Just over a year on from the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices, Dr. Joseph Haldane, President & CEO of IAFOR, looks back at the satirical newspaper’s fight for freedom of expression
For students of politics, it doesn’t come much better than France. French politics is boisterous and argumentative, pluralistic, hypocritical and contradictory. It boasts very active parties on all sides of the political spectrum in a constant state of disarray and a wonderful, or woeful, depending on one’s perspective, cast of characters. There are relatively few dull moments: for example, the last presidential election in 2012 was contested between the incumbent, a charismatic but divisive right-winger on his third marriage to a former supermodel (Sarkozy); and the challenger (Hollande), a seemingly dull pair of hands, who was the former partner of Sarkozy’s previous presidential contender (Royal), but who left her for a gossip columnist (Trierweiler), before leaving her for an actress once in power. As an aside, Hollande was not meant to have been Sarkozy’s challenger, that was to have been Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF who was alleged to have raped a chambermaid in a New York hotel, or to have been the victim of some conspiracy depending on one’s political leaning. Incidentally, Sarkozy replaced a president with a predilection for creating imaginary jobs and fiddling expenses (Chirac), and who was found guilty of diversion of funds after leaving office.
The French press, one would think, would be never short of things to write about, but it is in fact surprisingly dull. Serious publications are Serious with a capital S, notably deferential and are often (and often justifiably) accused of being in cahoots with the political class: there is no way that France’s leading intellectual newspaper, Le Monde, would prominently feature the Prime Minister as a condom, as does the UK’s Guardian. This may also account for the national daily newspapers’ relatively low circulation in comparison with France’s biggest regional newspapers.
(Non)Sense and Satire
Biting satire in the form of prose, and cartoons however, has a long history in the land of Voltaire and it is precisely because the mainstream publications consider this the realm of the vulgar, that the French newsstands have made room for two satirical weekly publications: Le Canard Enchaine and Charlie Hebdo. The former was established 100 years ago and has become known for its investigative journalism, and has a comparatively large circulation in excess of 400,000, and the latter in its current incarnation was the product of left wing cartoonists who took aim at the establishment, organized religion, and pretty much anything else that took their fancy.
“The cartoons featured on the covers of Charlie Hebdo are usually unapologetically vulgar, and often trenchantly militant in what they say.”
The cartoons featured on the covers of Charlie Hebdo are usually unapologetically vulgar, and often trenchantly militant in what they say. There is little space for nuance with their drawings. They are not innocent, but barbed and wantonly offensive towards their target, and yet that is what satire is for: to ridicule where conventions of respect in polite company do not allow, so as to expose hypocrisy or shortcomings. Has Charlie Hebdo been disrespectful in its treatment of the prophet Mohammed? Without a doubt, but it was an equal opportunities offender!
I taught at two Journalism schools in Paris, and in weekly press reviews of the French press, Charlie Hebdo would always have cartoons or sketches that drew reactions of disbelief, stifled laughter, gasps of outrage, or rolled eyes of resignation. Satirists are militants at heart, and are looking for reactions to stimulate discussion, and further their political viewpoint, which in the case of Charlie, was not party political, but rather a coalition of left-wing, anti-religious, and liberal causes. Other targets included the Catholic church: during the last conclave a cover depicted the cardinals of the “gay lobby” in a circle, one behind the other, and linked by something other than their resolute faith. Another cover featured the Pope administering the eucharist, with a condom in both hands as he delivers the words, “This is my body”. Yet another showed a fundamentalist Jew machine gunning an Arab in the back, while shouting “Take that, Goliath!”, and Islam was also held up to ridicule with one controversial cover depicting the crying prophet with his head in his hands as he wails “It’s hard being loved by idiots”.
“The depictions of Muhammad have caused widespread offence among many Muslims in France”
The depictions of Muhammad have caused widespread offence among many Muslims in France, not least because most schools of Islam consider it blasphemous to depict the prophet in any form, let alone in the irreverent manner of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In the context of bitter disagreements within France over multiculturalism in reaction to social unrest, and in light of the continuing global clash of religions and values, the covers have been seen as inflammatory, and seen by many on the political far left as tantamount to racism and Islamophobia: of particular concern to many was the continued conceptual amalgamation of Muslims and terrorists, which was seen by many as playing into the hands of the resurgent right wing National Front party.
This disapproval by many, including senior politicians of all colors, have claimed that many of the cartoons were inflammatory, and yet these criticisms belie the telos of satire. The deontological arguments for self-censorship are also hypocritical in that these assume both that the cartoonists do not in any way edit their work (or self-censor), which they always have done, as well in its suggestion that those who might feel offended should not be targeted. They also conveniently forget that satire is only possible because of historical and contemporary context, and reflects rather than creates this context. France is officially secular, but has a Catholic establishment, the highest Muslim population of any Western European country, the third largest Jewish population in the world (after the US and Israel), and enlightenment traditions of atheism, republicanism, regionalism, socialism, communism, and as many other isms as one can list, all in uncomfortable coexistence.
Killing and Being Charlie
The disapproval of many Muslims became common, but it was the reaction of Islamic fundamentalists that was predictably stronger, and in 2011 their offices were firebombed in the early hours of November 2, following the publication of an issue which was supposedly guest edited by the Prophet, and which was renamed “Charia Hebdo” [Sharia weekly]. In the 2011 attack, there were no casualties, but on January 7, 2015, two gunmen raided the magazine’s offices and executed the editor, and most of the senior staff members.
