The terrorist attack against the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were left dead this Wednesday in Paris (and which was followed by the killing of 5 more people on Thursday and Friday by a third gunman, linked to the two terrorists, before all three were shot down) shook France, and the world, in a totally unprecedented way.
It is not the first time that Islamic fundamentalists shed blood in the heart of the French capital, the last killings dating back to 1995 and 1996 when several bombings were carried out in the RER subway and in different parts of the city by Algerian terrorists. And yet, the symbolic impact of this week’s attack makes it truly unique, and even more disturbing, because of its double nature: this time, not only the lives of innocent people were taken, but the terrorists directly targeted one of the very cornerstones of the French Republic, one that is at the heart of every democracy, standing among its most basic Human Rights: our freedom of expression.
My first reaction when I heard of the shooting Wednesday at lunchtime, only a dozen blocks away from the newspaper’s headquarters, was one of total shock, mixed with anger and extreme sadness. Of course my first thoughts went to the victims, gunned down in cold blood, with automatic weapons, during five minutes of an unimaginable violence: eight of the paper’s most famous caricaturists, journalists, and collaborators were left dead, aside a man invited to the weekly editorial meeting, one of the cartoonists’ bodyguard, a maintenance employee in the building, and a policeman shot moments later by the two gunmen, French brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, one block away.
Having lived in Paris for more than twenty years, and being to this day an occasional reader of the newspaper (“Charlie”, as its most faithful followers affectionately call it, was even one of my regular readings in my long-gone student years), my second reaction was one of astounded disbelief: “How is it possible, how, that Charlie, i.e. such a paramount pillar to this country’s free speech and alternative thinking, how is it possible that Charb’s, Cabu’s, Wolinski’s, Tignous’, Honoré’s caricatures, a symbol of the wittiest creativity and of the most uncompromising political irreverence, will simply not be anymore? And why, why this way?”
Everyone in this country, whether a Charlie Hebdo reader or not, knows what this joyful, dishevelled, epicurean little “gang”’s contribution to political and social debate has always been, ever since the 1960s when Hara-Kiri, Charlie’s “father”, was founded by François Cavanna and Georges Bernier, best known as Professeur Choron. Banned after a famous headline that the authorities viewed as disrespectful of President
Charles de Gaulle’s death in 1970 (“Tragic ball at Colombey: one dead”), the paper was immediately resurrected under the name of Charlie Hebdo. Throughout the 70s, it went on promoting — and contributed to keep alive — the way of thinking of May ’68, in the spirit of “L’imagination au pouvoir” (“Let’s rise imagination to power”), anti-conformism, and outright disrespect of the authority. Its publication came to an end in the early 80s, due to plummeting sales, but was resumed in 1992.
Ever since, Cavanna, Cabu, Wolinski, Val, Luz, Charb, Honoré, Tignous, and the others have never stopped mocking the French and international establishment, political and economic as well as intellectual or religious, with their markedly left-wing (although aimed at every party in the political spectrum), firmly secular, anti-racist, environmentalist, and strongly antimilitarist caricatures and stances. The serious trouble started in 2006, after the newspaper, in the name of freedom of expression, endorsed the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, reprinting them and adding its own caricatures, thus sparking off the anger and indignation of Muslims in France and abroad. Charlie Hebdo’s editor was brought to court by three Muslim organizations, but was eventually acquitted, on the ground that the cartoons were not to be seen as offensive to Islam, but rather as a critique on fundamentalism (one of the caricatures, titled “Muhammad overwhelmed by the fundamentalists”, showed the Prophet exclaiming, “It’s so sad, to be loved by assholes…”).
In the following years, new caricatures aimed against fundamentalism, seldom using the Prophet’s caricature, came about, alongside others portraying the Pope (one of Charlie’s all-time favourite “characters”), Jesus, or notable rabbis and Jews. The newspaper’s headquarters came under attack in 2011, when they were completely destroyed by a fire, and the staff was thus granted permanent police protection, with Charb, the author of most of the Muhammad caricatures now escorted by a bodyguard. “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees”, he once said. A sadly foreboding cartoon he drew a few days before being slaughtered with his friends and colleagues around their working table depicted a jihadist fighter, under the headline “Still no terrorist attacks in France”, replying, “Wait! We still have until the end of January to present our New Year’s greetings!”
Now, I must say that I did not always agree with “Charlie”’s stances. When the Danish cartoons were first published, I was among the many people who thought that offending the Muslims’ sensibility was undoubtedly a little inappropriate, somewhat over-provocative, unnecessary. But I must also say that I was glad that, thanks to those very stances, free speech, freedom of expression and of satire, that have been such a precious tool of democracy, and part of our culture for centuries, were, are, and always be safeguarded and encouraged. Satire, by definition, should not stop in front of the authority, of any kind, whether political, intellectual, or religious (of course, as long as it doesn’t step on other people’s most basic rights). After all, why should we be allowed to portray the Pope or Jesus or a rabbi, and not Muhammad?
If you who are reading are a Muslim, you must know that, of course, I do respect your religion, I do respect the faith you have in your God — I’m sure Charb and the others did too, although this was too often misunderstood. I am also of course well aware, everyone is, that you are not supposed to portray your Prophet. But I am not a Muslim, so you will have to accept that your laws don’t apply to me. The only laws I respond to are the ones that originated in the understanding and cherishing of our
Human Rights, free speech and freedom of expression being on top of the list, just like freedom of religion is. I will never, we will never bend our heads to anyone who tries to take these freedoms away from us.
For this reason, I mourn the loss of these matchless artists of irreverence and free thinking, savagely killed because they firmly believed in their ideas and stood for them until the end, putting their lives at stake in order to defend our dearest freedoms — I will always be thankful to them for this. For this reason, too, I will never think, not even for a second, that all Muslims are prone to violence and fundamentalism, like unfortunately too many people think in the West (the very advocates of intolerance and racism who were the most favourite targets of Charlie’s campaigns). For this reason, I will miss their caricatures, those hundreds of pungent, hilarious jokes and pitiless depictions of politicians, religious leaders, intellectuals, soldiers, policemen, businessmen, sportsmen, actors, and other celebrities, and in the coming months and years, whenever I look at them once again, I will never give in to the slightest feeling of hatred nor the urge for unnecessary vengeance — but instead, I will keep doing what I’ve always done: have another laugh.