Cartoons and Bullets- Charlie Hebdo

sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely  February 8, 2015,  Unitarian Church of Edmonton


Charlie Hebdo: its history, humor, and controversies, explained

by Libby Nelson  (abridged)

Charlie Hebdo is a weekly, French satirical newsmagazine published since 1970 (although it had a long hiatus between 1981 to 1992). Known especially for its provocative cartoons and caricatures, Charlie Hebdo is part of a long tradition of political satire in France. Its editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, who was killed by gunmen, described the newspaper’s positions in 2012 as left-wing, secular, and atheist.

It’s best known for publishing cartoons mocking religion and religious extremism, especially though not exclusively Islam, Islamic extremism, and the Prophet Mohammed. The cartoons can be raunchy and are made to provoke. The magazine has been attacked in the past: in 2011, after it published an issue “guest-edited” by the Prophet Mohammed (“100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter”), their website was hacked and Paris offices firebombed.

Tignous, a cartoonist killed in Wednesday’s massacre, had previously said that the best cartoons not only make the reader laugh and think — they provoke “shame for having been able to laugh at such a serious situation.” That was often the sentiment Charlie Hebdo aimed for.

Charlie Hebdo is not broadly popular: its weekly circulation was around 50,000, and it often struggled financially. In November, it asked for donations in order to keep its doors open.

The magazine made fun of prominent politicians, religion, and pop culture, but it lampooned Islam and Islamic extremists with particular zeal.

A 2006 edition of Charlie Hebdo included the infamous Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed — which sparked riots that left more than 250 people dead around the world — and put a crying Mohammed on the cover, with a speech bubble saying “It’s hard being loved by assholes.” The newspaper also mocked the Pope (showing Pope Benedict XVI holding a condom and declaring “This is my body!” and in a loving embrace with a Vatican guard),

Charlie Hebdo had a well-earned reputation for focusing on Islam, extremist and not. Many Muslims consider portrayals of the Prophet Mohammed to be a serious insult and religious offense, and Charlie Hebdo defied this by caricaturing him frequently, including in at least one instance shown as nude and bent over.

Laurent Léger, a Charlie Hebdo staffer who survived the attack, told CNN in 2012, “The aim is to laugh. … We want to laugh at the extremists — every extremist. They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept.”

Charlie Hebdo is part of a tradition of serious satire in France, most of it much less comic or comforting than political satire in the US. Called “gouaille,” “it’s an anarchic populist form of obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred or powerful,” Arthur Goldhammer, a French translator and author, wrote for Al-Jazeera America today.

We don’t know yet exactly why the three suspects identified in the attack singled out Charlie Hebdo, but here are some important pieces of context.

Charlie Hebdo has been attacked before, and had some serious security precautions for a small-circulation magazine. Its old offices were firebombed in 2011, after the “guest-edited” Prophet Mohammed issue appeared. Since then, it’s been under police protection.

Still, while many Muslims may have found Charlie Hebdo offensive, the vast majority of Muslims reject violence, and focusing on the cartoons and the issue of blasphemy is somewhat of a red herring. The real provocation for the attack was not the cartoons or any offense they may have given, but rather the psychopathic minds and ideologies of the killers.


 The recent, shocking murders in Paris have prompted endless impassioned cries of outrage as well as discussions about the right of free speech, about the rise of terrorism, about the contrast between mainstream Islam and radical Islamism and – to a somewhat lesser degree, about civility in the public discourse.  That’s really the question I wish to address today.

But let me begin by stating something as clearly as I possibly can:  murder and violence is never an acceptable form of protest.  Responding to the mighty pen with a mightier sword is not a constructive answer.  The cartoonists and staff of Charlie Hebdo should be alive today.  The police officers guarding them should be alive today.  The hostages who died in the subsequent manhunt should be a live today.  Even the killers should be alive today.  That is not what this sermon is about, however.  That violence is not an answer is so self-evident that it does not deserve a sermon.

