The Charlie Hebdo I Know

One may mourn the dead and condemn their senseless slaughter without celebrating the magazine for values it did not embrace.

Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

PARIS—This weekend, in white block letters projected against the darkened upper facade of the Arc de Triomphe, one could read the words, “PARIS EST CHARLIE.” Mayor Anne Hidalgo had announced on Friday that Charlie Hebdo would be made an “honorary citizen” of Paris, a title reserved, she said, “for the most illustrative defenders of human rights throughout the world.”

The eight slain members of the publication, and four others who died with them, were “heroes,” Hidalgo told the assembled city government that morning, fighting to uphold the right to freedom of speech. That right, she said, is “sacred.”

This word seems a maladroit choice, or at least one with which Charlie Hebdo’s staff, at a time of less solemnity, might have taken issue. Since its founding in 1970, the satirical magazine has delighted in transgressing the moral and aesthetic taboos of most everyone. But it has reserved a special, obsessive disdain for the world’s organized religions. In 2011, after Catholic extremists in the city of Avignon vandalized “Piss Christ,” the photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in urine, Charlie Hebdo produced a cover cartoon featuring rolls of toilet paper labeled “Bible,” “Koran,” and “Torah.” The headline read: “In the shitter, all the religions.”

It is the magazine’s provocations toward Muslims, though, that have gained it particular notoriety; it first printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006. The notion that decency might dictate a certain sensitivity toward French Muslims, perhaps more than toward French Jews or Christians—because of their specific cultural injunctions against depictions of their prophet, or because they hail largely from the country’s black and Arab post-colonial underclass, or because they already feel stigmatized by politicians, the press, and their fellow citizens—has not apparently held much truck with Charlie Hebdo’s editors. On the contrary, Charlie’s hope, according to its editors, is to show believers the folly of their faith. This can hardly be called an undertaking of tolerance, that other virtue of liberal democracy.

The impulse to consecrate Charlie Hebdo in a moment of horror and anger—an impulse felt far beyond France—is eminently comprehensible. But one may mourn the dead and condemn their senseless slaughter, and hail their courage in carrying out a mission in which they deeply believed, without celebrating the magazine for virtues it did not espouse.

Until the killings, Charlie Hebdo was not much celebrated or even particularly valued—publicly, at any rate—by the French, though the many slander cases brought against it came with a certain amount of publicity; as of 2012, its weekly print run was about 60,000 copies, about a tenth of what the country’s most popular news weeklies sell. It is a publication that champions its speech rights with all the crude prurience and vitriol and rhetorical excess the law permits. (While the French public's tastes can allow for extremes of vulgarity, French speech law is in fact fairly restrictive, especially with respect to racist, anti-Semitic, or defamatory speech.)

Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication, as has been widely suggested in the Anglophone press, though it does not hesitate to risk appearing so if it might draw a laugh. (A good example is a recent cartoon, noted frequently in the past few days, depicting France’s black minister of justice as a monkey; the drawing was in fact meant to skewer the French racists who have portrayed her as a monkey, but those unfamiliar with French politics might be forgiven this misunderstanding.) The magazine is, however, intolerant of religion and believers of all sorts, and smug in those anticlerical convictions. Dialogue with its opponents was never of much interest, and it has repeatedly chosen to target some of France’s most vulnerable inhabitants for provocation.

In September 2012, amid violent protests across the Muslim world at the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in the film Innocence of Muslims, Charlie Hebdo printed several of its own depictions. One particularly vulgar cartoon showed Muhammad as a sort of porn star, naked, prostrate on his knees, his buttocks spread, his testicles and drippy penis dangling between his legs, with a star over his anus. The caption read, “Mahomet: a star is born!”

On the day of that issue’s publication, reporting for The New York Times, I asked Gérard Biard, the top editor at Charlie Hebdo, to explain the choice to publish cartoons that could reasonably be expected to fan the violence. (Biard was away from Paris on the day of the killings last week.) He responded by noting that Charlie Hebdo, “an atheist paper, a secularist paper, a democratic paper,” had done nothing prohibited under French law, and had made a habit of ridiculing Christians and Jews as well as Muslims. Islam, however, was in need of especially caustic treatment, he argued, insofar as it has prevented its followers from full integration into French society.

“You’re not supposed to use religion for your sense of identity, in any case not in a secular state,” Biard said. “In principle, the Arabs in France are not Muslims,” he contended—that is, Arabs in this secular, assimilationist nation are citizens like any others, and would be well served to renounce whatever attachment they may feel to Islam. “How is it going to help these people to make them believe they’re Muslims?” he asked.

