Should a bearded jihadist, armed with a dagger, hiding in a remote cave in Asia or in a tent in some desert in the Middle East, have editorial authority over what is published in a European magazine? Many think so, particularly in Western progressive quarters and especially when it comes to cartoons of the prophet of Islam. The editors of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo think otherwise, and that is why they have republished the Muhammad cartoons that led to a brutal terrorist attack on their offices more than five years ago.
They have not taken the decision lightly: 17 colleagues lost their lives in that attack. Precisely in their honor, Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons, on cue with the beginning of the trial of the perpetrators’ accomplices at the beginning of this month. Al-Qaeda was quick to threaten them. “If your freedom of expression does not respect limits, prepare to face the freedom of our actions” it declared in a statement issued on September 11, an easily recognizable anniversary date.
The leftist Charlie Hebdo journalists paid the highest possible price for their indirect solidarity with the right-wing journalists of the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. To recall: in 2005 this newspaper published cartoons that ridiculed the prophet of Islam. At the time global jihadism was at its prime. The previous year, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh had been stabbed on the streets for making a film about misogyny in Islam. Islamists tried to kill the Jyllands Posten cartoonists, the Danish embassy in Lebanon was burned down and the one in Islamabad was bombed. The following year, Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech in the German town of Regensburg in which he associated Islam with violence. As a result, a fatwa was issued against him and Christians were killed in the Middle East. Meanwhile in France, Jacques Lefranc, from the daily France Soir, decided to reproduce the Danish cartoons. When he was fired for it, Charlie Hebdo director Philippe Val chose to publish those cartoons. On its cover, Muhammad was shown saying: “It is difficult to be loved by idiots,” in reference to the jihadists.
A decade later, two armed Islamists gunned down much of the French magazine’s staff. A week later, Charlie Hebdo republished a cartoon of Muhammad on its cover, in a million-copy edition. And it did so again, in 2020. A magazine editorial vowed “We will never lie down. We will never give up,” warned that “it is not just a trial about our past, but about our future” and affirmed:
“So, we do not need one trial, but ten, twenty, a hundred. Against the perpetrators, but they are dead. Against their accomplices: they will be present. But also against cowardice, cynicism, conceit, ignorance, betrayal, laziness, opportunism, blindness, self-righteousness, superficiality, political calculation, forgetfulness, casualness, defeatism, indecisiveness, lack of foresight and a thousand other shortcomings which seem banal when taken individually, but taken together led to the extermination of a newspaper.”
Brendan O’Neill, editor of the British website Spiked, agreed:
“Indeed, as the trial of the alleged accomplices begins this week, it is worth asking whether there were other accomplices to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, too. Not violent accomplices; not people who provided logistics and weaponry, as these 14 are accused of doing. No, intellectual accomplices, moral accomplices, a cultural worldview that had already demonised and even criminalised ‘offensive’ speech and ‘hate speech’ long before the two gunmen stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices. This massacre didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened at a time when PC censorship was growing, censorious wokeness was emerging, and the bizarre idea that people have the right not to be offended was being institutionalised in universities and in political circles […]
“This machinery of political correctness was also an accomplice to the events in Paris in 2015. That massacre can be seen as the armed wing of political correctness, the nadir of the reactionary, regressive idea that people and ideologies have the right never to be questioned or ridiculed, and that anyone who does question or ridicule them deserves to be punished –whether that is by being hounded, sacked, arrested or, in the one-step-further outlook of the Islamist killers of January 2015, murdered.”
Historically, Charlie Hebdo was criticized from right and left. Conservatives accused it of being disrespectful of emblems and traditions, progressives accused it of offending religious and cultural minorities. In fact, it is a satirical magazine and as such it has also mocked — with drawings in very bad taste — the French political class, the Catholic Church, the Jews, the United States and even the corpse of Michael Jackson. Exposing Muhammad or Islam to their singular esprit satirique should not have ended with the death of 17 of their journalists.
Flemming Rose, the editor of Jyllands-Posten, opined during an interview with the American Daily Beast in 2017:
“What’s interesting is that Jyllands-Posten is a conservative newspaper whereas Charlie Hebdo is oriented to the left. Some would call them socialist. But this is all about a liberal democracy’s right to freedom of the press and freedom of speech. And it doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative. In this case, Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo stood for the same principles and have for many years.”
It should be noted that many newspapers around the world reproduced some of the original Jyllands-Posten cartoons, albeit when reporting the news more than as a gesture of collegial solidarity or in defense of freedom. Since then, Charlie Hebdo has become a disobedient minority, simultaneously fighting the bigots of radical Islam and the politically correct cultural elites of the West, both of whom see it as a heretic. Its editors understood more than others that behind the physical attack on their magazine in 2015, there was a symbolic blow against the principles of liberal democracies. It is good, then, to see that they are not giving up and continue to defend freedom of expression with typical irreverence. Although it is quite sad to see that Charlie Hebdo continues to do so in disturbing solitude. “Je suis Charlie” — that famous and moving slogan so in vogue that dark January 2015 — lasted less than a sigh.