On the morning of January 7, 2015, the editorial meeting of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was well underway in Paris when two masked gunmen armed with AK-47s forced their way into the publication’s offices and opened fire, leaving twelve dead. This would signify the beginning of a three-day siege of terrorist attacks on the French capital, one of the worst security crises in the nation’s history. Following the Charlie Hebdo attack, the brothers responsible, Said and Chérif Kouachi, died in a shootout with security forces two days later, bringing an end to the manhunt. Later the same day, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the attacks, intended as “revenge for the honor” of Mohammed, depicted in many of Charlie Hedbo’s obscene caricatures. As the saga came to a close, many wondered if Paris could ever find peace.
In the hours following the shooting, however, a digital movement was taking place worldwide. Joachim Roncin, a Parisian art director, shocked by the events of that morning, posted a simple version of the Charlie Hebdo masthead to Twitter, reading “Je Suis Charlie” or “I am Charlie,” as an act of solidarity with the victims and a commitment to journalistic expression, free from fear. Within a day, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie was used over 1.5 million times on Twitter alone; over the course of a week, the hashtag had sprawled to all corners of social media and replicated almost 6 million times. The Friday following the shooting, Twitter announced that #JeSuisCharlie had become one of the most popular news-related hashtags in the platform’s history. Since 2015, the world outside of Charlie Hebdo has remained largely silent, cries of #JeSuisCharlie left behind, until now.
Over five years later, the historic trial is currently underway in Paris; on trial, fourteen individuals charged with providing logistical aid to the attackers, including obtaining the weapons and other forms of support. In a trial expected to last 49 days, one-hundred witnesses have been called to give evidence. As the world reflects on the events that transpired that tragic winter morning, some have come to question what it means to be Charlie. The controversial magazine has not been unfamiliar to criticism, targeted attacks, or even the attention of extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda. Thrusting the once-failing French publication under an international spotlight has brought immense scrutiny, with numerous claims of islamophobia and racism against the magazine over blasphemous depictions of the prophet Mohammed, and brought into question the meaning of the movement. With a long trial ahead, does #JeSuisCharlie still represent the interest of freedom, or has it come to represent a prejudiced past?
What Does it Mean to be Charlie?
Charlie Hebdo, French for “Charlie Weekly,” is a self-proclaimed left-wing, satirical magazine featuring articles and cartoons addressing various topics including politics, religion, and culture. The paper’s origin is rooted in traditional French journalism, dating back to the French Revolution: combining left-wing radicalism with provocative vulgarity that can border on the obscene. While the magazine is regularly critical of Catholics, Jews, and right-wing French politicians, controversy for Charlie Hebdo revolves around continued visual depictions of the Prophet Mohammad, an act forbidden in Islam. Some of their more controversial covers have varied from beheadings to sexual acts depicting religious and political leaders. In 2006, the magazine gained notoriety by publishing 12 cartoons of the prophet, the front page depicting a tearful Mohammad, reading “Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists.” The issue resulted in the condemnation of the publication by the Muslim world and a lawsuit from the French Council for the Muslim Faith, which was decided in Charlie’s favor under freedom of speech protections. In November 2011, a petrol bomb attack destroyed the Charlie Hebdo offices, following the publication of a special edition of the magazine, Charia Hebdo. The issue was in response to the Islamist party’s victory in the recent Tunisian election and critically referenced Islamic sharia law; on the cover, a depiction of Muhammad as a “guest editor.” As the question of what it means to be Charlie demands to be answered, it depends on whom you ask.
Roncin, the original creator of the phrase, told Huffpost France, “I very quickly detached myself from it. I didn’t want it to belong to me.” Despite the meaning behind the movement being up for interpretation, many have found it hard to separate the slogan from the content of Charlie Hebdo itself. David Brooks of The New York Times wrote, “whatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim,” in reference to the popular hashtag, “Most of us don’t actually engage in that sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.” Within hours of the attack, counter-hashtags began peaking on Twitter. #JeNeSuisPasCharlie (“I am not Charlie”) was used by those who condemned the violence of the attack but were quick to call attention to content in the publication seen as sexist, racist, and islamophobic. Teju Cole of The New Yorker wrote, “Just because one condemns their brutal murders doesn’t mean one must condone their ideology.” Another counter-hashtag, #JeSuisAhmed (“I am Ahmed”) called for the honoring of the Muslim police officer, Ahmed Merabat, who died during the attacks. As one tweet read, “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.”
On the opposing side of the argument, writers and citizens worldwide hail the late cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo as martyrs for the freedom of speech. In response to authors boycotting the PEN Literary Gala, where the publication was nominated for a freedom of speech award, Salman Rushdie wrote that the issue had nothing to do with an “oppressed and disadvantaged minority,” but instead a “battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organized, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.” Political cartoonists around the world have been some of the most adamant supporters of the movement to this day. A cartoonist for The Telegraph paid tribute to the journalists lost in the attack by depicting two masked gunmen outside the offices with the caption “Careful, they might have pens.” Signe Wilkinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, stated “Cartoons don’t kill people. Humorless fanatics kill people.” The digital fight for free speech continued to spread beyond popular social media sites in the days following the attack. The Je Suis Charlie app was developed to show a map of the movement’s supporters, from the United States to the Arabian Peninsula. Five days after the attack, over 48,000 people around the globe had registered. As society has grown and healed since the attacks, the ongoing trial has brought the movement under a magnifying glass. Is anyone still Charlie?
The Trials of the Press
Before the start of the trial, Charlie Hebdo made the bold decision to republish the original caricatures that prompted the 2015 attack. In the issue, the editors defended the choice by stating that the cartoons were evidence, and it would be “unacceptable to start the trial” without showing them to readers and citizens. Amid protests against racism and calls for reflection on the treatment of minorities, the republication was seen as offensive to many. Opinion surveys suggest a majority in France still supports the publication; however, among younger generations, there is less tolerance for islamophobia blatantly covered by free expression. Of those polled under the age of 25, only 38% supported the republication of the controversial cartoons, and 47% of the same age group stated they understood the outrage among Muslims over the publication. Hafiz Chems-eddine, the rector of Paris’ Grande Mosque sympathized with the magazine, “Even if the caricatures offended my faith, as citizens they are important.”
The 2015 attacks brought Charlie Hebdo unprecedented visibility around the world, increasing readership by the tens-of-thousands, and a huge flow of cash to the once struggling magazine. People around the world, journalists and ordinary people alike, rallied behind the cries of “Je Suis Charlie,” without truly knowing what Charlie stood for. The movement turned to the powers of social media, and was highly influential in disseminating a message of standing for free speech against the threat of violence; however, it has been attached to a publication that embodies many of the ideas that we condemn. As the world has come to know Charlie Hebdo, it has been exposed to a subculture of satire created by a predominantly white majority of publicists, mocking the world’s religious and ethnic minorities under an umbrella of secularist, free speech freedoms. History is not always kind to its subjects, and it has not been kind to Charlie. As the fight continues to right wrongs of the past, Je Suis Charlie has fallen on deaf ears for those in pursuit of equality, and speech freedoms have begun to look for a new face to rally behind.
By: Jada Csonka
Image by Miguel Discart used under CC BY-SA 2.0