On the 5th of May, members of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo received PEN's Freedom of Expression Courage award at the organization's annual gala, following more than a week of heated debate about the journal's treatment of Islam and Muslims. It was indeed announced by PEN at the end of April that six writers had chosen not to attend the upcoming gala, in order to denounce the attribution of the award to Charlie Hebdo. According to the six writers, and to several others who later joined them in their protest, the journal's content is deeply problematic: in a collective letter, they spoke of "selectively offensive material" which "intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world." Teju Cole, one of the six writers, argued in a comment to The Intercept: "I don't think it's a good use of our headspace or moral commitments to lionize Charlie Hebdo in particular. L'affaire Rushdie (for example) was a very different matter, as different as blasphemy is from racism." These sentiments echoed some of the reactions which followed the January 7 attacks in Paris. Indeed, as support for the journal (and for freedom of speech in general) was immediately expressed by many all over the world (notably through the "I am Charlie" slogan), some reactions included both a condemnation of the use of violence against journalists and a condemnation of the contents of Charlie Hebdo, its cartoons being described by some as "bigoted", and even "xenophobic" and "racist". Francine Prose, who was also part of the six writers who boycotted the gala, recently declared: "It's a racist publication. Let's not beat about the bush."
In this article, I will attempt to explain why these descriptions of Charlie Hebdo as a xenophobic and racist journal which publishes content attacking minorities (and Muslims in particular) essentially seem to be the result of a complete lack of understanding of its cartoons, as well as of the journal's message and editorial line. Before I start, however, I want to stress that I deeply sympathize with the above writers' desire to oppose discourses stigmatizing and inciting hatred against Arabs, Muslims, and any other group of people on the basis of their skin color, origin, religion, etc., wherever these discourses may come from. I am convinced that these writers are truly sincere in thinking that Charlie Hebdo promotes such views, and I would myself be critical of the journal if it did (it has to be pointed out, however, that the PEN award is awarded to honor courage in defense of freedom of speech, not the content of what is published). In reality, however, Charlie Hebdo is a fundamentally anti-racist publication. These writers' commendable stance against xenophobic speech is therefore aimed at the completely wrong target. In order to demonstrate this, I will proceed in three steps: first, I will describe how Charlie Hebdo's humor often operates, and I will extensively comment on a selection of covers which were taken out of context by some in order to support the false accusation that the journal publishes xenophobic content. I will then look at the space occupied by cartoons linked to religion, and to Islam specifically, in Charlie Hebdo. Finally, I will cover two crucially important distinctions at the core of the journal's editorial line when it comes to material touching upon religion: the distinction between religious people and religions, and the distinction between religious people in general and religious extremists. I will again comment on specific covers in order to illustrate this point further. This will be a lengthy demonstration, but comprehensiveness is necessary: because the accusation of racism is a serious one, it is my opinion that it deserves a serious rebuttal.
1) Charlie Hebdo is a satirical anti-racist journal. What does this mean?
Although my demonstration has to start with the fact that Charlie Hebdo is a satirical journal, this is in itself insufficient to defend it from accusations of xenophobia: indeed, satire can very well be used in support of xenophobic speech. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, however, humor and satire have consistently been used, over the history of the publication, precisely to condemn xenophobic discourses and the people promoting them – in particular, but not only, the French far-right party Front National and its leaders (who are regularly denounced as racists in the journal), several other members of the French political class guilty of stigmatization against minorities (often from the right, but also from the left), and leaders throughout Europe (and elsewhere) who have championed anti-immigration policies.
This staunch anti-racist stance of Charlie Hebdo can easily be observed by opening the pages of any of their issues. The journal obviously publishes cartoons, but it also includes news articles, investigations and analyses, and little doubt about the newspaper's denunciation of xenophobic policies and discourses can remain after reading the articles they feature on these topics, for example on restrictive European immigration policies. Although the contributors do not necessarily all adhere to the same exact political line, their positions still belong to the political landscape of the Left, and, more to the point, they have all shared a deep attachment to the fight against racism throughout the history of the journal (as was passionately pointed out by the president of SOS Racisme, one of the leading antiracism organizations in France). Still, this may seem strange to some of the people who have been denouncing Charlie Hebdo based on some of the cartoons and covers that have widely circulated over social media since January. Before we take a look at a few emblematic examples of such covers, it is necessary to explain here how Charlie Hebdo's humor often operates. The cartoons published in the journal, and especially on its cover, are frequently constructed around two dimensions: first, they generally touch upon one or several current events – the journal reacts to what is going on in France and in the world, and therefore its cartoons, particularly the ones featured on the cover, often need to be understood in relation to the event or news story that they are based on. Second, the drawings are humoristic and serve to denounce the ideas, policies or people that are decried by the journal. This is frequently done through satire and ridicule: for example, a cartoon may illustrate a worldview or political position that is deemed despicable by the authors, and this worldview will be drawn in such a way that the reader can only notice how grossly flawed it is. In other words, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists often purposely transform into drawings the types of discourses and policies that they're fighting against, not in order to endorse them, but instead precisely to highlight, and make fun of, their foolishness.
