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Here we go again. Less than a year after provoking a similar controversy, Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly, has published cartoons “mocking” the prophet Muhammad. Last November, following the publication of an issue subtitled “Charia Hebdo”, the weekly’s offices were firebombed, its website hacked and its staff targeted with death threats. This time around, the French government has decided to temporarily close embassies and schools in 20 countries as a “precautionary measure”.
Since Voltaire and notably since the establishment of a secular republic in 1905, France has regarded religions as systems of belief which can be freely criticised and ridiculed. The entrenched tradition of mocking religions and clerical institutions explains the success of long-living publications such as Le Canard Enchaîné (a satirical founded in 1915) and Charlie Hebdo (founded in 1969).
Charlie Hebdo was launched by a group of “non-conformists” who had previously run a monthly called Hara Kiri (whose subtitle read: “dumb and nasty”). It originally featured cartoons, reports, polemics and jokes. It was profoundly irreverent and had a strong left-wing anarchist leaning. Long before the advent of political correctness, Charlie Hebdo also had a bawdy inclination: the magazine liked to feature naked women and what would be regarded today as sexist jokes.
In November 1970, following the death of Charles de Gaulle in his home town of Colombey, Charlie Hebdo produced the nastiest and allegedly one of the most hilarious front covers in the history of the French press. Spoofing the popular media that lamented the loss of a “great statesman”, the weekly’s headline laconically read: “Tragic ball at Colombey, one dead”. This was too much for the Gaullist interior minister, who banned the publication.
Charlie Hebdo had then the wittiest and funniest team of writers and cartoonists. They had no taboos and they relentlessly targeted pompous and reactionary people. They particularly liked to torment the rich, the famous, clergymen, the military and politicians. In the climate of class struggles in 1970s France, Charlie Hebdo offered a generation of youngsters (who often nicked the magazine from newsagents) a memorable take on current affairs.
In 1981, “Charlie” – as it is nicknamed – ceased publication, owing to falling readership. When it was relaunched in 1992, the world had dramatically changed. Few of the historic crew were still present. Philippe Val, the new director, was a stand-up comedian who made a name for himself by singing and telling jokes in front of left-wing audiences in the 1980s.
Val changed the style of the publication. He did not hesitate to sack staff members who opposed his views and was often described as “dictatorial”. Under his leadership, Charlie Hebdo’s editorial stance became muddled. Val was involved in high-profile disputes with what he called “unreconstructed leftists”.
Philippe Val was a staunch supporter of the 2004 law banning the headscarf in state schools and “Charlie” became more anti-Islamic than anti-clerical. In 2009, Val was appointed director of France Inter, a public radio station, by Nicolas Sarkozy. The young anarchist comedian and the rebellious spirit of Charlie Hebdo officially died that day.
Since Val’s departure, Charlie Hebdo has tried to recapture a sense of irreverence that seemed lost. The new director, Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, wants to move on and reposition the weekly’s editorial line firmly on the left. It is doubtful that he can manage to restore the publication’s past glory.
Of course people should be entitled to mock Islam and any other religion. However, in the current climate of racial and religious prejudice against Muslims in Europe, how can these cartoons be helpful? Charlie Hebdo is unwittingly serving the cause of the rag-time army of Islam haters.
Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European politics at University College London (UK). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org