The latest edition of Charlie Hebdo is nothing out of the ordinary. Today’s response to the attack on its offices on January 7 is precisely what sets it apart from other newspapers.
The front cover, a cartoon of a weeping prophet Muhammad holding a sign reading “Je suis Charlie” that was released in advance, is indicative of the publication’s ethos. Charlie Hebdo is a journal of principle – or, in the minds of the editors, a journal irresponsable – as it proudly announces week after week. It is committed to providing an alternative, often controversial view of social and political issues in France.
Its editors have frequently received criticism from various sections of the public, the press, the political elite, and, most recently, the Islamic community. Their response has been consistent: they continue to offer their alternative perspectives, and do so in a way that can always be considered “irresponsable”. It is their primary aim, and has been since the first issue in 1970.
All is forgiven
A previous cover depicting Muhammad resulted in Charlie Hebdo’s offices being firebombed in 2011. After that attack, the newspaper responded with an image of a male Muslim kissing one of its male employees.
The image, intentionally controversial with its depiction of homosexual activity, was accompanied by a headline: “Love stronger than hate”.
That cover was designed to drive home the message that Charlie Hebdo was not a racist publication, and that it simply took issue with religious dogma. The editors proceeded to print on the assumption that those who had taken issue with the publication of an image of the prophet would be equally enraged by the explicit homosexual tone of their response.
The response to last week’s attack is similar to that of 2011. The headline that accompanies the cartoon of the weeping prophet simply reads: “All is forgiven”.
Wolinski vous dit merci!
The issue also features profoundly sentimental images. The back page, for example, bears a drawing that contrasts the 25 years of a cartoonist’s work at Charlie Hebdo with 25 seconds of terrorist: a line of work which is, according to the tagline, “for idlers and wankers”.
The cartoon demonstrates satire’s ability to divert an observer’s perspective on any given subject; aside from the issues that have been widely debated this week, such as the phenomenon of Islamophobia, extremism, freedom of expression (to name but a few), we are reminded of the loss of life that has also occurred.
Despite the palpable sense of loss that runs through it, the issue is also steadfast in its approach to humour.
One of the images features the cartoonist Wolinski, who was killed in last week’s attack. He appears as a saint with a halo, dressed entirely in white. The tagline that accompanies the 80-year-old’s image reads: “Wolinski thanks you” as the deceased cartoonist cries “I’m getting hard”, in reference to the erect penis that is discernible through his tunic.
This is typical of the newspaper’s humour, and is the ultimate tribute to a man who devoted his life to making people laugh with explicit cartoons. It also neutralises the actions of the extremists by reframing Wolinski’s death positively, rather than engaging with the terrorists’ objections to his critique of Islam.
The new issue is not just a response to last week’s attacks, though; it is the expression of a tendency that’s part of Charlie Hebdo’s history. The name of the publication is, in itself, two fingers up to the establishment, and a statement of defiance in the face of existential threats.
The magazine was founded back in 1960, when it was known as Hara-Kiri, named after the samurai practice of ritual suicide to avoid disgrace or execution. That publication – which featured contributors Cabu and Wolinski, both of whom were killed on January 7 – was censored by the French government at various periods throughout the 1960s.
It was finally closed down for its coverage of the death of former president, Charles de Gaulle, whose passing saturated the mainstream media and eclipsed the deaths of more than 140 young people who had been killed after a nightclub burnt down just outside Grenoble. Hara-Kiri’s headline read: “Tragic dance in Colombey [de Gaulle’s hometown]: one death.”
The newspaper was closed down under the pretext of pornographic content, though it is generally accepted that the Gaullist government had acted in response to the slight at their idol. A week later, it reopened under the name of Charlie Hebdo, “Charlie” in reference to the recently deceased former president and “hebdo” simply meaning “weekly” in French.
That rebirth and renaming demonstrated the editorial team’s resolve against authority and opposition, the spirit of which is echoed in today’s issue.
I am secularism
Situated so firmly within this history, Charlie Hebdo’s first post-January 7 issue is hardly a slight at Islam. It’s simply a series of satirical images to add to the newspaper’s vast oeuvre – a body of work that committed in its entirety to being controversial, and does not discriminate in its blasphemous critiques.
By refusing to back down, Charlie Hebdo has prevented any legitimisation of its assailants’ views. That much is clear from the issue’s editorial, in which Gérard Biard made his stance explicit:
The millions of anonymous people, all the institutions, all the heads of state, all the political personalities, intellectuals and media, all the religious dignitaries, this week, have proclaimed ‘I am Charlie’ should know that this also means ‘I am secularism’.
It is only ignorance of this context, and of the relationship between Charlie Hebdo and its readers that the newspaper is conceivable as a racist publication; a conclusion which has been, and will continue to be, incorrectly drawn after the release of this issue.