Combined, these two points help explain why some of the out-of-context cartoons that have been circulating online as proof, according to some, that Charlie Hebdo is racist, have in reality been profoundly misunderstood: the original context of production of the drawings was often not known by those criticizing them (we will see below that knowing the context is in some cases essential in order to understand the covers fully), and, more importantly, the cartoons were taken at face value, as endorsements of the racist views they featured, when they were in fact strict condemnations of these racist views.
Although this misunderstanding can to an extent be blamed on unfamiliarity with such humor, it is not difficult to find examples of the use of satire in the English-speaking media. Stephen Colbert, who last December put an end to his show The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, is a popular example of the use of satire to denounce political positions and discourses that one disagrees with. Indeed, on his show, Colbert, who is a progressive, played the role of a deliberately clueless conservative pundit, in order to poke fun at, and denounce, many views held by conservatives (he also occasionally targeted liberals). If you're not familiar with Colbert, taking a look at his segment "The Colbert Coalition's Anti-Gay Marriage Ad" from 2009 should give you an idea of what I'm talking about: Colbert spends the entire segment claiming he agrees with the conservatives warning about the dangers of gay marriage, yet the audience easily understands that the very purpose of his over-the-top performance is to highlight how ridiculous this anti-gay marriage alarmism actually is. It is obvious that Colbert supports the exact opposite position: he is visibly in favor of an access to marriage regardless of sexual orientation, and he uses humor to lampoon the conservatives on the opposite side of the debate. We understand this because it is easy for us to decode Colbert's message, but it is possible to imagine that someone completely unfamiliar with Colbert's character, and perhaps with the very notions of sarcasm and satire, might take him at face value and actually believe that he is truly denouncing the perils of gay marriage. While this may seem far-fetched in Colbert's case given how outrageously over-the-top some of his statements are, and given the laughs we hear from his audience, it is exactly what happened with some of the cartoons from Charlie Hebdo that were taken out of context and which featured racist imagery or discourses. These racist ideas were not at all being endorsed by Charlie Hebdo: they were being made fun of, in order to denounce them.
Before I move on to address the journal's treatment of matters of religion and religious extremism, let's take a look at a few covers which were wrongly accused of conveying a racist message:
On this Charlie Hebdo cover, the text reads "The sex slaves of Boko Haram are angry". The women represented shout "Don't touch our welfare benefits!" Critics were prompt to blast the cartoon as racist, arguing that its depiction of Boko Haram sex slaves as welfare queens was evidence of the journal's affinities with the positions and discourses of the far-right. Yet, as some have pointed out, the drawing actually serves the opposite purpose, namely ridicule typical right-wing myths about immigrants coming to France in order to live off welfare and abuse the system. The drawing is outrageously over-the-top precisely because the objective is to highlight the extent to which the right-wing is exploiting such myths in order to push for reductions in benefits to immigrants. The author is basically saying: "Next, they'll try to make you believe even Boko Haram sex slaves are coming to profit off our welfare with their babies." The cover is clearly a denunciation of this rhetoric of exclusion – it is absolutely not endorsing it.
This image depicting France's Justice Minister Christiane Taubira as a monkey has also been shared quite a lot on social media, often without some of the crucial elements accompanying the drawing: the logo at the bottom-left with blue and red flames, and the text above, "Rassemblement Bleu Raciste". The context of the drawing was the publication on her facebook page, by a member of the French far-right party Front National (a member who was at the time running for office in a local election), of a photomontage comparing Christiane Taubira to a monkey. In addition, the broader context of the cartoon was the continuing attempt, by the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, to portray her party as more moderate than when her father was its president. The Charlie Hebdo drawing therefore denounces what is seen as essentially a marketing move by Marine Le Pen, and argues that below the surface nothing has changed: the party is still as racist as it was before, as evidenced by the racist photomontage that was made of Taubira. The blue and red flame is the logo of the Front National, and the "Rassemblement Bleu Raciste" text is a reference to Marine Le Pen's own political movement, "Rassemblement Bleu Marine". The message is clear: "the Front National and Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement Bleu Marine are as racist as ever, and this is how they still see Christiane Taubira and non-whites in general". Charlie Hebdo is not making fun of Christiane Taubira through racist imagery; it is denouncing the still-prevalent and thinly veiled racism of the far-right party, and the racist imagery they still use.
