I never much cared for Charlie Hebdo. Occasionally I would walk by a newsstand on Place Victor Hugo, where I live, and perhaps smirk or wrinkle my nose at some garish caricature on Charlie’s cover. This would usually be a politician, although on the day of the shootings it was a demented baby Jesus rapidly exiting a spread-eagled Virgin Mary. I remember that a couple years ago I picked up a copy someone left behind on the Metro. It took me until very recently to realize that the generic, turbaned man on the cover was supposed to be Muhammad, and that this issue in particular had literally earned the staff of Charlie Hebdo a spot on Al-Qaeda’s most wanted list.
The debate over such cartoons has flared up periodically over the past decade, usually as part of the well-worn cycle of publication, protest, re-publication as protest, and so on. And so, in the wake of January’s brutal attacks on Parisian cartoonists, cops, and Jews, the usual rhetoric soared to new levels of intensity. I cannot begin to cover all the different discussions being had over the spread of radical Islamism and Islamophobia in the West, and the balance between freedom of speech and cultural sensitivity. But I want to put Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and broader editorial policy into their proper historical, cultural, and political context. For much of the criticism aimed at Charlie Hebdo – particularly from outside of France – completely misunderstands the very specific ideological intent behind the newspaper’s content.
Many have objected to the irreverent images of Muhammad, contemporary Muslim clerics, and Islamist extremists, on the grounds that they propagate offensive stereotypes and prejudiced attitudes towards Muslims. They accuse Charlie Hebdo of contributing to the rampant Islamophobia so characteristic of the ascendant European right, and thereby. reinforcing and the marginalized status of Muslim communities throughout Europe. Some have said that even if Charlie Hebdo only seeks to insult Islam as an organized religion like any other, doing so still constitutes an unnecessary act of aggression towards the marginalized Muslim populations of Europe.
All such criticisms miss their mark. Charlie Hebdo neither supports the xenophobic tide rising across Europe, nor should it cease publishing its content in the name of sensitivity.
To understand the first point, let us turn back the clock to Charlie Hebdo’s founding. It was founded in 1970, out of the ashes of a left-wing satirical magazine named L’Hebdo Hara-Kiri, which was run by the kind of young leftists who kickstarted the student uprisings of May 1968 (Hebdo is short for hebdomadaire, or weekly). After the French government banned Hara-Kiri for mocking the death of former president Charles de Gaulle, the staff named their reconstituted magazine in honor of both the dead president and the Peanuts cartoons that Hara-Kiri used to run. The new magazine continued Hara-Kiri’s tradition of assaulting the conservative, quasi-authoritarian political and social order that de Gaulle represented. To these hip young leftists, de Gaulle embodied all they loathed about contemporary France: militarism, imperialism, xenophobia, and Catholicism.
Up until its dissolution in 1981 and since its return in 1991, Charlie Hebdo has constantly sought to undermine everything that smacks of nationalism or social conservatism: it regularly depicts the Pope and other Catholic priests as closeted, gay pedophiles, mercilessly pillories Israel for its policies towards Palestine and Lebanon, and consistently opposes Western military interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere. Above all, it takes glee in lacerating the xenophobic French right, which uses Islamophobic language to advocate for immigration restrictions. One cover literally depicted National Front leader Marine Le Pen as a piece of shit. In short, Charlie Hebdo stands in stark opposition to the right-wing movements gathering support across Europe. Written and illustrated by aging Marxists, and with its circulation of 60,000 mainly confined to leftish, affluent Paris, the newspaper has nothing to do with the brand of populist xenophobia represented by Le Pen’s National Front, or any of its analogues in Germany, the Netherlands, or elsewhere.
Let us focus for a minute on Charlie Hebdo’s relationship to religion. Leftist to the last, the newspaper opposes organized religion on the grounds that spiritual dogma is both delusional and oppressive – recall Marx’s aphorism that, “religion is the opiate of the people.” While Catholicism has long suffered the brunt of its ridicule, Judaism and Islam have now and again entered its crosshairs. Charlie Hebdo frequently lambasts ultra-Orthodox Jews in the process of criticizing Israel, on the grounds that religiously-inspired Zionism contributes to the violent oppression of Palestinians.
It is important to note that in all of its depictions of Muslims, Charlie Hebdo has only ever depicted three types of Muslims: violent jihadists, imams, and Muhammad. Let’s unpack each of these categories. It should go without saying that jihadists deserve ridicule. Imams, as representatives of organized religion fall in the same category as the popes, priests, and nuns that Charlie Hebdo loves to depict in all sorts of lewd postures. They have actually featured relatively rarely and neutrally in Charlie Hebdo’s pages, compared to their maligned Christian equivalents.
But why Muhammad? Why do the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo feel it necessary to injure the feelings of millions of Muslims in France and around the world? The act alone of publishing a visual depiction of the Prophet is enough to incite genuine grievance and outrage on a global scale. Why would Charlie Hebdo cross this line, repeatedly and with escalating levels of vulgarity? Why on earth depict Muhammad as a gay porn star? Who actually benefits from such disrespect, or the violent responses that disrespect provokes? The cartoons aren’t even that funny.
