We have lived with the fear of a terrorist attack for nine years, and yes, that is the explanation why we do not reprint the cartoons, whether it be our own or Charlie Hebdo’s. We are also aware that we therefore bow to violence and intimidation. The concern for our employees’ safety is paramount.”
2007 – Swedish artist Lars Vilks depicts Muhammad as a dog in a cartoon. He later defends his art stating that he was exploring the issue of religion and freedom of expression. The incident incites similar protests to the Jyllands-Posten ones two years earlier. Vilks remains alive but continues to face death threats and suffered a physical attack after one of his lectures in 2010. Vilks said he met the editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stephane Charbonnier, who died in the attacks. He told a European paper, “There is a prize in my name that is called the Golden Dog for Freedom of Expression and he [Charbonnier] received that in Copenhagen a few months ago. So I met him and we talked a lot during that time, so it’s really kind of a personal loss.”
2009 -Four years after the controversial Danish cartoons of Muhammad, Yale University Press publishes “The Cartoons That Shook The World,” choosing not to include the actual cartoons. The decision is viewed by many as cowardice, including the book’s author, Danish-born Jytte Klausen. But the publishing house defends its decision saying publishing the cartoons could have led to more violence.
2010 – “South Park” airs a cartoon depicting Muhammad in a bear costume. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone face Internet death threats from Muslim extremists. Comedy Central decides to self-censor the cartoons for the first time in the show’s history.
2010 – Following the censorship of the “South Park” episode, Seattle-based cartoonist Molly Norris declares May 20, 2010 as “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Her own drawings depict Muhammad as a coffee mug and a box of pasta, among other mundane items. “In light of the recent veiled (ha!) threats aimed at the creators of the television show South Park … by bloggers on Revolution Muslim’s website, we hereby deem May 20, 2010 as the first ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!’ Do your part to both water down the pool of targets and, oh yeah, defend a little something our country is famous for (but maybe not for long? Comedy Central cooperated with terrorists and pulled the episode) the first amendment,” she wrote on her website. Shortly after, she ends up on Al-Qaeda’s most wanted list, where she remains.
2011 – Charlie Hebdo’s offices are burned.
2012 – A 14-minute, low-budget video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” is posted on YouTube, enfuriating the international Muslim community. The video portrays Muhammad as a womanizer and a pedophile, among other things. Global protests leave many injured and some speculate that the video led to the attack in the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, that same year which left several wounded and dead, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
2014 – Sony Pictures is hacked by a cyber-terrorist group calling themselves the Guardians of Peace, presumably working for the North Korean government. The group leaks hundreds of private and controversial documents online, and threatens a 9/11-style terrorist attack if “The Interview” is released. The comedy, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, revolves around a plot to assassinate North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. The studio initially decides to cancel its release, but then releases it in independent theaters and via online platforms. To date, “The Interview” has made $31 million in digital and VOD sales.
2015 – Charlie Hebdo is attacked at its Paris offices on January 7, leaving 12 dead (10 employees and two police officers). The suspects, identified as Cherif and Said Kouachi, are killed following a stand-off with police on January 9, after having told police they wanted to “die like martyrs.”