It’s Sunday, January 11th, the cars on the streets of Paris are replaced by over a million of its French citizens, upset about the recent terrorist attacks against the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo”, known for its controversial depictions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, which have turned them into a target for violent extremists.
The shootings that left 12 people dead revived anti-Muslim and anti-west sentiments across the globe.
Opening the door to discussions about freedom of expression nearly everywhere, even in Texas. Especially among local satirists and Muslims.
“As you see, the power of the pen continues. Other people will take over, it didn’t really accomplish anything,” explains Ramon Ramirez, cartoonist.
Ramon Ramirez is the creative mind behind smarty cartoons in Edinburg. 28 years ago he discovered how influential his drawings can be.
“My mission was to be the eyes and ears of the valley and I think I fulfilled it pretty good because people were reacting to it,” adds Ramirez.
However, his poking at society goes without consequence. Threats against his right of expression and of the press.
“Has my work been threatened? Yes I would get emails left and right, but at the same time I would get positive emails too. But I guess one of the ways I would deal with it is. One time somebody asked me not draw a politician so big, with such a big stomach. So next time I drew him with a bigger stomach,” explains Ramirez.
A response that depending on who is at the other end, could backfire.
“The freedom of speech is there as long as you’re not infringing on other people’s feelings,”
Retaliation that according to the director of the Islamic center in Weslaco, will never be justified by his freedom of religion.
“Ridiculing any culture or anybody’s belief is not really a good thing to do. But definitely we condemn the attack because killing innocent people is not what religion teaches.” “That’s not the teaching of Islam,” says Dr. Muhammed Akram Rana, dir. RGV Islamic Center.
The teachings in the Quran, he says, are many times in line with universal principals of respect and tolerance, which sometimes means knowing when to refrain from speaking out…
“Whenever you hear, when talk of ridiculing, withdraw from it decently and do say anything at all. That’s really a big lesson for us in daily life, that when something is going on and someone is talking non-sense just stay away and keep your mouth shut and leave the place,” explains Dr. Rana.
Dr. Rana says he’s never been the target of attack since he came to the U.S. 40 years ago. He attributes that in part to his effort in educating those he meets about his beliefs.
“We need to educate people, we need to educate more about Islam and all the religions because the problem is when the fear of the unknown. When you don’t know something, you’re just afraid. And whatever comes to your mind, that’s how you feel, that’s what you say,” says Dr. Rana.
The purpose is understanding one another, something federal agencies are tasked to do in order to protect its citizens.
Working on the offensive, monitoring any signs of a threat in the messages that are publicly expressed.
“We engage with churches, mosques, any members of the public and engage with outreach to hear their perspectives and open the flow of information back and forth. The FBI respects an individual’s first amendment right to say and speak freely in this nation, but whenever that is coupled violence or acts of violence then that changes to a breaking of the law,” says Shane Utter, FBI special agent.
“I think there is a limit when you have a freedom of speech it doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want to say regardless of you hurting other people or what are you saying,” says Dr. Muhammed.
Alluding to the attacks in France, the pope echoes that same message.
Meanwhile for Ramirez and his characters, there is still a place for satirical cartoons. A constructive rather than destructive rhetoric through the lens of a critic.
“I don’t venture into stuff that is demeaning to people, to women, in a sense of putting people down. It’s ok to have a big nose, it’s ok to have big eyes, and it’s ok to laugh. So, we need to help people laugh. And that’s what I do and that’s what I love doing,” adds Ramirez.
Dialogue and debate help dissuade and disarm extreme reactions. Something society will have to keep working on if it seeks to coexist with a globalized world.