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By Nigel Duara, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The prophet is locked in an embrace, his arm encircling a French cartoonist, their lips locked. Both drool.

The prophet raises a finger, pointing to a word bubble. “100 lashes if you don’t laugh.”

The prophet is on all fours, genitals exposed, a five-pointed star between his legs. “A star is born!”

These were among the images that brought international attention, scorn, praise and death threats to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that takes profane aim at the shibboleths of politics, culture and religion, particularly conservative ones.

On Wednesday, in an attack foreshadowed by a 2011 firebombing, 12 people were shot and killed in an attack on the magazine’s Paris offices. Armed with pump-action shotguns and a Kalashnikov assault rifle, their actions caught on video by onlookers, gunmen killed 10 members of the magazine staff, including its editor, and two police officers. Five more people were reportedly seriously injured.

Editor Stephane Charbonnier knew the risks of publishing such images, particularly those depicting the prophet Muhammad. Several Muslim hadiths — reports about the teachings of the faith — forbid such visual representations. Charbonnier believed the threats came from a small minority that was unlikely to act.

“It just so happens I’m more likely to get run over by a bicycle in Paris than get assassinated,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2013.

But he wasn’t unaware of the risks. Asked if he was worried about being targeted, he replied, “Yeah, that’s rather bothersome.” He said it would be harder to do the job, which he took in 2009, if he had a family to worry about.

Absent a family, gunmen apparently targeted the closest thing.

Muslims in ardently secular France, many largely marginalized in the Parisian exurbs and facing discrimination over their dress and skin color, considered the magazine’s content a form of hate speech. The Collective Against Islamophobia in France has insisted that the magazine does more harm than good.

“Socially speaking, France is in a bad state,” spokeswoman Sumeja Rahmani said in a 2013 interview with The Times. “What are these cartoons worth other than ridiculing Muslims more and devaluing them, insulting and offending them?

It wasn’t only French Muslims who thought the crude drawings to be in poor taste, as well as needlessly inflammatory. Nor was Islam the only target — far from it. French politicians questioned the balance of editorial freedom and potential harm, some saying the cartoons were weighted heavily toward the latter.

The magazine delighted in reprinting 12 Danish cartoons, most of which depicted caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. Those cartoons incited protests and violence throughout the Muslim world after their publication in 2005 by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

But provocation was not the aim. Well, not the only aim.

“Charlie is trying to analyze the controversy and its consequences,” an editorial explained after the newspaper published the Danish cartoons. “It’s a question of showing that the freedom of expression should be stronger than intimidation.”

The New Yorker’s cartoon editor in 2012, Robert Mankoff, offered up what he said was the only inoffensive cartoon possible. “Please enjoy this culturally, ethnically, religiously, and politically correct cartoon responsibly.”

It was four black lines. An empty box.

AFP Photo/ Bertrand Guay

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