In praise of blasphemy

Caroline Fourest on Charlie Hebdo.

She worked there from 2004 to 2009 – five particularly intense and fascinating years, she says.

The first time I met its audacious, fabled editorial team was as a young journalist, in 1997. Beloved by the radical left, Charlie is the last French paper to maintain a long tradition of trenchant caricatures of the religious, the sacred and the powerful, and to openly mock all forms of fanaticism. Its greatest covers, for many years, were devoted to poking fun at the Pope and the Catholic Church’s antiquated positions on abortion, sexuality and women’s rights.

But fewer people know that Charlie has always been the rallying paper of the anti-racist French left. Its legendary cartoonists — Cabu, Charb, Tignous, Wolinski, Honoré, Luz, Riss — were behind the emblematic illustrations of the “SOS Racisme” movement that gained momentum in the 1990s and pushed back against post-colonial anti-Arab discrimination. When the killers stormed the newsroom on January 7, the staff were in the middle of an argument — as they often were — on how to help the situation of the young victims of discrimination.

Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey, please note.

Charlie became a target for Islamists after it republished the controversial Danish caricatures of Muhammad that caused a worldwide controversy in 2006, an affair that fanatics and (more significantly) many journalists naively described as an Islamophobic provocation. This interpretation, as well as being false, placed a target on the cartoonists’ backs.

It got them killed, in other words.

In 2006, at the time of the Danish caricature affair, I worked at Charlie, and dealt with fanaticism (in all religions) and the extreme right. I heard of the Danish story through a friend, an Iranian refugee in Denmark, and explained to my colleagues the atmosphere of threats and intimidation in which Jyllands-Posten decided to publish the cartoons. Embassies in Iran and Syria were burning. Islamic radicals cried “Death to freedom of expression” in London.

We knew an illustrated magazine like ours couldn’t shy away from covering this instance of censorship and violence, the latest in a string of many others: Salmon Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, the death of Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands and, of course, the murder of Algerian journalists during the “black years.” We decided to cover this incredible story, and to publish the drawings that had ignited it. For the cover, we chose a cartoon that captured the spirit of Charlie: Muhammad in despair, lamenting the fanatics who committed atrocities in his name.

We searched for the right image for a long time. We wanted something both funny and honest, representative of our editorial line: neutral on religion, but resolutely anti-racist.

We were going to fight to make that understood. And we did fight — relentlessly. As one of the few journalists at Charlie who spoke English, I gave countless interviews in publications around the world to explain that it was crucial not to give in to threats of violence, especially as an opinion newspaper. We understood the risks. We received countless threats, but also messages of support, from French Muslims who thanked us for believing that they too could have a sense of humor when faced with religious extremism.

They counted on their colleagues to stand by them, and many did, especially Turkish and Arabic ones.

Other publications, mostly English-language, stabbed us in the back: by lying about our intentions, refusing to explain the chronology of events and the context of our actions, and by echoing the same accusations we heard from fanatics themselves.

Reliving this same hell 10 years later, after the death of my colleagues, was deeply painful. The despicable accusation that Charlie was “Islamophobic” was not only wrong, it had killed and continued to put its survivors in danger.

But it made the accusers feel clean and righteous, no doubt.

Luz, one of the few cartoonists to survive the attack, drew the most poignant cartoon of his career in its aftermath: Muhammad, in tears, saying “Everything is forgiven.”

I have it right here next to me.

Still, this was “too much” — many called it blasphemy. As if the killers had been justified in their violence. Democrats, trembling with fear, asked us to respect the fact that the laws of the most fanatic and violent among us may become the laws that govern our independent publications and our secular democracies. After harassing us with requests to see Luz’s illustration, American and British channels subsequently censured it — all the better to criticize it, and without allowing viewers to make their own judgements. I was stopped when I tried to show it on live TV. It was a living nightmare.

Remember that? I remember it. It was gruesome.

Caroline was talking about the betrayal by journalists who refuse to show cartoons and she held up the Luz cover – and Sky News cut away to the presenter, who scolded Caroline and apologized to the viewers. It was a disgusting display of cowardice and brutality – brutality toward Caroline and toward everyone at CH and blasphemers in general – many of whom were bloodily hacked to death in the months after the slaughter at CH.

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.

But people pretended to think CH was insulting Aylan and mocking his death.

I wrote a book called “Éloge du blasphème” (“In praise of blasphemy”: Why Charlie Hebdo is not ‘Islamophobic’”) about Charlie to bridge the gap between us. I wanted to dispel the common misunderstandings that distance us from the crux of this fight against terrorism and religious extremism — a fight that by necessity involves us all. Writing gave me back the sleep that the January 7 attacks had robbed me of.

The book became a best-seller in France and Salman Rushdie, a man I admire infinitely, gave me his endorsement and support. But no American or British publisher was willing to publish the book. There’s no market for this kind of book, I was repeatedly told, in an attempt to justify their unwillingness to touch on something as explosive as the press’ right to blasphemy.


Thanks to the Internet and to this publication’s willingness to publish some pages below, I hope to touch a few readers. To renew a dialogue with those who “are not Charlie,” as a number of writers belonging to PEN International declared when the association decided to award Charlie with a prize. We all despaired. If they want to disassociate themselves from Charlie, then let them do so having truly made an effort to know and understand Charlie, and not on the basis of a cultural misunderstanding.

We tried to tell them.

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