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Q&A with Asian studies chairwoman Nadia Yaqub

Gunmen attacked the headquarters of French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7 after the magazine published cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad, killing 12 people and injuring others.

Staff writer Marisa Bakker interviewed Nadia Yaqub, chairwoman of UNC's Department of Asian Studies and coordinator of the Arabic program, about the tension between the western free press and Islamic extremism, which could have led to the Charlie Hebdo attack.

The Daily Tar Heel: How is the Middle Eastern idea of freedom of speech and press comparable to that of other cultures?

Nadia Yaqub: Let’s be frank — there’s censorship in many countries in the Middle East. In much of the Middle East, censorship is more overt than it is in the West. There are (western) topics that are the subjects of censorship, even if it’s not from the government explicitly saying, “You are not allowed to talk about these things.” But there's a real difference between what is happening in the Middle East, how there are some countries in the Middle East where you’ve got specific laws about what can and cannot be said, and the kinds of cases you have here.

DTH: What did Charlie Hebdo do that was so offensive to the religions and cultures of the Middle East?

NY: As I understand it, the purpose of the magazine was to be provocative, and they were provocative about everybody. They put up insulting images relating to various religious leaders, practices, cultures and beliefs, and they carved that out as the kind of speech that they would specialize in. I very much believe that there should be a place for that kind of speech, and the fact that their offices were attacked and people were murdered because of that is beyond unacceptable.

DTH: Can you explain the fact that Muslims do not want their religious leaders depicted?

NY: You actually do have pictorial representations of the Prophet (Muhammed) in Islamic art. There are different ways in which the Qu'ran and other Islamic documents get interpreted by different practicing Muslims, so there certainly are Muslims who believe that the Prophet should not be represented pictorially, but that’s not case for all Muslims. Of course, when you’re talking about those cartoons, you’re not just talking about a pictorial representation of the Prophet, it’s insulting the Prophet. It’s provocative.

DTH: What do you think of satirical cartoons and newspapers?

NY: I think that everyone has to be able to publish everything. But, there is such a thing, editorially speaking, as calling “fire” in a crowded theater. I don’t think it should be illegal, but I think it should be condemned. It's just irresponsible. That kind of speech ought to be the kind of speech that I would hope to see major political leaders, even the president, saying, “This is not the time for that, this is irresponsible, this is not who we are, this is unacceptable.” 

DTH: Do you believe that news outlets and organizations have a responsibility to protect the rights of others, including the right to religious freedom, while exercising their right to free speech?

NY: I would say that ethically, yes, there is a responsibility on the part of those with big voices to make spaces for other voices. I think that news organizations do have a responsibility to voices that are different from the voices of the owners of the newspaper, or the editors of the newspaper. It’ll never be perfect, but they have that responsibility ethically, but not legally within our system.

DTH: Why do you believe that certain acts of terrorism, especially those connected to religion, elicit a different response internationally than those not connected to a religious cause?

NY: There’s still this perception of Islam as something foreign, and therefore it gets viewed as an attack on us by others, as opposed to an expression of an ill within our society — that we are not dealing with mental illness, racism, ethno-nationalism or other problems in an adequate way, and that's giving rise to these kinds of things. The attackers of the Charlie Hebdo magazine were French, but they are not thought of as French because originally their parents were from Algeria and they’re Muslim. There’s part of the problem.

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