The Charlie Hebdo Massacre: One Year Later, Still Misunderstood

Were the murdered journalists "free speech martyrs" or "hipster racists"?


Tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of the massacre

Surely, this is punching up.
Charlie Hebdo

at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, but official remembrances have already begun, as have the condemnations over the fact that the surviving writers, editors and cartoonists continue to savagely mock religion, government, and other perches of power. 

Christine Boutin, the head of France's conservative Christian Democrat Party felt "this tragedy deserved better" than to be sullied by Charlie Hebdo's current cover art depicting an old, bearded white guy (supposedly depicting the Euro-centric representation of God) strapped with a Kalashnikov rifle, blood on his hands and clothes, crouching beneath the words "One year on: The assassin is still out there." Boutin wrote that Hebdo's hostility to religion is "becoming an obsession."

But Charlie Hebdo's militant secularism is not a bug, it's a feature, stated plainly in its mission statement on its website:


Secularism pure and simple, « yes » without « buts », a society free of racism but not segmented into ethnic groups, the environment without political turf wars, universalism without crying peace doves, gender equality without Nadine Morano, animal rights without tofu and cultural diversity without snobs.


Religions which inspire swarms of fools, Rednecks who can't see further than the tip of their nose, the dotcom billionaires googlelising the world, bankers who gamble away our money, manufacturers who would make us live with a gas mask, footballers with more ego than talent, hunters who shoot us while mushroom picking and dictators who force us to agree with Bernard-Henri Levy.


All men are brothers in the sky with diamonds.


War that destroys cute little flowers.

In both the immediate aftermath of the massacre and throughout the year, the slain journalists were both lionized as free speech martyrs and also vilified as racists and Islamophobes because of their usage of crude and ribald imagery, particularly when it came to the Prophet Muhammad.

Pope Francis said one should expect violence as a resonable response if a person "insults" or "makes fun of faith." US Secretary of State John Kerry juxtaposed the Charlie Hebdo massacre with the slaughter of 130 people in Paris last November, stating that the former atrocity was endowed with some "legitimacy" because psychopaths felt the need to "avenge" the offense of satirical cartoons suffered by a man who died in the year 632 AD.

The murdered journalists were also accused of "baiting" their killers, lacking common sense, being a "white power mag" led by a "racist asshole," and that their cartoons were analogous to "stealing land, and raping women" because they were created exclusively by white men. Former Reasoner Michael Moynihan correctly notes that the last point would "not contested by [Charlie Hebdo] editor Moustapha Ourrad because he had annoyingly just been murdered by religious psychopaths."

Some critics took to conflating the quality of Charlie Hebdo's artwork with the legitimacy of its political expression. In the fact-challenged documentary Je ne suis pas Charlie, filmmaker Max Blumenthal wonders in a voiceover, "Is it possible for a Muslim to identify with a publication that demonized the Prophet Muhammad, in almost pornographic fashion?" Such an infantilizing question assumes that Muslims have no mental autonomy and couldn't possibly be offended by a cartoon without being able to "identify" with the right to publish such a cartoon. 

In one sentence, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau managed to verbalize possibly the most tone deaf post-massacre take on Charlie Hebdo:

By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech.

If Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were as sophisticated as this early Trudeau masterpiece, perhaps he might have found them outside of "the realm of hate speech." I would be curious to know if Trudeau finds the unflattering depiction of a white "God" on the current Charlie Hebdo cover (which surely offends some "powerless, disenfranchised" people) to be punching in a sufficiently upward direction.

The politics of the magazine could only be described by American standards as hard-left (though, obviously without the fealty to offense-criminalizing speech codes), its targets were more likely to be far-right political parties like the Front National, Israel's bombing of Gaza, anti-immigrant xenophobes, and the Catholic church than any oppressed minority groups.

Even among those willing to concede that Charlie Hebdo's journalists sometimes possessed good intentions, the fact that they "didn't mean to be bigoted but smugly thought that they were so progressive that nothing they did could be racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc., even if it actually was (either in intents or effects)" meant they were guilty of hipster racism

Last May, after 145 writers boycotted a PEN American award ceremony where Charlie Hebdo was honored for bravery in free expression, Moynihan also noted in the Wall Street Journal that the misconceptions about the magazine were being cemented into the consciousness of many:

The relentless campaign against Charlie Hebdo by those accusing it of "racism" or "punching down" has had an effect. Because once deployed, as the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo discovered, the racism charge sticks to the accused's skin like napalm. And no one is immune — even murdered cartoonists — because there are no penalties for filing a false report.

One of the dissenting PEN American authors, Jennifer Cody Epstein, later admitted she failed to conduct "diligent and careful research" before committing to the boycott of the PEN award. In a letter recanting her earlier support of the boycott, she made sure to point out that Charlie Hebdo's work was "arguably tasteless, offensive and not even particularly well-drawn" but that it "sprang from satire, not hate."

In an article published in Politico this morning, former Charlie Hebdo staffer Caroline Fourest writes, "The despicable accusation that Charlie was 'Islamophobic' was not only wrong, it had killed and continued to put its survivors in danger."

Fourest also discusses how the withering criticism endured by the survivors in the post-massacre aftermath, and the continued willful misrepresentation of their style of take-no-prisoners left-wing satire, tested their commitment to free expression: 

Our colleagues were losing their minds. Unwilling to acknowledge their crippling fear, they stopped defending the free press, they deformed the facts, and censured themselves. They lectured us on journalistic "responsibility." And we still haven't woken up from this nightmare: Today, Charlie's cartoons are repeatedly taken out of context, their message utterly distorted. Most recently, this happened with the drawing of the little Syrian boy, Aylan, found dead at the foot of McDonald's golden arches, an image that denounced Western indifference to the plight of the refugees. Others attacked the National Front. As for the cover of the commemorative edition, it takes issue with the sacred and shows God as a form of irrationality that incites people to kill in the name of religion. Of course, the God depicted is the God of the attackers, not of the pacifists. A caricature can't do everything — and readers need to use their heads. That, too, has always been Charlie's message.

In his posthumously released book, Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free ExpressionCharlie Hebdo's slain former Editor-in-Chief Charb writes, "one day, just for laughs, I should publish all the threat letters that I received at Charlie Hebdo from Catholic fascists and Muslim fascists." 

The Associated Press wrote that book's intro "targets preconceived notions," attacking American drone policy as a far greater threat to Muslim lives than "caricaturing a jihadist in a ridiculous position." Charb also writes about what he perceives as the inherent racism and xenophobia in French culture which he called "Muslim-o-phobia" because it is directed at actual people, rather than the institution of Islam.

Two days after completing his work on the book, Charb and six members of his staff were slaughtered in their office while planning an anti-racism event. Had he survived the attack, a typically dark and cheeky response might have been to publish the aforementioned threats from various fascists, but to also share the vicious invective directed at his fallen comrades by Western liberals for insufficient sensitivity while working at a magazine which SOS Racisme, the most prominent anti-racism organization in France, called "the greatest anti-racist weekly in the country."