By Mark McGovern
After the terrorist attacks that killed 12 people at Charlie Hebdo’s offices, and four innocent people in a kosher supermarket in early January, it suddenly seemed that everyone was Charlie: all the world’s leaders were Charlie, Enda Kenny was Charlie, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Queen Elizabeth II were Charlie.
All the celebrities in Hollywood and George Clooney were Charlie. The French police who had long been savagely caricatured by the satirical newspaper were applauded at the Je Suis Charlie march, and the bells of Notre Dame tolled in homage to France’s most notoriously irreligious newspaper. One organ that was self-consciously not Charlie was Ireland’s Phoenix magazine, whose editor, Paddy Prendeville, actually signed an editorial headed “Je ne suis pas Charlie”. A minimum of humanity as well as a mature politics dictate that, while few want to be totally Charlie, it is quite wrong not to be willing to be seen as Charlie at all.
While clearly many Muslims are offended by Charlie Hebdo’s brand of vitriolic satire, it is important to point out that the weekly is not racist, anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian, but an anti-clerical newspaper in a country where blasphemy had been off the statute books since 1789, which presents left-wing political content in the most outrageous possible manner.
This fact is borne out not only by Charlie Hebdo’s commitment to defending the rights of France’s immigrants, many of whom are Muslim, but also by the numerous legal cases that have been filed against it over the last two decades. Since it resumed publication in the 1990s, Charlie Hebdo has been sued 48 times: 12 times by its archenemies in the far-right Front National, eight times by Catholic associations and only six times by Muslim ones.
Questioned about the newspaper’s insistence on poking fun at religion, Charlie Hebdo’s new editor Gérard Biard told NBC: “…every time that we draw a cartoon of a prophet, every time we draw a cartoon of God, we defend freedom of religion. We declare that God must not be a political or public figure […] Religion should not be a political argument. If faith, if religious arguments step into the political arena, they become totalitarian arguments. Secularism protects us from this. Secularism guarantees democracy and ensures peace”.
While most of the political leaders who attended the 11 January march in Paris would find common ground with Charlie Hebdo’s bid to defend secularism, the same cannot be said for the extreme content of the newspaper’s drawings.
Humour does not travel well; and taken out of the context of the newspaper’s politics, jokes about Islamist political parties and Islamic terrorism, blasphemous jokes but jokes nonetheless, can be perceived as racist slurs. Parallels have been drawn with the depictions of Irish peasantry in centuries old Punch cartoons: though there are no grounds to suggest that Charlie was colonialist.
Ironically, in many parts of the world where there is no clear distinction between media and government, a publication that appealed to less than one per cent of the French readers is now being seen as the official voice of France: quite a feat for a newspaper that publishes cartoons of some of the country’s most prominent politicians engaging in sexual acts. Worse still, this perception has led to attacks on French cultural centres, death threats to French nationals and even more paradoxically, given the newspaper’s standpoint on religion, to attacks on Christian churches.
As it stands, no date has been set for the next issue of Charlie Hebdo. According to the newspaper’s communications manager, the editorial staff who are worn out by mourning and fatigue will need some time before they can produce another newspaper. However, editor Gérard Biard has insisted that publication will continue.
In the wake of the brutal massacres in Paris, the 14 January issue of the weekly, which usually has a print run of 50,000, sold seven million copies. This is major change for a newspaper that had no ambitions to enter the mainstream. Added to the difficulty of scrutiny from this new and questioning readership, there is the blaze of attention from the world’s media and the certain knowledge that whatever Charlie Hebdo publishes may be appropriated to generate sectarian conflict, which it does not seek to promote.
Now that people are dying in lynchings in Niger, Charlie’s principled stance for absolute freedom of speech along with absolute freedom to present political argument in any manner it sees fit may have to be reconsidered. There is no reason why a cartoon should result in anything worse than a court case, but sadly what pertains in France does not necessarily apply in the rest of the world. And the world is waiting for the next issue of Charlie Hebdo. •
Mark McGovern is a journalist and translator living in Paris.