Biard seemed genuinely concerned about the fate of France’s Arab population. Charlie Hebdo’s staff are “the first to demand that they have rights,” he said, referring to Arab French. But however well-meaning Charlie Hebdo's mockery of religion may be, it has succeeded in further alienating the very population it says it is seeking to advance. Muslims in France and around the world were predictably angry about the magazine’s decision to publish the images of the prophet, having failed to grasp, it seems, that Charlie Hebdo had been seeking to save them from themselves. Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, told the Associated Press, “This is a disgraceful and hateful, useless and stupid provocation.”

In 2012, Stéphane (“Charb”) Charbonnier, the editorial director of the magazine who was killed last week, told me, “I’m sorry for the people who are shocked when they read Charlie Hebdo. But let them save two euros fifty and not read it.”

Charlie Hebdo preaches a stringent interpretation of laïcité, France’s illiberal official secularism, which has been used, for instance, to justify a ban on Muslim headscarves for schoolgirls and government employees. At its writing into law in 1905, laïcité was meant to ensure the separation of the French state and the Catholic Church. In recent years, however, the term has been invoked to suggest that religious practices and beliefs should be kept strictly private, in the name of le vivre ensemble, as the politicians put it, or “everyone getting along”; not coincidentally, this shifting interpretation has followed the growth of a practicing Muslim population in France. A large part of that Muslim population feels, not without reason, that the invocation of laïcité has become an expedient fig leaf for what is really anti-Muslim bigotry.

Some more moderate French call Charlie Hebdo's editors “laïcards,” a pejorative term applied to the most strident ideologues of laïcité, especially those on the otherwise tolerant left. In 2012, the French sociologist and political scientist Vincent Geisser told the newspaper Libération that he saw “a form of secular Salafism,” an ultra-conservative strain of Sunni Islam, in Charlie Hebdo’s worldview. “Charlie Hebdo is only looking to impose its secular purity by treating everyone else as fanatics,” Geisser said. Such criticism is perhaps less palatable, but no less legitimate, in the wake of Wednesday's killings. Similar critiques have begun to appear online, under the counter-hashtag #JeNeSuisPasCharlie, or “I am not Charlie.”

“We are a French newspaper,” Biard told me in 2012, engaged in the defense of “French” values. In an interview with the Swiss public broadcaster RTS after last week's attack on his publication, he said: “Laïcité is not just some abstract idea. It is a moral value, and I believe today, one must recognize that laïcité is perhaps the prime moral value of our Republic. Because without it, Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité isn’t possible.”

In the France of 2015, this sort of ideological retrenchment is hardly radical. As is the case throughout Europe, Islam is seen by many here—with the possible exception of most French Muslims themselves—as a challenge to the country’s notion of itself. Biard’s words, in fact, could easily have been spoken by almost any politician here, from any political party, including the far-right National Front. However radical Charlie Hebdo’s mode of expression, the ideas it is promoting are not.

Charlie Hebdo’s leaders had once been free-thinking outsiders—the generation of May 1968, engaged in a fight against the Catholic paternalism of the post-war French establishment. But they long ago helped usher in a new, less conservative era. In essence, they won their battle, and their more open values became those of the new establishment. (Charlie Hebdo was born from the remnants of another satirical journal, Hara-Kiri Hebdo, which had dared mock the death of General de Gaulle; for this lèse-majesté, Hara-Kiri Hebdo was banned by the French government. This was indeed a different time: an issue of Charlie Hebdo last year showed the current president, François Hollande, with his talking penis hanging out of his pants.)

From a perch of privilege, the former outsiders, who still relished the fight, turned their attention to what they perceived as threats to the values they’d helped instate—attacking the weak, in the end, as they had once attacked the powerful.

This isn’t to suggest that Charlie now spares the mighty, inside its pages or out. “We have a lot of new friends, like the pope, Queen Elizabeth, and Putin,” one of the magazine’s most prominent artists, the Dutchman Bernard Holtrop, told the Dutch daily Volkskrant amid the outpouring of support after last week’s killings. “We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends.”

Others have been more measured. Another artist, Renald Luzier, who goes by Luz, worried that the symbolism with which Charlie Hebdo has now been imbued is misguided. “This current symbolic weight is everything Charlie has always worked against: destroying symbols, knocking down taboos, setting fantasies straight,” he told the French cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles. (A black banner across the magazine’s website, like those of many other French publications, reads, “Je Suis Charlie.”) “It’s wonderful that people are supporting us, but it’s a misapprehension of what the drawings in Charlie are,” Luz said.

An issue of Charlie Hebdo, the first since the killings, is scheduled for publication on Wednesday. “We’re not going to do an homage edition, we’re not going to do an obituary edition—Wednesday’s issue will be a normal edition,” Biard has vowed. If he keeps his word, it seems likely that some of the magazine’s new friends, especially those outside France, will be perplexed or offended. They have read into Charlie a set of values Charlie never had.