A year ago, at around 11:25 on a Wednesday morning, two terrorists entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. 15 members of staff had gathered for their weekly editorial conference: Wednesday was publication date. The terrorists sprayed the office room with bullets.
At 11:40, a writer for the magazine who survived the carnage made a phone call. “Call the police. It’s carnage, a bloodbath. Everyone is dead.”
12 people were murdered. For drawing some cartoons.
Two days later, four people were murdered in a kosher supermarket. For being Jews.
In France, there was an outpouring of grief — millions marched for unity, to show the world (and the terrorists, those who sympathise with them and those who seek to legitimise their actions) that they would not be cowed by terrorism.
But, in response, many so-called liberals betrayed their cause. Time after time after time, there are people who do not go after the terrorists — people who have chosen to murder civilians — but after the victims. Charlie Hebdo for many wore a short skirt. In the aftermath of the massacre, they questioned and still question whether Charlie Hebdo should have printed allegedly “offensive” cartoons of Mohammed. The Financial Times, for example, published an article which described the magazine's actions as ‘Muslim-baiting’ and argued that ‘some common sense would be useful’.
Based on the reaction of much of the press, one could be mistaken for believing that Charlie Hebdo had an unhealthy preoccupation with Islam. But did you know that between 2005 and 2015 Charlie Hebdo published 523 copies and only seven front covers were on the topic of Islam. It published 21 on Christianity — including one which featured the baby Jesus gushing out of the Virgin Mary’s vagina — and 336 on politics, very often mocking the far right? Charlie Hebdo is NOT obsessed with Islam.
Over the past few years, many people have spread lies and misinformation about the magazine. Charlie Hebdo is not a racist, reactionary, right-wing magazine. It is a fiercely anti-racist, anti-religious, left-wing, anarchical, satirical magazine (the magazine was firebombed in 2011 after it criticised the oppression of women and gays in Muslim countries). It attacks power. It attacks bigots. It attacks racists. It attacks terrorists. It is a symbol of hard-hitting, anti-clerical, multifaceted French satire. It lives by the mantra of les soixante-huitards: il est interdit de interdire – it is forbidden to forbid. The magazine has ni dieu ni maître – neither God nor master. It mocks and taunts powerful institutions in often deeply complicated cartoons.
Cabu, a cartoonist murdered last January, was “a virulent anti-militarist”. Charb was, before he was murdered, a pacifist and a member of the decidedly anti-racist 'Movement against racism and for friendship between peoples'. Philippe Honoré, before his murder, worked for a number of left-wing papers such as Libération and Le Monde. In 1996, three Charlie Hebdo editors launched a petition to ban the FN, which garnered almost 175,000 signatures (former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen declared “je ne suis pas Charlie” after the murders). Not a bunch of crass bigoted xenophobes then.
I was pleasantly surprised that a number of media organisations in Britain (usually left-leaning: the Guardian and Huffington Post as well as the BBC) published the cartoons in the wake of last January's shooting. After I published some of the cartoons in the student newspaper I edited at the time, we comfortably won a Union Society debate calling for them to be republished. However, most news organisations did not publish the cartoons. Thus, many people will never be able to understand the complex and deep-rooted meanings behind them.
Mehdi Hasan — a self-proclaimed liberal who is pro-life and “struggle[s] with the idea of homosexuality” — misrepresented a cartoon that portrayed Christiane Taubira, Justice Minister, as a monkey. On the surface, it looks outrageously racist. But in fact (of course!) Charb was mocking the far-right portrayal of Taubira in the same way The New Yorker mocked the Republican portrayal of Barack Obama in the cartoon below. Both cartoons stirred anger because people did not look below the surface. In the case of Taubira, the cover features a similar type font and motif as the far-right posters of the FN. The motto “Racist Blue Union” (rassemblement bleu raciste) is a play on the French nickname of the FN (“rassemblement bleu Marine” or “Navy Blue Union”). Charb changed the word Navy (which is “Marine” in French; Marine Le Pen is the leader of the FN) and replaced it with racist. Clever, eh?
Hasan once said that there should be sanctions for “dishonest, demonising press coverage” of Muslims. Ironically, Hasan wrote a dishonest, demonising article about Charlie Hebdo, just days after the murders. The cartoons are not racist simply because you’re an idiot. Those who lie and spread misinformation about Charlie Hebdo provide the terrorists with a narrative: that the West has an obsessive hatred of Muslims. In fact, the cartoonists had done nothing but mock – humorously and irreverently – an engrained idea.
Religion is powerful — it is totalitarian when used as a political tool. The French introduced laicité and abolished blasphemy laws in order to counter the influence of the Catholic Church. France has a long history of satirical cartoonists who have mocked the Church. However, today the threat to free speech and reasoned thinking most often comes from Islamist terrorists. If we allow for the mockery of ideas, we acknowledge that absolutism and terrorism will never succeed. Those who question our right to mock quite simply say: if you don’t like what we are doing, if you do not like our society or our values or our ways or what we stand for, come and shoot us and we will change. That is giving in to the terrorists.
Charlie Hebdo responded to the terrorist threats with cartoons. In one front page cartoon, Mohammed is being decapitated by an Islamic State terrorist. In it, Charb writes “if the Prophet returns… ”, he would say “I am the Prophet jerk” to which the terrorist replies “shut the fuck up, infidel”. That is a fierce, powerful mockery of Islamist terrorism. Another cartoon from 2006 (after riots across the Muslim world following the publication of Mohammed cartoons in a Danish paper) showed Mohammed crying with the caption “Muhammed overwhelmed by fundamentalists”. Mohammed said: “It’s tough being loved by idiots”. In the edition following the massacre, Mohammed was shown in tears saying “all is forgiven”. He is saying sorry for the atrocities committed in his name. The message is simple: that the aims of the terrorists are against the values of Islam. These cartoons do not vilify Muslims – they merely stand up to the terrorists. In all the kerfuffle over Islamophobia, people have forgotten the real enemy.
Charb — the former editor-in-chief of the magazine — once said he was “not afraid of reprisals… I'd prefer to die on my feet than to live on my knees”. Shouldn’t we all? If we let terrorists terrorise us, if we allow them to make us self-censor, they have won. Charlie Hebdo is not a racist magazine (if you think it is, sue them like the Catholic Church has attempted and failed to do so many times) and I am not calling for absolute free speech. All I am simply asking for, one year on, is for society to maintain that every idea — be it political or religious, be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Atheism, Socialism, Communism, Conservatism, and every powerful figure — be it a President or a Prophet — must be questioned and therefore must be mocked. Otherwise, we are declaring that we are prepared for an idea or an individual to oppress us.