Charlie Hebdo defends freedom under fire

“We don’t negotiate with the freedom of speech,” stated Jean-Baptiste Thoret, film critic for the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, during a May 1 presentation before an audience of about 100 at Freedom House in Washington, D.C.  His words, stated during an American visit to receive a PEN free speech award for his colleagues murdered during a January Paris jihadist attack, have continuing importance, as the subsequent May 4 Texas jihadist attack showed.

PEN American Center executive director Suzanne Nossel introduced the panel by justifying her organization’s recognition of Charlie Hebdo for “rejecting the assassins’ veto … on behalf of all of us.”  Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Gėrard Biard explained that the publication’s past caricatures of Islam’s prophet Muhammad were a literary response to violence perpetrated by “Islam fundamentalists,” the “political part of Islam.”  Self-censoring such caricatures would “send the wrong message to people who use violence” – namely, “you are right to kill people, because it works.  People are afraid[.] … You can tell people what to do.”  Concessions are also no guarantee of security; he recalled Algerian journalists facing jihadist threats in the 1990s, stating, “[I]f you speak they kill you; if you don’t speak they kill you.  So speak.”

For Thoret, self-censoring Muhammad would have been the “beginning of the end” for any press freedom as exercised by Charlie Hebdo.  “You will always find someone who will be offended by what you do” and therefore groups besides Muslims would raise other censorship demands.  Yet “humor is a very serious thing,” he said with attribution to Mark Twain (more accurately, Winston Churchill), and a cartoon can sometimes make people think more than an article.  Every intellectual publication like a cartoon manifests a “little victory” for freedom, like the jury acquittal in the 1957 film classic 12 Angry Men.

Biard noted how unique were such “little victories” concerning speech on Islam.  Only Charlie Hebdo and another French publication republished the globally controversial Danish Muhammad cartoons in 2006 after their initial French publication cost the job of France-Soir’s chief editor.  As criticized by Charlie Hebdo’s late editor Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, a chief target and victim of the January attack, Biard noted that the French “press turned its back to us” and “suffered a lack of courage.”  While many publications agreed in principle with the cartoons’ publication, they deferred to security concerns.

As event moderator Robert Ruby from Freedom House noted, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonist Rénald “Luz” Luzier had also joined the ranks of those who would no longer draw Muhammad, stating that he had lost interest in the subject.  Ruby asked whether fear motivated the decision of Luz, a man who escaped death in Charlie Hebdo’s office massacre by a fateful lateness in getting to work.  “I don’t know, maybe he doesn’t think it is worth it,” responded Biard.  He noted how Luz saw immediately after the shootings the bloody corpses of his colleagues lying on the floor with upturned buttocks, images that dominated his drawings in the following days.

Biard rejected criticisms that Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad caricatures had exhibited prejudice, objections that had caused 145 PEN member writers to condemn its awarding Charlie Hebdo.  “We never published racist cartoons” at Charlie Hebdo, “historically … an anti-racist magazine” whose “DNA ... is anti-racism,” he stated.  “We don’t attack weak people; we attack powerful,” he argued, including the powerful political force of Islamism.

Asked from the audience why French law allowed Muhammad satire but prohibited Holocaust denial, he responded that the “difference with the Holocaust is it is a fact.”  “You can mock a symbol, but you cannot deny the dignity of six million men.”  Muhammad satire simply is a part of how “we at Charlie Hebdo are against everything iconic.” 

Thoret noted similarly that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons overwhelmingly treated non-Islamic themes.  A recent 10-year review of 523 magazine covers, for example, determined that 485 dealt with political and other matters, while only 38 involved religion, 21 on Christianity and only seven concerning Islam.  Observers who accused the Muhammad caricatures of racism also overlooked a French cartoon tradition of grotesque faces.  In any given case, the “quality or the intelligence of the cartoon” is the “most important criteri[on].”

“Our lives changed, it’s obvious” in the Charlie Hebdo assault, Biard observed; “in half an hour we became a world symbol” out of a small magazine.  Thoret likewise discussed how many cartoonists had previously lived carefree lives but now needed security guards.  Ruby noted a comment by a Le Monde cartoonist to the editor at the center of the Danish cartoons controversy, Flemming Rose, that the Charlie Hebdo attacks are merely the beginning.

Biard expressed feelings of Charlie Hebdo being overwhelmed in its newfound role as a sometimes isolated defender of free speech.  “It’s not our job to be a symbol.  Our job is to make people think and laugh.”  On the other hand, free speech “values belong to everyone and everyone has to stand up for these values,” something requiring more than additional security precautions.  “You must answer violence also by your behavior, the citizens’ behavior,” he stated.  In an era of global jihad threats, it is the “only way that democracy can survive.”

This article was commissioned by The Legal Project, an activity of the Middle East Forum.

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