PARIS (CNN) – After a week of deadly international protests against an anti-Islam film, a French satirical magazine is pouring oil on the fiery debate between freedom of expression and offensive provocation.
The magazine Charlie Hebdo, which is known for outrageous humor, published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the Prophet Mohammed on Wednesday.
The issue hit the stands eight days after a video mocking the Muslim prophet triggered angry protests, including one that led to the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
Stephane Charbonnier, director of the French magazine, said his staff is “not really fueling the fire” but rather using its 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 told CNN affiliate BFM-TV on Wednesday.
The magazine was directing its derision at “this grotesque film,” Charbonnier said, not the Muslim prophet.
That “grotesque film” is “Innocence of Muslims,” a video that sat obscure on the Internet until September 11 when rioters, seizing on it, attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Protesters also breached the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, the same day, and protests over the video have erupted in at least 20 countries since then.
There has been no violence reported as a result of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
But France will close embassies and schools in about 20 countries on Friday, the main Muslim day of prayer, as a precaution, the French Foreign Ministry said Wednesday.
It is already boosting security in some locations, including its embassies, and police vehicles were parked outside the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo late Tuesday.
Any depiction of Islam’s prophet is considered blasphemy by many Muslims. France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, with an estimated 4.7 million followers of the faith.
The Charlie Hebdo cartoons are not labeled Mohammed, but several, including one that appears to show a man’s naked rear end, could easily be interpreted as being depictions of Islam’s prophet.
Charlie Hebdo journalist Laurent Leger said the magazine did not intend to provoke anger or violence.
“The aim is to laugh,” Leger said. “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.”
Leger defended the magazine, saying it was within its rights and not responsible for people’s reactions.
“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.”
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault expressed his support for the freedom of press, but he said there are limits.
“We have a free press that can express itself right up to the point of caricature,” Ayrault said Tuesday. “But there is also a question of responsibility.”
He assured the public that “all the precautions will be taken” to maintain order.
The cartoons are provoking outrage among the French Muslim community, while other Muslims have accused the magazine of pandering for attention.
Wednesday’s cartoons were published a day after hundreds of Muslims took to Twitter to satirize the U.S. magazine Newsweek’s cover story on “Muslim Rage” in which the Somali-born writer and former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali said the recent protests represented mainstream Muslim opinion worldwide.
Muslims shot back with tongue-in-cheek tweets about what really enrages them, such as having a really good hair day but no one notices because they’re wearing hijabs.
Hend Amry, who posted that tweet as @LibyaLiberty, said Charlie Hebdo’s latest cartoons were a cynical attempt to inflate sales. She disputed the magazine’s position that it just wants to provoke laughter and express its right to free speech.
“No it isn’t. It’s for ratings,” she said.
She compared it to the French magazine that printed topless photos of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.
“Like printing tawdry pics of (Catherine) Middleton — lowbrow rating booster,” she said.
“If we’re going to chart it on the Muslim insult-o-meter, it is less inflammatory than the ‘film’ but does continue the East/West divide we see,” she told CNN.
A South African student — who said that what really enraged her was the release of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises” during Ramadan — said she had no intention of looking at the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
Tweeting as @oh_my_golly, she said: “Refuse to be a pawn in a game where people deliberately insult beliefs&wish to incite hate/anger/violence citing ‘free speech'”
Dalil Boubakeur, head of the Grand Mosque in Paris, condemned the cartoons “in the strongest possible terms” and expressed surprise that the magazine was running new Mohammed cartoons after its offices were attacked the last time it did so.
“To repeat the same stupidity, the same idiocy and the same calumnies, the same ignominy seems to us to be nearly psychotic action,” he said.
The magazine’s offices were the scene of an attack in November when they were burned on the day the magazine was due to publish an issue with a cover appearing to make fun of Islamic law.
The cover featured a bearded and turbaned cartoon figure of Mohammed saying, “100 lashes if you’re not dying of laughter.”
The cartoonist known as Luz, who drew the cover, has been under police protection since then.
Wednesday’s issue does not have a Mohammed cartoon on the cover.
“We learned our lesson,” Luz said.
France has seen rising tensions over its rapidly growing Muslim minority. Last year, the country banned the wearing of Islamic veils and other face coverings, claiming they were both degrading and a security risk.
Belgium has passed similar legislation, and Switzerland banned the building of minarets, the tall spires that often stand next to mosques.
CNN’s Dheepthi Namasivayam, Richard Allen Greene, Ana Bickford, Susannah Palk and Alex Felton contributed to this report.