This older cover resurfaced following the January attacks, and was notably used to claim that Charlie Hebdo used to publish anti-Semitic content. The text above Hitler reads "Finally it can be said: Hitler – super friendly!", and the dictator says "Hello there Jews" ("youpins" is an anti-Semitic term used to refer in a derogatory way to Jewish people), and "How's it going?" (in French, "ça gaze" means "how's it going?", but here it is used as a play on words to refer to the extermination of Jews in Nazi gas chambers). Did the editors actually see Hitler in a positive light? No! Once again, the context is important: at the time, there was a resurgence of anti-Semitic speech in France, and the journal was decrying this resurgence through a message of the type "if this continues, soon Hitler will be talked about as a nice guy". Again, the cover must not be taken at face-value; its message must instead be understood through the lenses of the satirical humor used by the cartoonists. It is purposely shocking in order to drive the message home.
Of course, anyone is free to find this type of humor distasteful and unfunny – that is a matter of personal taste. Likewise, some have argued that even if one is using satire to denounce racism, resorting to racist imagery (in order to satirize and ridicule racism) should still be avoided. This is a perfectly legitimate debate: some believe that using racist imagery is always unacceptable, even when the depictions serve to fight racism, while others are of the opinion that representing racist imagery in order to ridicule it, and mobilize the audience against racism and racists, can be a valid and effective approach. Adhering to the former position will lead one to disapprove of Charlie Hebdo's satirical cartoons featuring racist imagery, but the fundamental point is that the journal's message is still anti-racist; like I've explained, the shocking character of their drawings serves the purpose of eliciting a rejection of racist discourses. In short, while some may disagree with their methods and/or find their humor unfunny, it is still a fact that their editorial line and message are anti-racist.
Having said that, I will now look at how the journal tackles religions and religious extremism, in order to show why Charlie Hebdo's position on these issues does not amount to an attack on religious people of any faith.
2) Does Charlie Hebdo target Islam specifically?
A falsehood that has often been repeated about Charlie Hebdo's editorial line is the claim that the journal puts particular emphasis on targeting Islam compared to other subjects. This debate was however settled in February, when two sociologists published in Le Monde a study of every single Charlie Hebdo cover ranging from January 2005 to January 2015. The authors analyzed the contents of these 523 covers and categorized them thematically. The results speak for themselves: religion was the theme of 38 covers, which is to say of only 7% of the total number of covers (politics came first with 336 covers, followed by economic and social events with 85 covers, and "sports and spectacles" with 42). Among those covers with religion as the main theme, only seven were linked specifically to Islam – this amounts to 1.3% of the total number of covers over the ten-year period. By contrast, covers linked specifically to Catholicism were three times as numerous (with 21 covers in total). The claim that Charlie Hebdo specifically targets Islam therefore simply does not resist scrutiny.
This being said, it has been argued that its treatment of religions, and of Islam in particular, shows that Charlie Hebdo is hostile to "religious minorities" and promotes hateful and intolerant positions with regards to religious groups. In order to answer this accusation, it is necessary to delve into the two crucially important distinctions at the core of the journal's editorial line with regards to how it approaches topics involving religion: the distinction between religious people and religions, and the distinction between religious people in general and religious extremists.
3) Charlie Hebdo and religions – whom and what does the journal target?
Something even defenders of Charlie Hebdo often get wrong is the fact that Charlie Hebdo does not, in reality, target "everyone". In a tweet which was posted following the January attacks, for example, a contributor to The Spectator wrote "Jews, Catholics, Muslims, white people, black people. Everyone attacked by Charlie Hebdo […]" (note that the image he attached to his tweet included a few covers which are not real Charlie Hebdo covers but were instead made by opponents of the journal). This is false – Charlie Hebdo does not actually attack any of these groups. It does not attack "Muslims", it does not attack "Jews", it does not attack "Catholics", it does not attack "white people", and it does not attack "black people". What it does, instead, is attack ideologies, orthodoxies, symbols, institutions (including religious institutions) and policies, as well as figures of authority in general and the specific people (often policymakers) who are behind the decisions, discourses, policies and actions that it opposes. It does not attack groups defined by their religion or skin color.
