Terrorism in Paris sparks free speech debate

Denver Garcia, Staff Writer 
& Lee Kaplan-Unsoeld, Staff Writer

Charlie Hebdo is no average publication, even for France’s standards, and its preferred type of humor has been known to rub people the wrong way. Much like the U.S. cartoon South Park, which is infamous for its similarly offensive and politically incorrect brand of humor, if Charlie Hebdo is not infuriating large numbers of people, they are not doing their job. Charlie Hebdo satirizes forces it sees as threatening to French society and favorite targets include the Vatican, radical Islam and neo-fascist parties such as the National Front. Graphic violence and sexuality is often on the covers and the cartoonists operate under the philosophy that no individual or group is beyond criticism under truly free speech.

“I’ve been familiar with Charlie Hebdo ever since I did grad school in Paris in the 80s. Print media is still very strong in France because the French believe that it is more trustworthy than digital media since it can’t be censored the way internet sources can. Charlie Hebdo is uniquely French in both its humor and its message. Bawdy humor has been a part of French literature since the time of Charlemagne, and dedication to secularism and anticlericalism been a part of French politics since the French Revolution. What you see is part of a tradition which includes Reynard the Fox and Rabelais. The reason why many find the magazine so shocking is the visual combination of these two elements,” said associate professor of languages, Kathleen McKain.

The origins of Charlie Hebdo lie in another magazine, Hara-Kiri, which was banned in 1970 after mocking the fact the public mourned French President Charles le Gaulle’s death while ignoring a nightclub fire that killed 146 people. Hara-Kiri was akin to the counterculture “Underground Comix” movement which flourished in America with artists such as R. Crumb and lampooned the establishment by ribaldry. After Hara-Kiri was banned several staff members founded Charlie Hebdo, and they have remained a controversial presence in Parisian life ever since.

On Jan. 7 though, a little before noon local time, two militants broke into the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris and killed 12 people in apparent retaliation for a cartoon that was recently published that featured a cartoon of Prophet Muhammad. The comic, taking a stab at the barbarity that terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have been known to employ, shows Muhammad being held at knife point by a militant. Muhammad says “I’m the prophet you moron!” to which the militant replies “Shut the f— up you infidel!”

An offshoot of the terrorist organization al Qaeda, named Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is located in Yemen, has since claimed responsibility for the attacks. The group associated with the late Anwar al-Awlaki, who was a propagandist influential in radicalizing many people such as the Tsarnaev brothers and the Ft. Hood shooter and was the first American citizen to die at the hands of a U.S. airstrike on foreign soil. According to the Wall Street Journal, Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, a key member of AQAP, has since stated that al-Awlaki planned the attack before his death in 2011.

Regardless of who is responsible, the tragedy remains an open topic of discussion, putting freedom of speech and press in some form of danger.

The editor of Mad Magazine, John Ficarra, said in regards to his making fun of the Catholic Church and Jerry Fallwell, “The worst that could happen to us was that we would get a stern letter from their lawyers. We live for those days. Not once did we ever fear for our safety. Those were the good old days.”

True to the French tradition of free speech, an estimated 1.6 million protesters marched in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and the victims of the attack. The slogan “Je suis Charlie” (French for “I am Charlie”) is used as a way of expressing the feeling of vulnerability that supporters of free expression felt as a result of the attack.

Around 40 world leaders gathered in Paris for the march, but some were criticized for showing what was labeled by Gerry Hassan as “pseudo-solidarity.” According to a report compiled by Reporters Without Borders, nine of those world leaders represent countries who fall in the bottom third of the World Press Freedom Index.

Louis Gordon Crovitz, in an article entitled Defending Satire to the Death, invokes the spirit of Voltaire, the Enlightenment-era French writer, whose thoughts are summed up by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire was imprisoned and his books were burnt in 1717, but he continued contributing to the French tradition of satire, a tradition Charlie Hebdo carries on today. Many free speech activists and journalists are worried about what the recent attack means in terms of the future of free expression, and what this attack could signal for the future of journalists. Voltaire’s philosophy proved to come true as Ahmed Merabet, the police officer killed in the attack, was a Muslim.

The journalists and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, however, have moved forward provocatively, releasing the latest addition of the magazine with another picture of Muhammad on the cover. This issue, which carries the headline: “All is forgiven”, shows Muhammad weeping with a sign that reads “Je suis Charlie,” illustrating the idea that were Muhammad here to opine on events, he would sympathize with the dead journalists.

In an emotional press conference, the cartoonist who drew the new cover, Renald Luzier, declared, “It was not the front page the terrorists wanted us to do, because there isn’t a terrorist in there, there is just a man crying, a character crying, it’s Muhammad. I’m sorry that we drew him again, but the Muhammad we drew is a man crying above all.”

The tragedy in Paris has backfired, because the cartoonists have refused to compromise. While many immigrants and Catholics find Charlie Hebdo’s comics to be extremely offensive, most agree that the attacks were still inexcusable. Hate crimes against Muslims, Jews, and Black people have spiked, despite the fact that the cartoons are often interpreted to be as critical of xenophobia as they are of politicized religion.

McKain commented, “The irony is that before the attacks Charlie Hebdo was on the verge of bankruptcy. Because they attacked all aspects of French society they faced constant lawsuits. Few businesses were willing to place ads, so they were almost entirely reliant on their readership for funds; but not that many people read it. So while they constantly provoked outrage, most people simply ignored them. Had the shooting not occurred, there is a good chance that they would have folded and nobody outside of France would have ever heard of them.”

The brutality of the attack mixed with the outrageous nature of the target has provoked many mixed responses. Some view the publication as a courageous champion of free press, others as nothing more than bigotry masked as humor, among other views. Whatever the case, discussion about Charlie Hebdo will not die soon, and that is important in a free society.


  1. http://www.wsj.com/articles/yemens-al-qaeda-branch-claims-responsibility-for-charlie-hebdo-attack-1421231389
  2. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/paris-march-tv-wide-shots-reveal-a-different-perspective-on-world-leaders-at-largest-demonstration-in-frances-history-9972895.html
  3. http://www.fastcocreate.com/3040985/mad-magazines-chilling-response-to-the-charlie-hebdo-murders
  4. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/paris-march-tv-wide-shots-reveal-a-different-perspective-on-world-leaders-at-largest-demonstration-in-frances-history-9972895.html
  5. http://www.wsj.com/articles/gordon-crovitz-defending-satire-to-the-death-1421016982
  6. http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/jan/13/charlie-hebdo-cover-magazine-prophet-muhammad

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