Satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo published on Wednesday several caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, including some of him naked, which are forcing French government embassies, consulates, cultural centers and schools to close down in over 20 countries as a precautionary measure.
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"We are aware that a French magazine published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the prophet Muhammad, and obviously we have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this," said White House spokesman Jay Carney during a midday press briefing at the White House."We know these images will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential be be inflammatory."
The decision to publish the cartoons comes only weeks after an anti-Islam video considered offensive by Muslims was put out on YouTube, sparking a wave of hostility and violence in the Middle East targeting several Western embassies and consulates. American government buildings experienced the brunt of the protests by angry Islamic mobs, with U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens among four Americans killed at the consulate in Libya accounting for the most serious incident.
Stephane Charbonnier, director of the French magazine, told CNN that she does not believe his staff was purposefully "fueling the fire," but rather using 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 said on Wednesday.
Caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, are prohibited and considered offensive to Muslims, which is sure to heighten tensions in France, which has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe with 4.7 million adherents.
"The aim is to laugh," said Charlie Hebdo journalist Laurent Leger. "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."
Although the Charlie Hebdo cartoons do not specifically have a label noting that the illustrated figure is Muhammad, CNN notes that a number of them could "easily be interpreted as being depictions of Islam's prophet."
"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," Leger added.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said of the cartoons: "We have a free press that can express itself right up to the point of caricature. But there is also a question of responsibility."
Ayrault noted that security would have to be stepped up to maintain order.