Charlie Hebdo and Satire

One of the most important events in world news to transpire over Christmas break was the terrorist attack on the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo.

On January 7th, the magazine’s headquarters in Paris were invaded by two Islamist gunmen. The attack claimed the lives of 12 people and wounded 11 more. Most of the victims were staffers of the magazine, including the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Stéphane Charbonnier. Two policemen were also killed. After a two-day manhunt, the gunmen initiated a hostage situation that ended when they were gunned down by the police. Another, related, gunman took the lives of 5 during two separate shootings; his life also was ended by police after a hostage situation.

Charlie Hebdo is a satirical weekly magazine published in France. It is infamous for its vitriolic jokes and cartoons that are overtly unorthodox and often offensive. The magazine is blatantly anti-religious, and has published material that is highly disrespectful to the Prophet Muhammad and other Islamic leaders (religious leaders of other faiths are also fair game). This kind of content is widely believed to be the motive behind the January 7th attacks. According to the former deputy director of the CIA, Michael Morell, the motive is “absolutely clear: trying to shut down a media organization that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad.”

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, everyday citizens and world leaders alike voiced support for the magazine’s right to speak freely. The phrase “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) went viral as people stood in solidarity with the publication. The magazine’s remaining staff members worked non-stop to ensure the next week’s publication came out on schedule; the “survivors’ issue,” with a cover cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad crying and holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign, sold out, even after 5 million copies were printed. Over 1 million people, among them 40 world leaders, marched in a unity rally through the streets of Paris.

Many have responded to this outpour of support with some moderate criticism. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote “I am not Charlie Hebdo,” which pointed out the fact that most people saying “I am Charlie” would never participate in the type of invectives the magazine published. Pope Francis’s comments on the attack were also more adversarial, saying, “You cannot insult the faith of others.”

The magazine’s material in no way legitimizes the attack against them, but the fact of the matter is that Charlie Hebdo is not a very nice publication. Its content walks a fine line between satire and hate speech. French nationalism, a movement with some growing popularity, is not very welcoming of Muslims in France (see “The Right Message” by Jonathan Laurence, Slate; the article is an interesting analysis of the National Front’s political fortunes in light of the attacks). Many people think that Hebdos satire is just a cover for xenophobia and is encouraging racial, religious and cultural  polarization in Europe.

Limits on free expression exist in France and in the United States, but the question is, where does Charlie Hebdo fall? Pope Francis is right in that we should not unlovingly insult the faith of others, but insults are still under protected speech, no matter how vile. If these insults have bled over into racially charged hate speech as many have claimed, then they must be condemned. This is why so many have taken issue with the lionization of Charlie Hebdo. The magazine’s voice is probably still a voice that should be allowed to speak, but it does not have to be a voice that you agree with. This is, of course, the nature of free speech.

More important than the question about freedom of expression is the fact that we are called to mourn with those who mourn. You don’t have “be” Charlie in order to lament the great evil that took place. Nor is saying “Je suis Charlie” mean you are endorsing the message of the magazine, but it is very important that we are at least aware of the message and can critically engage with it. If these issues that the magazine deals with are important enough to incite such violence, we all need to be taking notice, which can be done while simultaneously showing sympathy.

“I am Charlie” is not supposed to be a radical political statement. It is supposed to be a way of committing yourself to what Jon Stewart calls “Team Civilization,” a phrase he used on The Daily Show to describe the differences between Charlie Hebdo and the attackers. This is the team that Christians should be a part of, the team that condemns violence and believes in lively discourse, which sometimes comes at the unfortunate cost of being unconscionably rude.