Debate Forum: 01/20

Forum Center: When journalism becomes activism

By Sarah Sidlow

French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo recently made international headlines when its cover, which is known for lampooning political or religious figures, bore an image of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

However, it was not the cover itself that made the world pay attention, but the reaction of two Islamist extremists, Cherif and Said Kouachi, who opened fire on the Charlie Hebdo editorial office, killing 12, including the magazine’s editor, who had been living under police protection after receiving death threats for the publication’s previous cartoons on Islam. It is explicitly against Islamic doctrine to depict an image of the prophet Muhammad.

The massacre began what would become a three-day marathon of violence, ending with a hostage-taking at a kosher supermarket in which Kouachi accomplice Hayat Boumeddiene and her partner Amedy Coulibaly were involved. Coulibaly was killed by French anti-terrorist police; Boumeddiene remains at large in Syria.

But while fear continues to permeate international conversations, so too does the free speech debate. Does the legal right to print freely wave a publication of the responsibility to be kind? Did Charlie Hebdo engage in an act of religious intolerance, or was it, as Charlie Hebdo’s new editor Gérard Biard claims, in defense of religious freedom?

Many in the Western World are standing behind Charlie. Last week, more than 4 million people, including a number of world leaders, occupied the streets of France in a march for unity. News media reacted with headlines, images and stories bearing the words “Je Suis Charlie” – a symbol of solidarity that translates to “I Am Charlie.”

Just days after the attack, the remaining and shattered Charlie Hebdo staff, working from the offices of rival magazine Libération, released an eight-page “survivors’ edition.” On the cover was an image of the prophet, with a tear in his eye, holding a sign with the now-ubiquitous phrase, “Je Suis Charlie.” The headline: “Tout Est Pardonne,” meaning, “All is Forgiven.”

To the magazine, and to many who saw the cover (which printed nearly 7 million copies, a sharp rise from the paper’s standard 60,000 circulation), the message was one of compassion – the lesson of forgiveness prevalent in all religions. Simultaneously, the magazine and its readers saw it as an act of defiance – an unmoving response to the threat of violence against free expression. Charlie Hebdo supporters may not necessarily defend what the magazine has published, but they defend the magazine’s right to publish it.

But others, including many members of the Islamic community, feel the new cover rubs salt in an already open wound. They argue there is a line between free speech and gratuitous offensiveness – and that this new cover is neither tasteful, nor tolerant.

World leaders weighed in on the debate as well: Pope Francis described the freedom of expression as a “fundamental” human right, but concluded there are limits to that right. “You cannot provoke,” he said. “You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

Unrest exploded in predominantly Muslim countries, including Niger, where at least 10 people were killed and several churches were torched over two days of rioting.

In canada, where Charlie Hebdo is also distributed, media has been criticized for refusing to reprint the cartoons.

Media around Europe and the United States have decided to re-print Charlie Hebdo’s “Tout Est Pardonne” cover image: France’s Libération and Le Monde and Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine have used the image online.

The BBC showed it briefly during a newspaper review on “Newsnight.” In the United States, the Washington Post, USA Today, LA Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast and CBS News ran the cover. Some reprinted the Charlie Hebdo cover in an act of unity, to show their support for the French newspaper and the fight for free speech it has recently come to represent; others reprinted it simply to report the news.

To be sure, each editorial office that decided to reprint the image had a lengthy discussion about its possible repercussions. Were these publications, too, willing to print an image depicting Muhammad, with an example of the deadly consequences of doing so still fresh in their minds?

In the Dayton City Paper offices, the staff had a similar discussion. No doubt, there was hesitation to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cover, especially knowing full well our own offices do not benefit from the armed guards that stood watch over the Charlie Hebdo editorial epicenter.

In fact, we still are scared to reprint the image – hence this week’s playful cover (because right now, it’s safer to pick on Kim Jung Un’s alleged reaction to recent free speech issues).

But the immediate hesitation that gripped the DCP staff and media staffs the world over makes the question an important one to ask. Should fear of violent reaction stop a newspaper from printing anything?

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Should the Dayton City Paper reprint the Charlie Hebdo cover?


Debate Left: Je Suis Charlie

Response by David H. Landon

In light of the recent events in France, this weeks’ Forum question has taken on a very serious tone:  Should the Dayton City Paper reprint the Charlie Hebdo cover?