The reaction was an immediate and spontaneous outpouring of support for the magazine. Even those who had been critical of its content identified with the show of solidarity for free speech around the rallying cry of identification with a small group of cartoonists, “Je suis Charlie”. Of course it did not take long before those on the far left, the fractious multitude of groupings to which the satirists belonged, started debating whether or not they “were Charlie”, or even whether they liked Charlie. The show of national solidarity, as well as the government’s financial backing of the magazine, was not something which they could actively support as they felt a deep discomfort with the idea of identifying with the rainbow coalition. It is worth noting that the cartoonists involved would certainly have appreciated the irony of their weekly rag being the flavor of the month with the President, yet ‘being’ Charlie in this context is not about agreeing or sympathizing, but rather recognizing their right ‘to be’ Charlie, as at a fundamental and existential level, Charlie Hebdo no longer ‘is’, and France and the French press is poorer because of it.
Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor of the magazine until his assassination, would certainly have been surprised to have seen the reaction, and doubtless uncomfortable at being used as a poster boy for the various causes from the National Front which he deplored, to President Hollande, for whom he had little time, to Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he detested: Palestinian statehood being one of the issues the magazine regularly featured: one cover depicted a shackled Palestinian with a national flag embedded in his posterior being asked by an Israeli soldier wielding a machinegun “how is statehood is going?”
Religion, Rights and Responsibilities
Islamophobia is not a new phenomenon, and has existed since the time of Muhammad, and Charlie Hebdo is, indeed, anti-Muslim, and anti-religious in general, whether it has intended to take aim at Muslims or amalgamating Muslims and terrorists, because its position on the God debate is fairly clear. Whether Catholic, Jewish or Muslim, Charlie Hebdo sees organized religion as something the world would be better off without. The magazine has never seen Islam as being something which should be off limits because depictions of Muhammad were blasphemous, but rather all the more in necessary of lampooning because their chosen media was the cartoon.
There have been strains of response that assert the cartoonists must bear some responsibility for their acts, but while there can be little doubt of causation in the face of death threats, any equivocation of cause and responsibility is fundamentally wrong both morally and legally, and is a line of reasoning that comes dangerously close to suggesting just desert.
Charlie Hebdo made and continues to make the cultural left in France uncomfortable, as a tradition formed in protest and emancipation of rights for workers, women and oppressed minority groups has made great political progress in the last century, but a contradiction that lies at the heart of the messages of respect and tolerance is the extent to which this should be extended toward groups which are themselves intolerant, or hold views which are incompatible with the ideals (not necessarily the realities) of the French state, and with which Charlie fervently disagreed. This irresolvable difficulty is something that many students of politics and cultural studies will recognize, and with which modern liberal democracies struggle.
“The past century has seen an increase in the struggles within different strains of the main organized religions”
The past century has seen an increase in the struggles within different strains of the main organized religions as to how to reconcile modern life with the diktats of religious works, interpretations and teachings, as well as to confrontations with the secular or multicultural states in which they exist. This has been particularly problematic with regard to Islam which is a religion governed by laws which are often contrary to the laws in non-Islamic states. A notable example of this was the decision by the French state to ban the wearing of all conspicuous religious symbols in public schools in 2004, including the hijab (female headscarf), mandated by Islamic law. This law was hugely controversial in France, and was widely seen as being directed against Islam. The more recent 2010 law banning the “concealment of the face in public spaces” was aimed squarely at Muslims, as it made the wearing of the niquab and burqa illegal: freedom of religious expression was trumped by a national law in the name of the common good, but not without heated debate as to just what that meant.
Throughout human history, people have been persecuted for their beliefs, and their writings, and the very concept of free speech is an ambiguous heuristic to which many subscribe, but which usually comes laden with caveats undermining the very concept. However, that does not mean that it is an empty concept, or that the absence of an absolute makes it any less valuable. It is this contested ideological, deontological, and legal space in which the concept is negotiated that gives freedom of speech its power. While it may be difficult to define, its absence or severe constriction, as in many countries at present is the surest sign of tyranny.
“we must acknowledge our debt to those who have had to be a little more vulgar, or less nuanced in getting their points across, so that we might now enjoy the freedom to be more respectable”
Exercising free speech is what ended up costing these satirists their lives, and it is for this reason that we are appalled by these assassinations. Fervently disagreeing with a point of view or perspective, or with the manner in which that point of view is expressed is part of human communication and political discussion. There are often blurred lines between what is acceptable socially and legally, and Charlie Hebdo has pushed the boundaries, and undoubtedly crossed the line several times, but a fatwa for political sketches, however offensive, is unacceptable.
As an academic, I take freedom of expression as a given, and the key tenet on which the academy and IAFOR as an organization is founded. While IAFOR encourages respectful dialogue in its conferences and publications, we must acknowledge our debt to those who have had to be a little more vulgar, or less nuanced in getting their points across, so that we might now enjoy the freedom to be more respectable. While I may choose prose and Hegelian dialectic, and Stéphane Charbonnier drawings and unsubtle polemic, we are in fact distant cousins, and it is for that reason that I am also Charlie.
Dr. Haldane studied and worked in Paris between 1997-2000, and 2002-2005. Between 2003 and 2004 he taught courses on the Anglo-American Press at the French Press Institute in the University of Paris (II), before taking a full time faculty position at Sciences Po from 2004-2005, where he devised and taught the British Politics and Media Course in the School of Journalism.
Image | JR work/Flickr