In one day, four of France’s most talented cartoonists slaughtered, alongside six of the journalists who made Charlie Hebdo an outlet famous for investigative journalism alongside sharp caricature. Disturbing videos of the attack in which the two assaillants coldly execute a policeman pleading for his life have been widely shared on social media. Facebook’s video autoplay feature has ensured that most of us have seen these images, even unwillingly.
Accusations of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism… were regularly rejected by Charlie Hebdo staff and their supporters, who claimed that their only prejudice was against religion, whatever its form. This stance directly stemmed from Charlie Hebdo’s origins as a continuation of the weekly Hara-Kiri, the embodiment of post-May 1968 libertarian sentiment, as embodied in its tagline of bête et méchant, “dumb and mean”. Both magazines would regularly lampoon religious authorities and their believers.
In recent years, however, it has been argued that Charlie Hebdo took to task one religion in particular – Islam. During the Danish caricatures affair, Charlie Hebdo was the first European outlet to republish the incendiary drawings in support. In November 2011, Charlie Hebdo published a special edition renamed Charia Hebdo and ‘guest edited’ by Mahomet, who on the cover promised a ‘hundred whip lashes’ if you didn’t laugh. Charlie Hebdo’s offices were set on fire a few days following publication, in a country where attacks against media institutions are rare. (Charlie Hebdo staff responded to the incident through its next cover, which featured a male Charlie Hebdo cartoonist french kissing a turbaned Islamist among the ruins, with the headline “Love is stronger than hate”.) The attack, and many death threats, didn’t deter Charlie Hebdo from action.
Parodying the successful film “Intouchables” , a story of a black man befriending a disabled, prejudiced white man, Charlie Hebdo published a provocative cover featuring Mahomet and a rabbi, calling them the new untouchables, above criticism. Your mileage might vary on these jokes: for some, Charlie Hebdo’s line was courageous and irreverent, while it was outdated and obsessed with Islam for others.
If Charlie Hebdo was guilty of anything, it would be of a traditionally French approach to satire, where no one and nothing is sacred or exempt from caricature. Critics argue that this position had lost its controversial character in a climate permeated by anti-Muslim sentiment. To take but the last week, for example, the topic dominating French public debate was the release of Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Soumission, in which the writer imagines the election of a moderate Islamist to the French presidency in 2022, leading to a progressive Islamisation of French institutions and the legalisation of polygamy.
A few weeks earlier, it was the release of polemicist Eric Zemmour’s Le suicide français that stirred debate. A publishing success, this essay argued that the adherence to progressive ideas – birth control, women’s rights, immigration, anti-racism, the EU etc. – by the French elite, has led to the irremediable decline of France. These works have in common a strange inversion whereby the minority – Islamists for Houellebecq, progressive intellectuals and politicians for Zemmour - become an oppressive majority, and progressive values of tolerance and pluralism become groundless fantasies while reactionary sentiments are to be celebrated.
The values that are said to define the idealised French Republic – universalism of rights, laicity - have always made issues such as integration, public display of religion, communautarisme, more tense than in countries historically based on religious tolerance. A veil ban in public places, which was possible in the French context, would have been much harder to introduce in the UK.
Despite their diverging origins and aims, it is therefore no surprise that the theses of Zemmour or the fictional prophecies of Houellebecq, and to a lesser degree the drawings of Charlie Hebdo, all claiming to capture France’s current preoccupations, would take a particular interest in the role of Islam in French society. But by grounding their arguments and literary ambitions in a zeitgeist taken quite uncritically, they all ran the risk of misconception. In France – but this is the case all around Europe – the distinction between Islamist, Islamist fundamentalist and Muslim is ignored. Crucially, laicité and Islam are considered antonyms, despite the more nuanced views of authors such as Olivier Roy, who note the progressive secularisation of Islam, which is increasingly becoming an individual religious act rather than the broader political project it is purported to be. This is why Houellebecq’s scenario remains sci-fi. Even if the French electoral system allowed for the rise of an Islamist party (it does not) – it would not find supporters among French Muslims, who in their majority consider religion as a private affair.
