Cartoonist Patrick Chappatte weighs in on free speech debate

The attacks on Charlie Hebdo revived debate on whether free speech should have limits

Asma Ajroudi
Asma Ajroudi - Al Arabiya News
Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
7 min read

As France marks one month since the deadly attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, editorial cartoonist for the International New York Times, Patrick Chappatte, weighs in on the debate surrounding free speech and respect for religious beliefs.

“Of course we need to respect religious beliefs in general,” Chappatte tells Al Arabiya News in an interview. “But the notion of freedom of speech is also so deeply rooted in the fabric of not only French, but a lot of societies, that it’s tantamount to something sacred. How do we move from there?”

While he stands for the right to free speech, Chappatte said satire and provocation should be done “cleverly.”

“In the years after the Danish cartoons controversy, Charlie Hebdo was, in a kind of obtuse way, nailing on the published image of [Prophet] Mohammad, sometimes in contexts that were very inflammatory, and in a way that was not very clever.”

“I am saying this with caution, because there are two sides to my thinking: ‘You are free to exercise provocation, but please, do it cleverly,’” he said.


“That’s my position, in a nutshell. The character of Voltaire, in this image, is actually me telling Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists: ‘You are free to say what you want and I stand for that, but ‘Guys, what are you trying to say?’”

The comments were in reference to the 2012 controversy, in which the magazine featured Prophet Mohammad in an obscene manner as a response to the outrage over the anti-Muslim YouTube movie “The Innocence of Muslims.”

But people in the Muslim communities need to understand that “the worst caricature of the prophet is maybe the one made by extremists that use religion as an excuse for violence. I would say that’s the worst offense to religion in the world right now, it’s not mere cartoons,” Chappatte said.

Limits to freedom of speech

France, although a defender of the freedom of expression in general, has some of the toughest hate speech laws in the European Union, according to Index on Censorship report. Wearing signs or clothing that openly manifest religious affiliation is banned in schools since 2004. In 2011, the country also implemented a ban on wearing the full face veil, known as niqab, in public and prohibited Muslim street prayers.

Under such laws, suing for defamation and libel is made easy.

“Freedom of speech has limits, and those limits are the laws,” Chappatte said.

Charlie Hebdo was sued by two French Muslim associations, the Great Mosque of Paris and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, for republishing the Danish cartoons in 2007 for “inciting religious hatred.” The case was rejected.

“I don’t think that more laws, like blasphemy laws, will be the answer... That’s not a realistic solution to consider because it can be a slippery slope, and it touches too deeply the value we have fought hard in some countries to get: freedom of speech.”

But Chappatte said he advises people to “just put aside the figure of Mohammad because this has become such a symbolic sticking point.”


“It’s as if democracy and the notions of freedom of speech resided on the fact that ‘Yes, I can draw Mohammad if I want.’ And for the other side, for many Muslims, it has become a symbol of so many other things like social frustrations, political demands, you name it,” he added.

“Why don’t we just put aside the figure of Mohammad, and keep on doing tough cartoons on Islamic radicalism, fundamentalism – those are real issues. Mohammad is not the issue.”

“It’s become a ridiculous, vicious circle, and it’s kind of childish in a way, bloody and childish at the same time,” he added.


Economic pressures and financial trouble have led many newspapers to shy away from offending their audiences in a bid to keep their readers, but now “the notion of safety” has also become a matter of consideration for editors.

The Danish newspaper that caused a global stir in 2006 stepped up security and surveillance after the Paris attacks.

“I am kind of worried about self-censorship in the name of safety because I think editors have many reasons to be cautious.”

(Photo courtesy: Globe Cartoon)
(Photo courtesy: Globe Cartoon)

Commenting on a cartoon he drew a few days after the attack, Chappatte said: “The fact is, we are going to have this shadow that is now hanging above our heads. That’s what I wanted to show in that cartoon. Something has been marked in blood.”

Globalization and technology have made safety an even bigger concern for the cartoonist.

“We are being told now that anything… you say or draw in a corner of Europe can be seen by someone in the streets of Karachi, or Afghanistan, or Indonesia; this is the starting point of so many misunderstandings,” Chappatte told Al Arabiya News.

Violent protests have erupted in a number of predominantly- Muslim countries over Charlie Hebdo’s “survival issue,” which was released an attack on the newspaper that left 12 people dead.

The special edition featured the Prophet holding a sign that reads “Je Suis Charlie,” with the words “All is forgiven” in French above it.

“Humor is very local. Humor is something you share with an audience; it works only in a limited perimeter,” Chappatte said. “Globalization has opened up this perimeter, and that’s the root of this great clash we’re going through.”

“I doubt that we will be able to come up with a global, universally recognized sense of humor,” he said.

“Cartooning as a tool for dialogue”

With the rise of anti-Islam sentiments on the one side, and extremism, on the other side, cartoonists could find themselves being manipulated by one side or the other.

But people need to understand, said Chappatte, that editorial cartooning is not about offending people and hurting sensibilities.

“You don’t wake up in the morning thinking ‘Ok, who am I going to offend today?’” said Chappatte.

“You show reality as it is, that’s the job of cartooning. In the process of making your point, you might offend some people, some groups, but that’s ‘collateral damage,’ it’s not the main goal of editorial cartooning.”

Chappatte is the organizer of an initiative called Crossed Pens, which since 2003, has been bringing together the works of cartoonists from conflict-stricken areas, such as Lebanon and Kenya, aiming to foster a dialogue on human rights through the use of art.

The cartoonists also co-founded the NGO “Cartooning for Peace,” which strives to promote peace and coexistence using cartoons as a universal language.

Top Content Trending