Since this may surprise those who have often heard the false accusation that Charlie Hebdo targets Muslims, it is necessary to delve into the double distinction which I mentioned earlier. The first distinction which is at the core of Charlie Hebdo's treatment of religion is the distinction between religious extremists and terrorists on the one hand, and religious people in general on the other. The journal relentlessly lampoons and attacks religious extremists who threaten the lives and liberties of others, but it does not target the general members of any religion. Extremists from the three main monotheistic religions are explicitly distinguished in the pages of the journal from religious people as a whole, the overwhelming majority of which are not extremists. As we will see below by looking at a few covers, Charlie Hebdo always defended religious people against religious extremists, underlining for example that the most numerous victims of Islamic terrorists are Muslims, and that Islamic terrorists do not represent Islam as a whole. Clearly, it is not the same to mock extremists for being extremists and to mock religious people in general for their religion. Charlie Hebdo did the former, not the latter, and unequivocally distinguished the two groups.
Next to this distinction between religious extremists and religious people in general is a second distinction that may not be as intuitive. I'm referring here to the distinction between, on the one hand, religions as systems of beliefs (to which can be added religious institutions, symbols and figures of authority), and, on the other, religious people. Understanding this distinction is essential to understanding Charlie Hebdo's editorial line: by poking fun at religions as systems of belief, and by poking fun at religious symbols, at the sacred, and at religious institutions and figures of authority, the journal did not target or seek to target the believers who adhere to these religions. Disputing the merits of given ideas and ideologies is not the same as personally attacking those who subscribe to the said ideas and ideologies. To put it concisely: blasphemy is not racism. Of course, it is frequently the case that a given religion is referred to by xenophobic groups, publications or elected officials, in order to refer indirectly to that religion's believers. This is notably apparent in France, where hate-speech on the basis of religious affiliation (among other attributes) is illegal. Far-right publications will therefore often attempt to circumvent this legal obstacle by asking whether – or even by arguing that – there is a "problem with Islam", as a proxy to indirectly claim that Muslims are undesirable. This thinly veiled racism is sometimes recognized for what it is and rightly condemned in French courts as hate speech, but evoking "Islam" while knowing that your audience will understand that you're not simply talking about religion in the abstract but actually referring to Muslims, is nevertheless a tactic that is often used among the xenophobic crowd (the same goes for speaking about Judaism to really target Jews). Yet, the fact that some people attack specific religions in order to actually attack those religions' believers does not mean that discussing, analyzing, and even mocking religions as systems of belief necessarily implies or masks an attack on the religious people themselves. Both religious extremists and the far-right seek to obscure this distinction: religious extremists because they want to censor criticism of religion by painting it as racism against believers, and the far-right because it wants to disguise its racism against believers (usually Muslims and Jews) as criticism of religion.
In the case of Charlie Hebdo, criticism of religion and religious institutions is unambiguously not criticism of believers. The journal regularly makes fun of the Pope and the Vatican, for example (for their positions on same-sex marriage, on abortion rights, etc.), but their mockeries are specifically aimed at these authority figures and institutions – not at Catholics in general. Likewise, when a cartoon lampoons the Catholic clergy for its repeated pedophilia scandals, it does not seek to ridicule Catholics as a whole but instead the Church, its clergy and their actions. The same applies to religious symbols and to the sacred: Charlie Hebdo seeks to deconstruct symbols and banalize them so that they may be criticized, studied and discussed as any other topic, but this approach has nothing to do with attempting to anger or provoke religious people who hold these symbols sacred. The target is sacredness itself, not believers. When the journal criticizes religions in general as systems of belief, it does not seek to attack religious people, it seeks to attack authoritative doctrines and practices. On a similar note, when Charlie Hebdo calls out Christianity, Islam and Judaism for their structural sexism, it does not argue that being a believer in one of the three religions implies being sexist. The difference is absolutely fundamental, and the reality that there are others who often speak of religions in order to refer implicitly to their members should not obscure the fact that it is possible to separate the two, and to criticize institutions and doctrines without targeting religious people in the slightest. That's what Charlie Hebdo did, and continues to do, and that's why Glenn Greenwald completely missed the mark and showed he did not understand the journal when he compared their cartoons with anti-Semitic drawings targeting Jews. An example of someone who, contrary to Charlie Hebdo, apparently uses the religious symbols of a specific religion in order to promote hatred against its believers, can be found in the person of Pamela Geller, who was behind the "draw Muhammad" contest which was attacked on the 3rd of May by two gunmen. Although it would be presumptuous to assume that all participants in the contest shared her views, Geller was presented by the New York Times as having a "long history of declarations and actions motivated purely by hatred for Muslims". According to the NYT's editorial board, her intent in organizing the contest was to provoke and fuel tensions. On their treatment of religion and religious icons, therefore, Charlie Hebdo and Geller are polar opposites: Geller targets Islam specifically to promote hatred against Muslims, while Charlie Hebdo targets all religions, religious institutions and religious extremists without seeking to attack the general believers themselves.