This is a very serious question and there are reasonable arguments on both sides of the issue. However, in my opinion, the answer has to be yes; the Dayton City Paper, in solidarity with journalists around the world, should reprint the Charlie Hebdo cover.  In order to reach that conclusion, one must place above all else a reverence for the rights we hold dearly here in this country and in the West. To the discomfort of many, that includes the right of a free press to publish satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. At the cost of offending my many friends of the Muslim faith, protecting the freedom of the press and our freedom of speech is the only way to assure that democratic institutions can survive.

Democracy isn’t easy; far from it. In fact, democracy is exceptionally difficult. Protecting freedom of the press and free speech means we protect the rights of morons and idiots to say and print things that are ugly and hurtful. It means we protect everyone’s right to free expression no matter how infuriating that expression might be for the rest of society. When you’re on the receiving end of the message and your sensibilities are offended because of an attack on your ethnicity, religion, culture or political ideology, it’s easy to bitterly complain that this example of freedom of expression has gone too far. Therein lies the problem. The power to censor one is the power to censor.

As Americans, we are empowered by the Constitution to say almost anything we want to say.  As long as we  are not making a direct threat to another or inciting a crime, there is very little that is not considered protected speech, even to the point of it being hateful. Is there a point where the exercise of free speech becomes provocation, incitement or an act of racism? Should we demand censorship in a multicultural society where incitement and provocation can bring violence? If restraint helps foster social peace, is that not worth the price to pay for censorship? The problem should be obvious. Once we start drawing the line around protected topics that cannot be discussed, ridiculed or, as in the recent instance in France, drawn about in a satirical cartoon, there is no ending point to the censorship. At that point the freedom of expression, which is the very foundation of Western society, is lost.

Although I am certain that the correct answer to the question is yes, we should republish the cover, I don’t come to this conclusion lightly. I am not worried about offending the fringe elements of the Islamic religion. Those Islamic fundamentalists who have taken Islam to the dark place which justifies acts of violence against those who disagree with them are already beyond reason. If it isn’t the cover of Charlie Hebdo, it will be some other perceived insult they use to justify their violence. There is another group, however, that I am concerned about offending. I worry that reprinting this cover page will offend the moderate Muslim community. These are the followers of the Prophet who go about their daily lives raising their families, earning a living and assimilating into America. For millions of Muslims, peaceful co-existence is a way of life.

I’ve heard the arguments that question whether these “so-called” moderate Muslims really exist. I know for a fact that they do. One of them is one of my dear friends. Sam is an American citizen having emigrated from Syria nearly 25 years ago. He lives here with his wife and four children. Sam is perhaps the finest man I know. He is both honest and kind. I am a frequent guest at his home where he and his wife take great delight is feeding me their wonderful Middle-Eastern cuisine. Sam has expressed to me on many, many occasions his love for our country and the opportunities it has afforded him. I have no doubt he would defend America against its enemies. Sam owns a tree cutting business and it is his practice, after finishing a job, to sometimes invite his customers who are virtual strangers into his home to share a meal. I’ve been present at some of these occasions. The customers, who quickly become close friends, are overwhelmed by Sam’s hospitality. He genuinely loves people and it is apparent to all who come into his circle. On my last visit Sam had invited a Jewish family to join his family for dinner and I witnessed a remarkable evening of sharing of cultures and hearts. Sam and his family are devout Muslims who have decided that it is God’s will for them to love all people.

Sam is not a rare exception. There are many American Muslims who share that “servant to fellow man” philosophy.  It is difficult for me to take a position I know many of them will find offensive.

The freedoms we protect and support by republishing the Charlie Hebdo cover have little to do with the vulgar cartoons the satirical French newspaper frequently published. It has everything to do with the rule of law and our belief that for liberty to prevail freedom of speech and the press is paramount.

David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at

Debate Right: What is freedom of speech?

Response by Muthanna Alqassab

Je Suis Muthanna and I am against the publication of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Born in Baghdad, Iraq to a normal middle class family I was – along with my siblings – brought up with the traditions, culture and good manners of any Muslim (love thy neighbor, do not harm or kill another, do not steal, treat others the way you treat yourself and have faith in God). This stuff seems pretty universal, right? I wasn’t taught to force my ideology on anyone who doesn’t share it, and I certainly wasn’t taught to harm a person in retaliation of offending me. And so I start by condemning the savage, criminal actions taken against the Charlie Hebdo staff, it is truly a tragedy. And I am sure the majority of Muslims feel the same way.