In Roy’s perspective, episodes of religiously motivated violence, such as the attack against Charlie Hebdo, are a momentary and self-contained revival of the dying vision where Islam dictates politics. It is by no means enough to start making inferences about the aims and desires of the French Muslim population.
Yet, beyond the initial reaction – shock and compassion - these types of discourses are starting to appear. The public reaction, for now, is solidarity, in the press and among the public. You would hardly find any “you had it coming” sentiment among even the weekly’s die-hard critics. A Facebook page in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo already has dozens of thousands of fans, while thousands attended a support march in Paris last night. #JeSuisCharlie is trending all over the world. This reaction, although somewhat problematic, is healthy. But here and there, in a casual comment on Facebook, a tweet or a comment on an online article, you can start to discern the anti-Muslim sentiment that will make the most headlines once the suspected religious motives of the assailants are confirmed. The leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, didn’t even wait for the confirmation and declared that:
It is my responsibility to say that fear needs to be overcome, and that this attack should free our speech against Islamic fundamentalism, that we shouldn’t keep silent, and begin by daring to say what happened. To not be afraid to say the words : this is a terrorist attack committed in the name of radical Islam. […] The time for denial, hypocrisy, is over. The absolute refusal of Islamic fundamentalism must be proclaimed loud and clear by anyone who holds life and liberty as the most precious values.
There we have it – the attack was not the work of a couple of deranged fanatics, but a symptomatic incident that should “free our speech” against radical Islam. Again we see the inversion of facts at work. For Marine Le Pen, the vastly overblown Islamist menace, which all over the world very admittedly serves the expansion of state surveillance and repression in a context of rampant Islamophobia, apparently isn’t overblown enough. This crass political recuperation would probably have made Charb and the rest of the Charlie Hebdo staff cringe (Marine Le Pen was another favourite target of theirs).
To be sure, and despite Roy’s optimism, there are ambiguities in the relationship between Islam and the western practice of liberal democracy. To name just a few - when does the private practice of religion become a public concern? How do we resolve the tension between the goal of gender equality and more patriarchal models? To which extent should a pluralist regime accommodate radically different political projects? The mere fact that a large portion of citizens feel uneasy about these question shows this a political problem that has yet to be seriously addressed.
However, it would be terribly misguided to believe that the Charlie Hebdo attack is relevant to the discussion. The tragic events of today should be read for what they are, an individual act of violence by deranged individuals who, like Breivik or the Toulouse shooter, chose to attack the symbol of something they compulsively hated (a gathering of young social democrats, a Jewish school, a provocative newspaper). It should certainly not be interpreted as a micro-localised replay of the Huntingtonian clash of civilisations, somehow justifying past stigmatisation and future backslash against Muslim populations. This last narrative, however, will most likely predominate and do so in every similar attack around the world, which are bound to happen over and over again.
Islamic State and Al Qaeda do not have the financial and logistical means to stage attacks on the scale of 9/11 in the west anymore. Instead, their strategy has been to disseminate a wide array of ‘self-radicalisation’ literature, videos or instruction manuals, hoping to catch the attention of slightly deranged individuals around the world. The Charlie Hebdo attacks already promise an extension of the French security apparatus – many noted, for example, that the absence of systematic video surveillance in Paris streets meant that the attackers were not caught until the evening. The aim of these ‘lone-cell’ attacks, advocated by both Bin Laden and Al-Baghdadi, is to progressively stir chaos in western societies by pitting Muslims and non-Muslims against each other. In other words – to turn the Clash of Civilisations into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To prevent this from happening, the memory of Charlie Hebdo’s staff should be honoured through a celebration of freedom of expression, of the press, and as a clear refusal of violence. To give in to the extremists – from all sides, by rising antagonistically to the bait, would prove extremely counterproductive. Above all, it would betray the memory of the twelve slaughtered, and the very values of Charlie Hebdo.