Of course, one can be aware of this distinction between religious people and religions, and of Charlie Hebdo's lack of racism, and still believe that the journal should avoid using religious symbols in their cartoons, because their use may anger or offend believers – even if the latter are, as I explained, not actually being targeted. In this perspective, it would be "insensitive" and "disrespectful" to play with such symbols, for example to draw a cartoon featuring Jesus on a cross or Muhammad. There are several issues with this argument. First, it blurs the distinction I have just laid out: it lumps together "religion" and "believers", as if poking fun at the former was akin to showing disrespect to the latter, when this is, as we've seen, not necessarily true at all. Second, the argument implicitly essentializes religious groups: the subtext is that religious people will react uniformly and negatively to any attempt at humor with religious symbols and with blasphemy, and that they will necessarily consider any such attempt disrespectful. This completely ignores the fact that believers can often not only appreciate comedy involving and deriding the sacred, but also be themselves the authors of such comedy. Even among the believers who do not enjoy such humor, many will still actively support those who enjoy and produce it, simply because they believe in freedom of expression and recognize that others need not necessarily obey the religious imperatives that they themselves follow. If we take the example of the movie The Life of Brian by the Monty Pythons, its satire (in particular of the practices of organized religion) was initially received very negatively by several religious organizations (some are still highly critical of the movie today), but countless Catholics very much enjoyed its humor. In 2007, the Church of St Thomas the Martyr even celebrated the movie by organizing a screening within the church building itself. The argument is therefore quite patronizing: it pretends to speak for all believers and claims that they would all necessarily find those attempts at humor offensive, that they would be incapable of possibly enjoying the said humor, and that they would prefer it if it hadn't been produced – while in reality, many believers argue that it is not disrespectful to them to joke about religion. Obviously, there are Catholics, Muslims, Jews, etc., who do get offended when such comedy is produced. Yet if we had to resort to self-censorship whenever someone might find our speech offensive, it would largely make freedom of expression meaningless. The possibility of getting offended by ideas – and cartoons – that we disagree with is indeed a necessary corollary of living in open societies in which free speech is a constitutionally-enshrined human right (including when it comes with certain limitations, such as in France with regards to hate speech). Getting offended by someone's speech is not in itself an indication that that person is being disrespectful to us – it may simply mean that we have differing views, in this case on religion, blasphemy and the use of religious symbols.
Another issue with the argument is that it paints the act of using a symbol as disrespectful in itself, instead of looking at how and to what effect the symbol is used. As we will see later on with another selection of cartoons, the two most referenced Charlie Hebdo covers featuring Muhammad actually presented him as a tolerant figure who was precisely appalled by the actions of terrorists and fanatics. The religious figure was thus not drawn to attack or provoke believers: the intent was instead notably to defend believers by distinguishing their faith from the actions of these fanatics, whom Muhammad condemned in the drawings. Any discussion on the respectful or disrespectful character of the use of religious symbols must therefore involve looking at how and why they are used, instead of declaring it disrespectful in itself to draw religious icons. Tareq Oubrou, a French imam and the rector of the Bordeaux Mosque, made this exact point when he commented on the January cover of Charlie Hebdo that featured Muhammad holding a "Je suis Charlie" sign (see my analysis of the cover below): "the intent of the caricatures is appeasement; it's even an act of kindness… so you need to see the intent of the caricature, beyond the representation of the Prophet per se." Finally, an additional problem with the argument is that it somewhat presupposes a specific intention, from the authors of the cartoon, with regards to religious people. Charlie Hebdo does not seek to reach a religious audience specifically, and/or to provoke anger – it publishes cartoons its staff finds funny (and relevant to the events and stories they're linked to), and it's up to anyone to decide whether to read the journal or not. It bases its material on current events, and its covers are therefore largely reactions to both French and international news. When the news involves religion (the Pope gives an major speech, Catholic groups protest gay marriage in France, religious extremists commit violence because of cartoons of Muhammad, etc.), they cover it like they do with everything else – articles, humor and cartoons. Like I've explained, these cartoons do not convey hate speech (and in fact they oppose and denounce it), they do not lampoon religious people in general but instead religion and or/religious extremists, they are not made to hurt believers, and they appear in a newspaper that nobody is forced to look at or open. All that the Charlie Hebdo staff does is choose not to obey religious imperatives that they feel should not dictate their own, personal behavior – in no way is this in itself disrespectful to believers.
