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January 19, 2015




A week after the murderous elimination of its top team, Charlie Hebdo has boomeranged with the publication of yet another sacrilegious cartoon on its cover. The new provocation has been printed in three million copies, many times more than the founding editor could have ever imagined. All as a result of the wave of popularity and sympathy in France and elsewhere following the mayhem at the satirical weekly’s Paris office.
All this fits in – though tragically – with Charlie Hebdo’s vocation of annoying and mindless provocation. Its original name was Hara-Kiri and it began with mocking the mighty in France. The first version had a short life; after making fun of the death of none else but Charles de Gaulle, it was simply shut down by the government.
It is not clear if the avatar with ‘Charlie’ as part of its name had any connection with the late president de Gaulle’s first name. But the weekly has been playing havoc with the sensibilities of a great number of French people. According to Joshua Keating, an American journalist, ever since its revival as Charlie Hebdo, the paper “has been taking shots at sacred cows”. Sadly, matters took a completely different turn in 2006, when Charlie Hebdo began blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as its new goalpost.
The irreverent magazine insisted on reprinting the infamous Danish cartoons. That episode and the reactions to it were symptomatic of the wide fault line between the west and the Muslim world. Charlie’s obstinacy in reprinting those nasty cartoons despite advice to the contrary from many quarters was incomprehensible.
The problem was compounded by the acquittal of Charlie’s editors in a court case on charges of inciting racial hatred. The weekly repeated the derogatory cartoons in 2011 and 2012, to the great consternation of Muslims in France and elsewhere. The French premier and foreign minister criticised these provocations as did part of the French media.
Sections of the

international media have pointed out that the Charlie Hebdo of last week that coincided with the terror attack dealt with a highly controversial French writer, Michel Houellebecq. The weekly poked fun of Houellebecq’s latest book, Submission, which caricatures France under an Islamic government by the 2020s – women forsaking western wear and polygamy introduced. Houellebecq is also considered a satirist and has been attacking moors and beliefs notably related to Islam.
In his comment on the massacre of January 7, Keating expressed the view that “both Charlie Hebdo and Houellebecq are leading examples of an intellectual tradition that holds giving offence and provocation as both a right and a duty...”
So we face a combination here of religious extremism versus offensive writing. The difference is that the latter exercises its overstretched notion of freedom of expression by the plume while the former have a simple philosophy of kill and be killed.
Once the impact of the million march of January 11, and millions of copies sold of Charlie on July 14 wears off, sobriety should replace anger. Contrary to what the French premier said, his country is not at war. The jihadists have a minute presence in France. The task is to identify them and interdict their murderous agenda. Nor is this a matter of “France for the French” as claimed by the extreme right-wing leader Le Pen.
Bernard Henri Levi is of the view that so far democratic moderation has prevailed. While dubbing the episode as the Churchillian moment of France’s Fifth Republic, he cautions the leadership not to fall into the trap of warfare, something the jihadis so dearly want. Levi argues that the Charlie Hebdo killers are not ‘the Muslims’ but rather a tiny fraction of them. Levi calls upon the majority of the Muslims to reject the ‘corrupt form of theocratic passion’.
Germany’s Angela Merkel should be praised for her defiance of the anti-Islam movement in her own country and elsewhere in Europe. It is fashionable among the European Right to warn of a creeping Islamic takeover. The situation is quite the opposite. There is no doubt that Europe’s Muslim population is growing but the vast majority is marginalised and stigmatised.
Saner elements have been warning that it is the rejection the Muslim youth perceives in the European society that pushes some of them towards radical ideas. Paranoia is often transformed into Islamophobia. Levi should urge the Europeans to heal themselves rather than placing all the blame on a minority still struggling for its place.
Charlie Hebdo was an irritant in France till it chose to poke fun of Islam and its Prophet (pbuh). It has since become a cult object of Islamophobes and a symbol of French resistance to others. That sadly is the real news. The killers of Charlie shouted that they had avenged the Prophet (pbuh). All the murderers of Charlie’s reckless team achieved by killing was to give more importance to Charlie Hebdo – the kind it never dreamed of.
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