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French Satire Will Not Be Silenced

France’s long history of satire has proven a poor match for extremists’ sensitivity to the mockery of religious fundamentalism.

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people holds placards reading "I am Charlie" during a gathering in Toulouse on January 7, 2015, in solidarity for the victims of the attack by unknown gunmen on the offices of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. Heavily armed gunmen massacred 12 people on Wednesday after bursting into the Paris offices of a satirical weekly that had long outraged Muslims with controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. AFP PHOTO / ERIC CABANIS (Photo credit should read ERIC CABANIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Wednesday morning’s attack on Charlie Hebdo, the left-wing satirical French magazine that has thrived on political provocation since 1970, is but the latest in a string of violent responses to satire mocking elements of Islam. The attack at the magazine’s Paris headquarters left at least 12 dead and another five injured and was reportedly carried out by three unidentified gunmen overheard yelling “Allahu akbar.”

This is the second attack on the magazine’s headquarters in the past four years. In November 2011, the day after the magazine invited the Prophet Mohammed to be a guest editor, the magazine’s offices were firebombed and destroyed in an early-morning attack that left no one dead.

Although violent attacks on political satire are a relatively new phenomenon, using satire to defuse political tension in France is not. During the French Revolution, journalists nicknamed Marie Antoinette “L’autrichienne,” or the Austrian bitch. She was depicted in political pornography and libelles as a sex fiend who slept with her husband’s brother. At the time, the French government banned cartoons mocking the monarchy, but cartoonists used underground networks to publish and circulate their work in France and neighboring countries.

Charlie Hebdo is itself the product of another satirical publication, Hara-Kiri Hebdo, that was censored and banned by the French government in 1970 after it mocked the death of former French President Charles de Gaulle. An early reader labeled Hara-Kiri as “bête et méchant,” or “stupid and vicious,” which the magazine gladly accepted as its slogan.

Charlie Hebdo emerged soon after Hara-Kiri was dismantled, and though it went out of production for financial reasons in 1981, the magazine made a comeback in 1992 and has since jabbed at everything from the Holocaust and the Catholic Church to rampant corruption during former French President Jacques Chirac’s administration.

In recent years, its editors have publicly labeled themselves as atheists who support France’s long history of secularism and reject religious fundamentalism. They first came under fire for mocking Islamist extremism in 2006, after they reprinted cartoons from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that mocked the Prophet Mohammed. In 2007, when Philippe Val, then editor of Charlie Hebdo, went to court over claims that his publication of the controversial cartoons was publicly abusing Muslims because of their religion, Chirac did not come to his aid and instead said, “Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided.” In 2009, another Hebdo cartoonist faced charges of anti-Semitism for a cartoon suggesting that then French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s son convert to Judaism for financial reasons.

In 2012, after the release of the short satirical film Innocence of Muslims enraged much of the Arab World and sparked attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia, and the U.S. Consulate in Chennai, India, Charlie Hebdo jumped at the opportunity to again poke fun at the prophet and printed drawings of him naked. As a security precaution after the drawings’ publication, the French government shut down French schools and consulates in 20 countries.

But even with France’s long history of satire, Charlie Hebdo’s edgy approach — and tragic denouement — is proof that mocking religious extremism always risks causing offense, especially among Muslims.

Suzanne Nossel, a Foreign Policy contributor and executive director of PEN American Center, an association of writers defending freedom of expression, said that editors in other countries have chosen to self-censor in response to the level of sensitivity some Muslims have about insults to images of the prophet. “Even for the many Muslims who absolutely and categorically reject violence, they still may look at insults to images of Mohammed or his name as kind of particularly offensive to religious sensibilities in a way that adherents to other religions would not,” she said.

And in France, where there is already long-standing tension between the secular society and some of its Muslim citizens, insults to Islam are even pricklier than they might be elsewhere.

In November 2013, Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier, or Charb, who was killed in Wednesday’s attack, co-authored an opinion article for France’s most widely read daily newspaper, Le Monde, in which he defended Charlie Hebdo’s history of provocation. The article, titled “No, Charlie Hebdo Is Not Racist!” said the magazine’s staff would not be intimidated by religious extremists, even if printing satire was more difficult in 2013 than it was in 1970. “Are we the minority?” he asked. “Maybe so. But we are proud of our traditions.”

Despite death threats to magazine staffers, including Charbonnier, and years of police protection, the magazine didn’t hold back from its tradition of instigation. This week’s front page features French writer Michel Houellebecq’s recently published book, which imagines a France ruled under Islamic law. Just hours before Wednesday’s attack, the magazine tweeted out a cartoon of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, standing before a podium and offering best wishes and good health to his audience.

Even the White House has warned the magazine to be careful about how far its satire goes. In 2012, after the magazine published the naked drawings of Mohammed, then-White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “We have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this.” Although he added that the drawings did not justify violence, he said, “We don’t question the right of something like this to be published; we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it.”

But in France, where freedom of expression often trumps political sensitivity, Charlie Hebdo never intended to back down.

“A lot of American editors might not have published some of the things they did,” Nossel said. “But the magazine’s decision not to bow to that and not to be cowed by that proved they really were out on the front lines.”

Photo by ERIC CABANIS/AFP

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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