A similar argument has also often been brought up, this time against the publishing of cartoons about Islam and Muhammad in particular: because many Muslims are "marginalized" and "impoverished" in Western countries, their religion should not be made fun of like other religions. Again, there are several issues with this position, many of which are the same I just put forward. First, this line of thinking once again blurs the distinction between religion and believers, and confuses the act of deriding the principle of sacredness in general (in this case sacredness conferred on Islamic symbols and figures) with the act of attacking those who believe that certain symbols or figures are sacred. Charlie Hebdo cartoons involving Islam do not contain or imply any sort of criticism aimed at French (or non-French) Muslims. As I've said, it is obvious that there are racists who seek to stigmatize and incite to hatred against Muslims, and they should absolutely be opposed, but that is hardly a reason to silence criticism of sacredness, and of religions in general (including Islam). Those are simply two distinct topics. Second, and once more, the argument patronizingly essentializes "Muslims" as a monolithic block incapable of producing, enjoying or even tolerating humor about religion, as well as incapable of being of the opinion that people should keep joking about religion if they want to. In fact, not only are countless Muslims living in Western countries and elsewhere very much attached to freedom of speech, many have since the January attacks voiced their support for Charlie Hebdo to continue doing what they've always done – even if the journal's humor has sometimes been found offensive by some. Indeed, many Muslims have argued that since Charlie Hebdo targets all religions and religious leaders, they do not want to see their religion singled out and treated any differently than the others, given that they view freedom of speech as an essential right that is beneficial to everyone, including Muslims themselves. In fact, some of the most courageous people pushing for freedom of speech today can be found in Arab and Middle-Eastern countries, among the many activists and citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, who are fighting against the restrictions on free speech, including with regards to speech touching upon Islam and religious institutions, that are imposed by their governments.
Painting "Muslims" (whether marginalized or not) as intrinsically less capable than people of other faiths of accepting that humorists can make jokes involving religion, or as inherently more vulnerable than other believers when it comes to such humor, is therefore both profoundly condescending and insulting. To quote a Muslim supporter of Charlie Hebdo who was present at the 2007 trial of the journal in the Muhammad caricatures affair: "What do you think, that Muslims have no sense of humor? That they are incapable of laughter, of derision, of understanding satire?" It is worth mentioning also that the argument implicitly reduces people to their religious identity. Again, this is not to say that we should not fight against hateful anti-Muslims discourses and practices, or that politicians and media outlets which systematically target Islam specifically to really suggest there is an intrinsic "problem with Muslims" should not be denounced. Like I've explained previously, despite its lampooning of religion and religious figures of authority, Charlie Hebdo was and remains very much on the side of the minorities fighting against racism and discrimination. There is simply no contradiction between being critical of religion in general, and of religious extremists, and fervently defending disenfranchised minorities, including religious minorities.
