On Wednesday 7th of January, Paris made headlines worldwide when two armed men burst into the headquarters of the anarchist satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo to kill the cartoonists they deemed responsible for deriding the prophet.
Among the victims were five cartoonists spanning over four generations: Wolinski was 80; Cabu was 76, he was responsible for giving the former Hara-Kiri magazine its new Charlie Hebdo name–a tongue in cheek reference to General Charles de Gaulle who in 1970 banned its predecessor; Honoré was 73; Tignous was 58, and Charb who had been the Editor in Chief of Charlie Hebdo since 2009, and whose name was featured in an Al Qaeda list of people wanted for crimes against Islam, was the youngest of them all at 48. He lived under police protection. Along with them, seven others died during the Kalashnikov-led assault, including a forty-year-old Muslim policeman called Ahmed Merabet.
A surreal two-day gangster movie-like manhunt broadcasted live on French TV followed as the culprits, the Kouachi brothers, French citizens of Algerian origin who took refuge in a printing warehouse. Simultaneously, a hostage crisis started in a kosher supermarket led to the sectarian killing of four Jews, further fueling religious animosity.
In solidarity, the hashtag #jesuischarlie started sprouting on social media. Soon to be followed by the antinomic hashtag #jenesuispascharlie harshly criticizing the racist and insulting nature of the incriminated cartoons, as well as the double standards of freedom of speech in France with a direct reference to the banning of pro-Palestinian manifestations last summer. Some Muslims clearly articulated that they could not associate with Charlie Hebdo because of the way in which their religion had been vilified by the publication, but that they stood united against criminal actions performed in the name of their religion by madmen. In short, they asked for respect to be paid to the beliefs they hold dear.
Indeed, the magazine led an offensive combat against Islamic symbols–the drawings were vehement, sometimes vitriolic, and that was their raison-d’être. They constantly pushed boundaries and tested the limits. They made ruthless fun of religious intolerance. It is an insane self-fulfilling prophecy that these cartoonists ended up dying at the hands of the very characters they captured and mocked for their intolerance and rigidity: a caricature of the caricature, Kalashnikov in hand, exclaiming “I avenged the prophet”.
Were the cartoons acceptable? Some of them were pornographic, insulting and tasteless. Such impertinence and satire; diatribes and rants were the cartoonists’ manifesto against what they perceived to be an increasingly apologetic and obsequious world. In the words of Luz, the cartoonist whose life was spared because he turned up thirty minutes late to the office that morning: “Charlie Hebdo had a phobia against obscurantism, so we drew little characters, sometimes it was genius, sometimes dirty and sometimes it sucked”. That irreverence was part and parcel of a French spirit of insurrection.
Before the attack Charlie Hebdo was an isolated bastion of May 68 spirit with 60000 prints per week; it was a marginal, semi-bankrupt anarchist newspaper. It reviled and made fun of all symbols, ideologies and institutions, claiming freedom of expression over political correctness. To put it back in context its English counterpart, it was something along the lines of Monty Python, which constantly pushed back the boundaries of correctness both in form and content, and made fun of a corseted society in the 70s. Something from the past, a cultural institution of sorts that people look upon leniently, or ignore.
That somewhat obsolete institution turned into a cultural phenomenon when, the following Sunday, Paris saw over one and a half million people gather in a peaceful march. 44 world leaders spontaneously flew to the capital to hold arms against terrorism. In an unprecedented gathering that brought together over 1,5 million people in the streets of the capital, and 4 million all around France, all marched in solidarity with the victims to testify their love of French Republican Values: liberté, égalité, fraternité. The attacks in the heart of Paris acted as an electroshock that awoke France from its torpor. The purpose of that gathering and its symbolic dimension was to keep the fabric of French society united in the face of violence and intolerance, to stand against sectarian suicide, and to unite for a stronger community spirit.
It was a gathering, not a demonstration, something of a solemn nature that imposed respect. Those present mentioned that it was very touching and that they sensed they were part of history. It was an homage to people who were all about fun and humor, and a refusal to surrender to the fear of terrorism. Flags were seen flowing from Place de la République, French flags, but also Algerian, Tunisian and Israeli flags, and pencils, many pencils that outlined the disproportion of the reaction of the murderers.
In a troubling way what happens and the overwhelming gathering of people in France, and the mobilization of world leaders shows that Islamism, jihadism, brainwashing and the murderous dogma they come with are real threats, threats that know no borders. The captain of the police station where Ahmed Merabet worked mentioned the thousand dormant potential Kouachi brothers. The threat is real, which explains why the gathering became much bigger than Charlie Hebdo, much bigger than France itself. It brought together heads of state some present to defend freedom of speech, others united against terrorism, others like Jordan’s Queen Rania who said, “as a Muslim, it pains me when someone derides Islam and my religious beliefs. It also pains me when someone derides other religions and other people’s religious beliefs. But what offends me more, much more, are the actions of the criminals who, this week, dared to use Islam to justify the cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians. This is not about Islam or being offended by the Charlie Hebdo magazine. This is about a handful of extremists who wanted to slaughter people for any reason and at any cost.”
A cartoon by the deceased Tignous sadly echoes that folly by depicting a bearded man looking confused under a giant hand, finger pointed on his head. The caption reads: “Allah is big enough to defend Mohammad alone… Understood?”
This Wednesday, the new issue of Charlie Hebdo was published: its bright green cover featuring a caricature of the prophet Mohammed in tears holding a sign that reads ‘I am Charlie’ with all is forgiven written in capital letters above. This time round, it is not 60.000 copies that were printed but three million. Charlie Hebdo will be translated into 12 languages, including Arabic, thereby giving a much wider public access to an idiosyncratic French sense of humor.
The issue in the coming weeks and months will be for France as a nation to transcend disunion and bring together the torn fabric of its people. If France fails to create a new spirit of citizenship, the terrorists will have won. If France manages to fight Muslim extremists without antagonizing its Muslim population, it wins.