Free speech or incitement? French mag runs cartoons of Prophet Mohammed

(CNN) – After a week of deadly, international protests against an anti-Islam film, a French satirical magazine is fueling the debate between freedom of expression and offensive provocation.

The magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the Prophet Mohammed in an issue that hit newsstands Wednesday.

Magazine director Stephane Charbonnier said his staff is “not really fueling the fire,” but rather using its freedom of expression “to comment (on) the news in a satirical way.”

“It happens that the news this week is Mohammed and this lousy film, so we are drawing cartoons about this subject,” Charbonnier told CNN affiliate BFM-TV on Wednesday. “It’s more turning in derision this grotesque film than to make fun of Mohammed.”

The “lousy film” he’s referring to is “Innocence of Muslims,” an amateurish, 14-minute video that mocks the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizer, child molester and killer. The video drew international attention last week and spawned heated protests in more than a dozen countries.

Any depiction of Islam’s prophet is considered blasphemy by many Muslims.

France will close embassies and schools in about 20 countries on Friday, the main Muslim day of prayer, as a precaution, the Foreign Ministry said Wednesday. It is already boosting security in some locations.

There has been no violence reported as a result of the cartoons so far.

They were published just a day after hundreds of Muslims took to Twitter to satirize the U.S. magazine Newsweek’s cover story on “Muslim Rage.”

Muslims posted tongue-in-cheek tweets about what enrages them, such as having a really good hair day but no one knowing because you wear a hijab.

Hend Amry, who posted that tweet as @LibyaLiberty, said Charlie Hebdo’s latest cartoons were a cynical attempt to inflate sales.

Opinion: Media don’t get #MuslimRage

She compared it to the French magazine that printed topless photos of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge last week.

“Like printing tawdry pics of (Catherine) Middleton — lowbrow rating booster,” she said.

“If we’re going to chart it on the Muslim insult-o-meter, it is less inflammatory than the ‘film,’ but does continue the East/West divide we see,” she told CNN.

Charlie Hebdo journalist Laurent Leger said the magazine has shown Muslim men and Muslim extremists in the past, but does not explicitly state that the cartoons are depictions of the Prophet Mohammed.

Rather, he said, the cartoons are open to interpretation.

“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,” Leger said.

Hend Amry said she didn’t believe that was really the magazine’s intention.

“No it isn’t. It’s for ratings,” she said.

Leger said the magazine was within its rights.

“In France, we always have the right to write and draw. And if some people are not happy with this, they can sue us and we can defend ourselves. That’s democracy. You don’t throw bombs, you discuss, you debate. But you don’t act violently. We have to stand and resist pressure from extremism.”

The cartoons are already drawing strong condemnation by the French Muslim community.

Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of Muslim Faith, described a feeling of “indignation against this new Islamophobic act” to BFM-TV.

He said the cartoons are “insulting for the prophet of Islam,” and described their publication as a “new provocation.”

French authorities have already taken precautionary measures, with police vehicles parked outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo late Tuesday.

The offices were the scene of an attack last November, when they were burned on the day the magazine was due to publish an issue with a cover appearing to make fun of Islamic law.

The cover featured a bearded and turbaned cartoon figure of the Prophet Mohammed saying, “100 lashes if you’re not dying of laughter.”

The magazine received threats after it announced that the edition would be guest-edited by the Prophet Mohammed and dedicated to the Arab Spring, Charbonnier told BFM-TV in November.

The cartoonist known as Luz has been under police protection since last year, when one of his illustrations depicting the Prophet Mohammed was featured on the cover of that issue.

Luz told CNN the latest cartoons depicting Mohammed are not featured on the cover.

“We learned our lesson,” Luz said.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault weighed in on the debate Tuesday, expressing “his disapproval of any excess” and appealing “to the spirit of responsibility of each,” according to a statement from his office.

“The prime minister states that the freedom of speech makes up one of the fundamental principles of our republic. This freedom is expressed within the confines of the law and under the control of the courts,” the statement read.

Outside the country, security at French embassies have been reinforced, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

“I am against all provocations, especially during a period as sensitive as this one. I do not see any usefulness in such provocation,” he told the radio station France Info. “There must be freedom of speech, but I am absolutely opposed to any provocation.”

France has seen rising tensions over its rapidly growing Muslim minority — the largest Muslim population in western Europe. Last year, the country banned the wearing of Islamic veils and other face coverings, claiming they were both degrading and a security risk.

Belgium has passed similar legislation, and Switzerland banned the building of minarets, the tall spires which often stand next to mosques.