I also feel the need to add my perception that the media tends to take the actions of perhaps 0.01 percent of a certain faith and drags the entire faith and its followers into heated debate, which couldn’t be further from the reality we live in. These actions were taken by two deranged individuals capable of heinous murder, individuals whose actions shatter any kind of logic or purpose possible to support their ideology and cannot be justified or blamed on any faith or religion. And so I will treat this with complete impartiality.

The riots sparked by this incident pour only gasoline on a fire; it suggests these actions represent Muslims or Islam as whole, or that Muslims stand behind it. And the rioters demand some sort of apology or correction by the Muslim population, this is far worse than publishing the cartoons in the first place.

Put yourself in a Muslim’s point of view: I have faith and belief in something and it is close to me, I respect it and I expect you as an educated fellow human being to respect me and my thinking, because that is how decent human beings treat each other. I do not force my thinking on you. You and I are free to do what we want and each individual is accountable for their actions. And I don’t really care if you don’t like me or my faith. So now, you grotesquely make fun of my thinking, you mock something I hold dear and respect and to be honest, it hurts that you do that for no intellectual reason whatsoever, not to mention that I am expected to be content with it. Then two criminals – who do not represent anything I stand for – commit a crime that cannot be justified and I am expected to be sorry or apologize for their actions because we share the word “Islam.” Isn’t that messed up?

These riots and protests seem so absurd to me! Are the people protesting against the terrorists committing these acts? Isn’t it silly to put forward a civilized plea to an insane gun-yielding individual (I emphasize on the word individual) who lacks the very basic human principle of not harming another? But this incident is just an excuse to practice what some people truly feel; prejudice against someone who is different. I’ve got the solution; gather every Muslim in the world, put them on a rocket and ship them out into space, that way people can freely practice their slanderous, insensitive and disrespectful “free speech” without upsetting anyone.

Speaking of the mutilated and abused fundamental right we call “freedom of speech,” consider this quote from former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

I truly believe this is the correct form of freedom of speech, however I don’t see people practicing their rights the right way. Bear with me now for this silly example: I am walking down the road and witness a man wearing a funny looking hat, different than others, and I don’t like that hat for whatever reason. I come down screaming and yelling: “Take off that hat you stupid imbecile!” for all the bystanders to watch. Wouldn’t my freedom of speech be misplaced and exceeding the logical boundaries and basic principles of respecting one another? Would anyone stop the man from punching me in the face? I don’t think so, he is simply practicing the same liberty I chose to practice based on my wrong and distorted principles. (Please don’t mistake my point of view with the justification of the Charlie staff murders, by no means the response was appropriate or proportional).

Let’s face it, this is not a perfect plutonic world, and we are quite far from it. And it baffles me that some people push to enforce their points of view – right or wrong – on someone else and expect them to gobble it up without a flinch.

Now let’s talk about a REAL issue that the world should be concerned with: Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger that was sentenced to 1,000 lashes in a public square and 10 years in prison, his crime: practicing the true and right form of freedom of speech, standing against a government by establishing a now-closed online forum that sought to encourage debate on religious and political issues in Saudi Arabia in 2008. Let’s not forget that Saudi Arabia is a strict Islamic country where the government is synonymous with religion. This here is freedom of speech … not Charlie Hebdo.

Muthanna Alqassab, Associate American Institute of Architects at The Architectural Group in downtown Dayton was born 1987 in Baghdad, Iraq. He lived in Jordan and Cyprus before moving to the United States. In a year, he will become a naturalized citizen.
Reach Muthanna Alqassab at 

Debate Left: A submission

Response by Ben Tomkins

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, former contributor Henri Roussel made a blunt criticism of the editor in which he stated, “what made him feel the need to drag the team into overdoing it?” Who knows if his writers were unwilling participants, but it is important to acknowledge that all of us have agreed to participate and understand the DCP might print the Charlie Hebdo cover.

Whereas I have no religious convictions riding on the subject, Dr. Gussin does. From my conversations with him, he has been equally impressive in his defense of a sacrosanct and peaceful Islam as he has been generous with his time. Time is an extraordinarily valuable thing to give, and that speaks volumes for his sincerity of belief, character and dedication as an educator. 