Before I move on, I need to address here the case of the firing of Siné, a former Charlie Hebdo contributor. This case has been presented by some as evidence of a "double-standard" at Charlie Hebdo, meaning that the journal would target Muslims/Islam but not Jews/Judaism. We've already established that Charlie Hebdo targets religions in general (including Islam and Judaism) but not believers (such as Muslims and Jews), but was this case evidence that the journal felt Islam could be lampooned and not Judaism? To summarize what happened, Siné was fired by Phillipe Val, who was at the time the journal's publication director, after writing the following comment about Jean Sarkozy (the then president's son): "he has just declared that he wants to convert to Judaism before marrying his fiancée, Jewish, and heir to the founders of Darty. He'll go far, that kid!" Without delving into the debate about Siné that followed (the courts later ruled in his favor, judging his firing had been abusive), the reason he was fired does not support the idea that the case is evidence of a double standard: Siné was not fired for lampooning religion in general, in this case Judaism, but instead because the publication director felt that Siné was taking a shot at Jews themselves, through an anti-Semitic association between Jews and a lust for money. There is therefore no double-standard, and the journal's line is clear: it is unacceptable to attacks believers on the basis of their religion, but it is fine to lampoon religion and religious institutions. Since Siné's text was seen by the publication director as crossing the line towards attacking the believers themselves (in this case Jews), he was fired. In the case of the Muhammad cartoons produced by the journal, however, it was clear to everyone involved that the believers (in this case Muslims) were not being targeted.
To sum up this section, Charlie Hebdo lampoons and denounces religious extremists, but it does not attack religious people in general. It also makes fun of religious institutions and symbols, but again without targeting believers (and, as we mentioned, it sometimes actually uses religious symbols to defend religions against extremists). It does not attack Christians, Jews or Muslims for their faith, and only takes aim at extremists, at religious institutions, figures of authority and doctrines, and at the sacred. This double distinction was crucial in the trial that the journal faced in 2007 for publishing an issue whose cover featured a drawing of Muhammad by their cartoonist Cabu (the issue also reproduced, in solidarity and for information purposes, twelve cartoons which had appeared earlier in a Danish newspaper and which had led to outbreaks of violence in some countries). Indeed, the courts (in first instance and in appeal) found the journal not guilty of incitement to religious and racial hatred precisely on the basis of the fact that its cover (that I detail below) did not target Muslims in general (as I mentioned earlier, insulting a group of people on the basis of their religious affiliation is illegal under French law) but instead targeted Islamic extremists specifically. The courts also mentioned that blasphemy is not racism and that it is not illegal in France. In short, they concluded that Charlie Hebdo was clearly not guilty of anti-Muslims hate speech, and that the journal was only attacking extremists.
Since these distinctions may still seem abstract to a certain extent, I will now take a look at a second selection of covers from the journal, this time touching upon the subject of religion.
This widely-circulated cover, which was at the center of the aforementioned 2007 trial, is an extremely good illustration of the distinction made by Charlie Hebdo between religious extremists (whom they oppose) and religious people in general (whom they do not oppose). Muhammad is pictured weeping and saying "It's tough to be loved by morons". The text in the upper left corner reads "Muhammad outflanked by fundamentalists." Context informs us that the "fundamentalists" referred to are those who committed violence in response to the publishing of cartoons depicting Muhammad by a Danish newspaper. More importantly, however, a quick analysis of the cover allows us to understand that those called "morons" by Muhammad are not Muslims in general, but these fundamentalists specifically. Indeed, the word "fundamentalists" is imprinted on the Muhammad drawing, the last two letters changing colors from black to white in order to distinguish them over the clothes of the character. This was done in order to prevent the drawing of Muhammad from being separated from the rest of the cover, leaving out the word "fundamentalists" and giving the impression that the journal was calling all Muslims "morons". Instead, the journal wanted to make clear that it was the fundamentalists who were being targeted and not Muslims in general. By showing Muhammad condemning and insulting fundamentalists, it serves to distinguish Islam from the actions of fundamentalists; it is argued that they do not represent Islam in general. The drawing is profoundly respectful of Muslims, and makes a clear distinction between their faith and the actions of fundamentalists.
Here, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood is depicted dying from bullets passing through his Quran, and the text reads "Killings in Egypt – Quran is shit – It doesn't stop bullets". The context is the slaughter of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian military following the coup d'État against president Morsi. This cover has often been mentioned as an example of Charlie Hebdo's supposed indifference towards, and even hatred against, Muslims. As with previous accusations, this misses the mark: the cover does not reflect indifference towards the killings, but instead seeks to highlight their intense cruelty, and more importantly the fact that many of the victims were completely unarmed. The phrase "The Quran is shit – it doesn't stop bullets", in this context, is to be understood as "Of course the Quran doesn't stop bullets. And it is all that many of these protesters had against the violence unleashed by the military." The cover therefore denounces, through satire and purposely shocking imagery, the Egyptian military's violence against those unarmed citizens; it does not support it. Some have argued that a secondary message of the cartoon was that the Quran gave a false sense of security to protesters, that "religion had failed the Muslim Brotherhood", but it is difficult to make a definitive claim on this secondary aspect without asking the author.