I am more interested in the boundaries of free discussion, disagreement and debate.  If there is to be growth and maturation in society, if there is to be progress in the continuing journey towards real, full and equal human rights for all, then there will have to be free and open discussions.  And the leading edges of such conversations will always be fraught with tension.  The march to real equality and freedom means some who have wealth, power and control will have to share what they have, abandon old, self-serving if ill-informed beliefs and change their ways at least to a degree. This is true whether you are a powerful first world leader or a tribal chief in some remote developing world nation.  There will be losses and gains whenever we accept change.  The mark of an enlightened citizen of the world is the recognition that the unseen gains will benefit more than the change will cost even if the gains are for society as a whole and the losses are personal.

Even those of us in the middle class masses will have to make accommodations, set aside distrust, move outside our enclaves of culture and class and truly learn about the people, the needs, the belief, the traditions of those who are different from us.  Diversity must bridge the gaps between communities, else it is not diversity at all.

And the way to build those bridges is through open and genuine communication, through listening a lot, and speaking a little, especially for those of us who come from a place of privilege.

Isolationist “We’re right and you’re not!” responses to change will not bring peace or progress, nor will they forge the connections that diminish hatred.  Violent action, at best, only serves to suppress enemies who hate. But violence only deepens the hatred itself.  In fact as we have seen over generations in the Middle East and elsewhere, violent action tends to create future generations who carry on the hatred.  Violence begets violence with a cost that is terribly high.

The better path is through peaceful and respectful discussion – discussions that can take decades, even generations.  And the best discussions are the ones where both parties agree, first, to take as little offence as possible at anything that may be said, and secondly, to name the offences perceived and commit to talking them through. Storming out or preparing to respond with violence does not advance the conversation.  It only serves to dig deeper trenches for those who insist on the path of hatred.

Progress comes from civil discourse.  This is what our Unitarian Universalist Principles teach.  Progress comes from affirming the other, not degrading them. Progress comes from recognizing the worth and dignity of all, from committing to justice, equality and fairness for all and for following the path of democratic discussion as we resolve our differences.

The killings in Paris should never have happened and were wrong in every sense of the word.  And yet they were almost predictable because of the disrespect coming from those with position and privilege.  The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo routinely dared to cross the line of acceptable discourse too many times.  Though calling it satire, they frequently opted for what NY Times Editor Dean Baquet called “gratuitous insult”. Though not acts of physical violence, their decidedly anti-Islam (and to a lesser degree anti-religion) stances were not designed to help discussion progress.  They were meant to insult and tear down religious belief.

Let me be clear.  I am not blaming the victims.  Even people with high risk lifestyles do not deserve to be victims of violent crime.  But let there be no mistake that the Charlie folks were choosing high risk lifestyles.  It was a decision they made knowingly.  As the late editor Stéphane Charbonnier famously said after receiving death threats two years ago, “What I’m about to say is maybe a little pompous, but I’d rather die standing up than live on my knees.”

We do not know exactly why the killers struck, nor are we likely to ever know for sure.  They are dead.  But the frequent and ridiculing attacks on Islam are likely tied to the violence in some way.

Much has been written about free speech and the often crude trains of French satire in recent weeks.  In the first hours after the tragedy free speech seemed to be the critical narrative in street actions.  In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings people in France flooded the public squares carrying “Je suis Charlie ,” signs.  Instantly, the Je suis Charlie meme became a worldwide phenomenon in social media.  Many of my UU minister colleagues posted the meme on their pages and even adopted it as their profile image. People were protesting peacefully on behalf of free speech and standing in solidarity with slain cartoonists who were merely making fun of religion.

charlieI could not bring myself to repost or claim the meme.  Je ne suis pas Charlie.  Why?  Not because I dislike free speech, but because Charlie Hebdo was a sometimes hateful magazine.  Their images frequently went far beyond even the most elastic boundaries of good taste.  In my view the valuable purpose of satire is to poke at power, to point out inconsistencies and flaws and downright silliness in major institutions like government and, yes, religion as well.  Laughing at absurdity is good, tension relieving, pointed and often moves social discourse forward.  A world without editorial cartoons or the with of someone like Rick Mercer would be a poorer place.