Once again, context is everything. Each and every time that Charlie Hebdo has published a drawing of Muhammad, it has been in direct response to the actions of violent Islamic extremists. That is an undisputed fact. After the Danish newspaper Jillends-Posten published a cartoon of Muhammad in 2005, a global firestorm of protest ignited. Perfectly legitimate peaceful protest and civic campaigns were unfortunately accompanied by attacks on Western embassies and over 200 riot-related deaths, in addition to a flood of death threats against the cartoonists. In response to these violent actions, Charlie Hebdo responded by not only reprinting the offending cartoon, but also publishing some original caricatures of their own. I will get to the principle of reprinting offending cartoons later, but for now let us focus on Charlie Hebdo’s own content.
The cover of that issue depicted Muhammad weeping and exclaiming “It is hard to be loved by idiots!” The caption read: “Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists.” This cartoon clearly separated the Prophet of Islam from the extremists who distort it for their own ends, in stark contrast to genuine Islamophobia, which conflates the core tenets of the religion with its most violent elements. However, it still depicted Muhammad, thereby violating a deeply-felt cultural prohibition in most of the Muslim Arab world (this prohibition does not exist to the same extent in Iran, a non-Arab country that has its own distinct relationship with Islam). The Grand Mosque of Paris, Muslim World League, and Union of French Islamic Organizations sued Charlie Hebdo for hate speech. France, and Europe in general, has a much more tightly defined conception of free speech, which restricts expression deemed racist or unduly prejudiced. In the event, the courts ruled that Charlie Hebdo had attacked terrorists, not Islam itself.
In 2011, Charlie Hebdo responded to the imposition of Sharia law in Libya by publishing a special issue, titled “Charia Hebdo.” This was the issue I found abandoned on the Paris Metro. Behind the cover of Muhammad lay cartoons ridiculing the mandatory wearing of the veil, the stoning of adulterers, the persecution of gays, and other human rights abuses associated with strict interpretations of Sharia law. I seriously doubt the reasonableness of any human being who takes offense at that particular line of content. The cartoons featuring Muhammad specifically, however, were preposterously disrespectful, not to mention crass. A quick Google images search ought to quickly sate the reader’s curiosity.
After the release of the cover online (though not the lewd images within the magazine), and preceding the publication of the actual issue, unknown attackers firebombed Charlie Hebdo’s offices and hacked its website. The office was effectively destroyed. Charlie Hebdo’s late editor, known as Charb, said at the time that the attackers were “radical stupid people who don’t know what Islam is … idiots who betray their own religion.” He vowed to keep publishing. The next issue’s cover showed a male Charlie Hebdo cartoonist and an imam locked in a passionate, slobbery kiss against the backdrop of the newspaper’s smoldering offices. The caption read, “Love is stronger than hate.”
Fast-forward to the second attack. Charb died, along with most of his fellow cartoonists and an assortment of staffers, guests, and police officers. The survivors published an issue with a weeping Muhammad on the front, holding up a sign with the words, “All is Forgiven.” Once again, a mixed message of conciliation and provocation.
Why the provocation? To cease publishing pictures of Muhammad in response to the massacre, or to the firebombing, or to the riots, or to the death threats, would demonstrate that violence truly can silence free speech, that the fear of retribution creates self-censorship. If that fear is imposed by someone else, is it even self-censorship? Does it matter? No one should refrain from speaking, or drawing, or publishing to avoid murder. The bleak fact is that Europe today is unsafe for anyone who wishes to speak in the manner Charlie Hebdo has. A fundamentalist murdered Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh and vocal critic of radical Islam in 2004. The Danish cartoonist behind the original cartoons escaped assassination just last week. There are more that I do not have room to list here.
But of course, Charlie Hebdo would not have had to demonstrate its lack of fear had it not bothered to publish such cartoons in the first place, right? Doesn’t the same go for the Danish newspaper that published the original cartoons? Or the vast array of newspapers and websites that republished Charlie Hebdo’s work after the 2015 massacre?
No, no, and no. Muslims who take offense to depiction of Muhammad have every right to be offended. But the law of nearly every democratic nation ensures the de jure right to offend, up to a point. Unfortunately, no nation can fully ensure the de facto right to offend, so long as cartoons are met with murder, fire, and vandalism. Barring the creation of thought police, only one strategy can guarantee the freedom of speech against that violent retaliation: the vocal support of society.
When cartoonists and filmmakers get gunned down in the streets, in their workplaces, and in their homes, society absolutely must not respond by censoring their work. That sends the message that the murderers had a point, or that the offending speaker should not have spoken. Those speakers may be crass, rude, offensive, and immature. Charlie Hebdo surely meets that description. But the right to offend falls under the right to free speech. If we do not stand by the most distasteful members of society when they literally come under fire, we put the broader principle of free speech at risk.
To say, “Je suis Charlie,” is not to say, “Muslims should suck it up.” Not even close. It means, “our fates are intertwined.” When I marched with over one million other Parisians in the largest mass rally in modern French history, the most common signs around read, “Je suis Charlie. Je suis Juif. Je suis flic.” (I am Charlie. I am Jewish. I am a cop.) Those who held that sign did not endorse the tenets or claim the history of Judaism, nor did they bear all the pride and sins of the French police. In the same way, those of us who proclaim, “Je suis Charlie,” do not endorse Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons per se, nor do we claim to share its militantly left-wing ideology. We marched and held signs to show that we were not afraid, that guns must not alter our actions. To the contrary, we must speak more fervently than ever before.