This drawing is a good illustration of Charlie Hebdo's stance with regards to religions. A rabbi, an imam and a priest, representing respectively Judaism, Islam and Catholicism, are sitting together and resting their feet on a naked woman. The priest says "After all, on the basics, we agree." We see that Charlie Hebdo is not targeting believers; instead, the cartoon is aimed at the three monotheistic religions, as well as at their institutions and figures of authority. The journal is not saying that Jews, Muslims and Christians are sexists; it is denouncing the place given to women by (in other words, the structural sexism of) the three religions and their institutions, and their lack of care for women's rights. In addition, none of the three monotheistic religions is singled out: the journal was anti-religions in general.
This cover comes from the first issue of the journal which followed the attacks of January 7. Muhammad stands shedding a tear and holding an "I am Charlie" sign, under the text "All is forgiven". Some were quick to denounce the cover as proof that Charlie Hebdo still did not care about Muslims and was continuing its campaign against them. They could not be further from the truth. It is a cover of profound kindness towards Islam. Muhammad is shown as a kind character, full of empathy, who profoundly disagrees with the actions of the terrorists who attacked the journal. The message from Charlie Hebdo could not be clearer: "the terrorists who attacked us do not represent Islam." This cover is a hand extended to the Muslim community – it signifies a strict refusal to join the ranks of anti-Muslims bigots. Their colleagues and friends were brutally murdered at the hands of Islamic terrorists, but the staff of the journal makes clear that it distinguishes these terrorists from the rest of those who believe in Islam. The cover does not display a lack of respect for Muslims – it shows the exact opposite.
Although this may have been a somewhat lengthy demonstration, I truly hope that it will help some of those who are unfamiliar with the journal (and only know it through out-of-context and misinterpreted drawings) understand its editorial line. The aim of this article was not to erect Charlie Hebdo into a symbol of free speech purity, to argue that one should never disagree with some of the political views expressed in its pages, that the journal should be exempt from criticism, or that everyone should find its humor funny. The aim was merely to underline the simple fact that the journal is neither racist nor xenophobic – it is the exact opposite, and its continuous fight against racism and xenophobia can be observed not only in its cartoons but also in the articles and analyses found within its pages. Its satirical use of racist imagery and discourses in cartoons does not serve to endorse these racist views, but instead to denounce and condemn them as well as their promoters. Likewise, its treatment of religion is centered on a double distinction which underlines its refusal to attack people from any faith on the basis of their religion. Indeed, Charlie Hebdo makes a clear distinction between religious people in general and religious extremists, as well as between religious people on the one hand, and religions (including religious institutions, doctrines, symbols and figures of authority) on the other. The journal simply does not target, or show a lack of respect towards, believers of any faith. It is in truth systematically on the side of the oppressed and disenfranchised, including religious minorities, when it comes to defending their rights, their liberties, and their legitimate aspirations for equality in our societies.
The fact that some are claiming otherwise, and are painting Charlie Hebdo as bigoted, only reflects a profound lack of understanding on their part of the journal and of its editorial line (in the case of the writers who withdrew from the PEN gala). It may also reflect, in some instances, a desire to equate blasphemy and general criticism of all religions with racism (in the case of fundamentalists seeking to limit freedom of speech). Although I want to reiterate that I sympathize with the six writers' desire to distance themselves from hateful anti-Muslims publications, they nevertheless chose the completely wrong target in Charlie Hebdo. As a result, they are responsible for contributing to the misinformation that is spread about the journal, accusations that are not only particularly insulting and hurtful in the wake of the deadly attacks of January, but also detrimental to an enlightened debate about freedom of expression and religion. Charlie Hebdo does not "punch downward" at minorities: it has instead always punched up at dogmas, religions, and authority. And using pens and paper, its staff has always punched up at the religious extremists who seek to restrict the liberties of others. For that, their offices were burned down, then several of their members were killed in a brutal assault – and yet they are still going. Their courage deserves to be acknowledged, and they certainly deserve not to see their name be smeared through false accusations and shameful misrepresentations of their drawings.
13th of January 2016 update : this diary was originally published on the 27th of May 2015. It was republished today due to a technical error. Since the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attack was on the 7th of January, however, I hope new readers will find the article helpful in understanding the journal’s humor.