If you read no other column, read his. Besides the seductive intrigue of unknowable content, it is of special value that we can read the opinion of a Muslim member of the community. We are fortunate to live in a society where freedom of speech extends not only the right to speak our minds without fear of harm, but the social parity of hearing the unqualified opinions of others. The fixation of Western media on the rights of Charlie Hebdo to publish would be well-serviced by a few more voices reminding of the latter, and I suggest you take advantage of it.

The question of whether the DCP should publish the Charlie Hebdo cover is, in that sense, perhaps a bit incomplete. By doing so, the DCP claims the right to publish it, and does so in the name of your right to see it.

Further commentary I will leave for my colleagues. I doubt there’s much more to say that won’t be passionately articulated by them, and if any subtleties go unacknowledged they will likely be said elsewhere or by you. My recent interest lies in the inherent incompatibility of those freedoms with any revealed religion whenever it is practiced as a collective culture, rather than as a community of individuals with similar personal experiences and convictions.

It is ironic that the more a person believes they are speaking to an invisible man, the more strenuously they work to control the behavior of a real one. Like most of us, I have many friends who believe in a god or gods depending primarily on their country of origin, and generally speaking those beliefs only affect me when they are in the voting booth. That’s totally fine with me. There’s nothing in the Constitution prohibiting religion from impacting government, only its application by the state in the aforementioned collective sense.

So when one of those friends says to me they have a personal relationship with a god that helps them become a better person, it’s essentially a statement of self-reflection. Self-reflection is the wellspring of the desire for the freedom of expression, and if they answer to their conscience above all else it may easily be said by a non-believer that their god is a personification of their humanity.

However, the fundamentalist does not ground his moral structure on conscience. On the contrary, the conscience is something to be squared with the collective. The challenge of a relationship with a god shifts from a paradigm of personal idealism to one of submission to the group and annihilation of the self. This is incompatible with freedom of speech, and the longing to express that freedom is replaced by an often unrealized, never-ending plea for absolution of the sin of divergence. 

But where does the collective derive its morality if not the dialectic resolution of our varied responses to our hardwired predisposition towards communal society? The answer may be found by a consideration of the question, “whom would I appoint to decide for me what I should hear and say?”

I would not give that right to anyone, and I doubt most of you would either. However, in a collective religion, this demands an answer. One could easily say God, but that immediately begs the inescapable question of who adjudges the inevitable conflicts that arise from individual experience. 

On the big moral topics, consensus could likely be found. However, as more specific questions arise, one finds oneself in an ever-contracting circle of delineation that eventually traverses the event horizon of the self. The only escape is a proportionally increasing profession of faith in the true god of the collective: the man or men in whom they have invested sovereignty of thought.

Outside of a cult, the participants may not even know who this is. But that entity exists, and whether it’s an assembly, conclave, president or supreme leader, eventually a fellow member of our genus, conspicuously standing between us and the divine, will be demanding our submission. 

That is precisely the point where fundamentalism becomes dangerous. Once it is conceded that some homo sapiens are born whose thoughts are a priori superior to others, all that’s left is the indignity of prostration. A religion that requires this does not seek the truth. It knows it, and it claims you as its property for dispatch toward any ends that increase its means.

I for one will not go gentle into that good night, and any individual or group that seeks to force anyone else to do so will find themselves opposite a line of me and my fellow people.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

Debate Right: Should you print?

Response By Dr. Kindy Ghussin

My name is Kindy Ghussin, I am a member of the Islamic Society of Greater Dayton (ISGD).

I sit on the board of the education committee, and I am more than happy to answer your question.

My brother Fred Ghussin died as a result of the 9/11 attack, he was a detective in Manhattan, my other brother was also a First responder EMT working with the Fire Dept during 9/11.

My brothers and I have sworn our allegiance to defend this country from all enemies, foreign and domestic, and one of us has taken that oath with him to the grave.

When you want to cook, you grab a cookbook; when you want to study physics, you grab a physics book; when you want to study math you grab a math book. So why is it, when someone wants to write about Islam, they don’t bother grabbing any legitimate reference?

It seems that when it comes to Islam, opinions and generalizations are the only thing making it to the headlines!