And satire is bound to offend someone or else it’s not doing its job.  It goes back to what I was saying about how those who have power and privilege at any level are loathe to give it up and are not amused by those who would poke fun at them.  Satirists cross lines accidentally or even intentionally as the they try to figure out where the line is.

Looking at a significant body of the Charlie Hebdo work is to see a magazine that was routinely interested in ignoring the line.  Charlie did not just point out that the emperor had no clothes, it splashed paint on the clothes the emperor was wearing and then mocked him for having paint stains.

Apparently I am not alone in thinking that it was an unimpressive – if controversial – magazine.  Before the murders, not many people read Charlie. In a nation of 66 million people, the magazine’s circulation was about 50,000, barely enough copies to stay alive.  That’s about 1/10th the circulation of its far more popular competitor Le Canard Enchainé.

One news commentator noted how Charlie got itself in trouble in the past.

In September 2012, the newspaper published a series of satirical cartoons of Muhammad, some of which featured nude caricatures of him.  Given that this issue came days after a series of attacks on U.S. embassies in the Middle East (in the wake of the release of the inflammatory American film Innocence of Islam) the French government decided to increase security … as well as to close the French embassies… in about 20 Muslim countries. In addition, riot police surrounded the offices of the magazine to protect it against possible attacks.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius criticised the magazine’s decision, saying, “In France, there is a principle of freedom of expression, which should not be undermined. In the present context, … Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?”  The U.S. White House stated “obviously, we have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this.”

It seems that many questioned the wisdom of editors who felt that their right to freely insult a great faith tradition outweighed the safety of French diplomatic workers abroad.  Since their offices had already been subject to a firebombing, they were not acting out of ignorance.  Rather they were responding hate for hate.  That will never directly advance the public discourse.

In Canada, there is a principle of freedom of speech as well, but it has limits under the Criminal Code.  To be sure the limits are very broad, and have led to precious few prosecutions.  Our law would not have blocked the publication of the offending cartoons, but the laws do set a tone for encouraging respectful discourse.  Many Canadian media outlets chose to not republish the Parisian cartoons, and those that did tended to reprint the least offensive ones.

David Studer CBC Director of journalistic standards and practices said the CBC decided against running the cartoons, arguing that to show those depictions of Muhammad would needlessly offend Muslims, who consider such depictions sacrilege.  He was widely criticized for his view, mostly because other were already publishing them.

Yet Studer wasn’t alone in arguing restraint. The New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet told the paper’s public editor he spent about half of the day deciding whether or not to publish the cartoons, changing his mind twice before ultimately deciding not to run the images.

“We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult,” Baquet said. (- Mark Gollom, CBC News)

I have to admit that there is something deeply satisfying about the gratuitous insult when one is angry.  Just ask my daughters about some of the things I say in the car about Edmonton drivers.  My choice of words in those instances has decidedly little to do with advancing rational discourse or building bridges towards other drivers.  Born of fear or anger, such colourful characterizations are outlets for emotions.  They are not intended to advance public discourse.  But then, neither are they published beyond the confines of our family van.

Those who write and draw and speak in public must be held to a higher standard.  Or perhaps I should say those people need to hold themselves to a higher standard.  They have a responsibility to consider the impact of their words and images,  And I have mostly disdain for those who use the public stage to incite hate and who twist fact in order to divide and promote a self-aggrandizing or partisan agenda.  And yes, I am using diplomatic restraint when I suggest that what I feel is “mostly disdain”.  Whether it is some commentators on Sun Media or pretty much anyone working for Fox News, there is a duty to serve the public discourse, not pander to the fears and prejudices of the lowest common denominator.

Speech is and must be free, but is it too much to ask that it be grounded in rational discourse and principled, respectful dialogue?  Is it unreasonable restraint to ask commentators to take into account the sensibilities of both their audiences and those who would take offence at their pieces? I don’t think so.

I am for the challenging qualities of satire, but I am not in favour of the gross or gratuitous insult.  I think such choices are disrespectful to those under attack and to their audiences.  Journalists should be appealing to our higher nature and not our baser instincts. I am for free speech, but not hateful speech.  So, Je ne suis pas Charlie.C