WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Tuesday tempered its views on caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, refusing to criticize a satirical French magazine for publishing such images less than a week after a deadly attack on its headquarters.
Previously, the United States has criticized depictions of the Muslim prophet while defending free speech rights.
In 2006, the Bush administration described such cartoons in a Danish newspaper as "offensive," likening them to anti-Semitic and anti-Christian imagery. In 2012, the Obama administration questioned the judgment of Charlie Hebdo for similar depictions and said they could be "inflammatory."
Twelve died last week when terrorists attacked Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris.
On Tuesday, the State Department refused to criticize new Charlie Hebdo cartoons released this week or say if the U.S. considered them anti-Muslim. The White House was similarly restrained Monday.
"Regardless of what anyone's personal opinion is, and I know there are very heated personal opinions about this, we absolutely support the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish things like this," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters. "That's what happens in a democracy. Period."
Many Muslims consider any depictions of Muhammad to be blasphemous. Asked if the U.S. wanted publishers to take such sentiments into account, Harf said only that the U.S. "would call broadly on news organizations to take into account the factors they think are important."
"There are a variety of factors that go into decisions to publish, whether it's journalistic freedom, whether it's sensitivity, religious sensitivity," she said.
"We certainly understand that people, particularly Muslims, have very strong personal feelings about these kinds of depictions," she added. "Nothing justifies violence, nothing justifies hatred and nothing should stand in the way of freedom of expression."
Charlie Hebdo's first cover since last week's attack shows a caricature of Muhammad on the cover and a double-page spread claiming that more turned out to a Paris march Sunday to back the satirical weekly "than for Mass." Muhammad is holding a sign saying "I am Charlie" with the words "All is forgiven" above him.
The magazine has targeted different religions with its humor but had faced threats for depicting Muhammad. One of Egypt's top Islamic authorities on Tuesday warned Charlie Hebdo against publishing more cartoons of Muhammad, saying they would provoke Muslims.
The U.S. was more sympathetic to that view in years past.
After cartoons in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten sparked violent demonstrations in Muslim countries, then-State Department spokesman Sean McCormack defended free speech but said democracies must promote understanding, respect for minority rights and appreciation of cultural differences. "We find them offensive, and we certainly understand why Muslims would find these images offensive," he said.
That reaction came after difficult behind-the-scenes talks. The case for unambiguous support of free speech was made by Daniel Fried, a career diplomat who at the time was America's top diplomat for Europe. Opposing him was David Welch, then the senior U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, who stressed Muslim sensitivities. The result was McCormack's two-pronged statement, according to officials familiar with the discussions who demanded anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak on the matter.
Six years later, the Obama administration struck a similar tone after Charlie Hebdo's Mohammed depictions. "We have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this," White House press secretary Jay Carney said in 2012. "We know that these images will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory." He, too, reiterated the importance of upholding freedom of expression.
President Barack Obama's current spokesman spoke differently Monday.
"There is nothing that the individuals at that satirical magazine did that justified in any way the kind of violence that we saw in Paris last week. None," Josh Earnest said. "That is, I think, the most important principle that's at stake here."
He too said it was up to news organizations to make their own assessments on publishing such material.