First, I condemn strongly the acts of senseless violence and murders that were committed against the journalists of Charlie Hebdo. Let me be firm that I do not believe that these journalists deserved to die and their murder is against any teachings of Islam.

That said, I must express my disappointment to see an agency whose mission is to expose the truth being steered to publish tasteless images of the prophet Muhammad, whose religion has over 1.7 billion followers. Charlie Hebdo’s staff did not do their homework before attacking the prophet of Islam and accuse him of promoting violence and terrorism. 

There are historic books documenting the life of the prophet; any historian who studied the Orient can validate the authenticity of such books. The most solid of these books that capture the life, the teachings and the sayings of the prophet are: “Sahih Bukhari” and “Muslim.” Look them up, see for yourselves what the prophet teaches, and don’t forget to pick up a copy of the Quran and see what God says too. 

The Quran was revealed to Muhammad through angel Gabriel and the prophet recited it back to his companions who later on wrote it down in text form.  So again, that takes us back to grabbing the cookbook, the physics book and in this case, the Quran. You can get a free copy of the Quran at 26 Josie St. in Dayton.

 Just to give you a couple of examples of what the Quran teaches: 

Chapter 5 verse 32

“If anyone slays a person unjustly it would be if he slew the whole people, and if anyone saved a life it would be as if he saved the whole people.”

God is making the point that all men came from Adam, so all souls are equally important.

Chapter 2 verse 256

“Let there be no compulsion in religion, Truth stands clear from falsehood. Whoever rejects evil and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And God heareth and knoweth all things.”

This verse shows you Muslims do not believe in the false statement “kill the infidels.”

Don’t pick on the guy that all the other bullies are picking on because he’s an easy target.

When NATO discovered thousands of mass graves in Bosnia, no one called the Serbs “Christian Terrorists” for the atrocities they committed against innocent Muslim villagers.

When Israel built a wall around Gaza and the West Bank and prevented, and still is preventing, thousands of sick children and women and elderly from getting medical care or proper nutrition, no one called them “Jewish terrorists.”  It just doesn’t sound right, it’s awkward.  But “Muslim terrorist” sounds perfectly fine!

Would it be such a debate if you had somebody wanting to practice his or her freedom of speech by publishing a picture of the swastika without being worried to be labeled as an anti-Semite?

Would it be such a debate if someone wanted to publish an article containing “N” word without being labeled as racist?

It is freedom of speech isn’t it?

The fact that the “N” word is offensive and the fact that the swastika is an offensive image will prevent a sound journalist from publishing them. Therefore you should not publish the offensive image of the prophet of Islam.

I don’t believe that the terrorist acts of the Serbs reflect the true image of Christianity.

I don’t believe that the war crimes committed by the state of Israel reflect the values of Judaism.

Islam teaches us that those are religions of God and we, Muslims, have the highest respect to all religions and messengers of God.

Did you know that Muslims fast on the day of Passover, as ordered by prophet Muhammad, to celebrate the saving of the children of Israel from Pharaoh?

Did you know that, according to prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ is considered the Messiah and that Muslims believe he will return, rid earth from the antichrist, and establish peace on Earth? Again, this is in the teachings and sayings of the prophet Muhammad.

Those terrorists, whether, al-Qaeda, or ISIS or any group claiming to be Muslim, are acting against ALL the teachings of the prophet and the holy scriptures of the Quran.  Did you know that most of their victims are MUSLIM?  They have killed THOUSANDS of Muslims! So it’s not a battle of Muslim versus non-Muslim.  

If the media uses them to represent Islam, it’s exactly the same as if we decided that the KKK represents Christianity, just because they have a cross as their symbol.

Just FYI, the portrayal of ANY prophet is forbidden in Islam.  These men hold a high status in the eyes of God, not worthy of any Hollywood actor or cartoonist to portray.  But, again, it’s forbidden for us humans to administer the punishment, only the True Judge, God, will decide the fate of men.

In the end, if you claim to be fighters of freedom, which is by the way, how a true journalist should be perceived as, then exercise your freedom to fight a fair and just battle. Only you, the true journalist can answer the question above, if you are willing to dig for the truth, not cut and paste it.

Dr. Kindy Ghussin sits on the board of the education committee at the Islamic Society of Greater Dayton (ISGD). Reach Dr. Ghussin at

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