We need to understand
not as an anti-Islamic publication, but as an anti-religion, anti-institutional, anti-extremist publication
The French satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo, is an equal opportunity offender. In keeping with France’s secular intellectual tradition, no particular individual, ideology or religion was safe from being lampooned by Charlie Hebdo. In 2006, ‘Jesus on the cross’ was on the cover shouting, “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here,” referencing the popular British TV show of the same name. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI was on the cover holding a condom. In 2011, Prophet Mohammad was on the cover saying, “100 lashes for not laughing.”
The importance of Charlie Hebdo lies in what the publication represents — an aversion to giving in to illogical extremism of any kind and holding the right to offend people on sensitive matters like religion. The underpinning logic assumes that interrogation of self-sanctified institutions like religion needs to be done through the systematic practice of irreverence. The idea was to make humorous and irreverent attacks so frequent that a discussion on an institution like religion would be like a discussion on a popular movie, or sliced bread or some such thing— effectively defanging the institution and its hold on people. If you can laugh at it, you can question it.
Brave editorial course
This was a brave editorial course for Charlie Hebdo. In essence, the publication asserted the right to equally offend anyone and everyone as a part of the practice of French secularism. Over and above this, by doing so the French publication also presented itself in the vanguard of secularism, not concerning itself with short-term appeasement politics.
After all, the reasoning went, how much damage can pen and ink and some funny sketches do? However, for its editorial stances, in November 2011, following the publication of the cover bearing the Prophet, the offices of the publication were firebombed. Four years later on January 7, 2015, four gunmen stormed into Charlie Hebdo’s office in Paris and killed 10 people, two police officers and injured 11 people. Amongst those killed was the editor-in-chief of the magazine, Stephane Charbonnier, who had been on an al-Qaeda watch list since 2013.
“The publication found laughing at the extremists to be less violent than the standard political response of sending out soldiers after them”
What Charbonnier’s editorial line represented can be considered a strong desire to avoid self-censorship. When the special issue of Charlie Hebdo, which was “guest edited by the Prophet Mohammad,” hit the stands in 2011, the controversy it raised was overwhelming. Politicians and clerics in France alike, and even representatives of the U.S. government, cautioned the publication. Clerics found the issue offensive. Politicians said that the decision to publish such material was not a particularly clever one, even though they agreed that Charlie Hebdo had a right to publish such material.
For Charbonnier, a committed left-wing intellectual, self-censoring to avoid offending one or two particular groups was not an option. He believed that secularism contained the right to offend. Charlie Hebdo’s manner of channelling offence was to turn it into humour. They believed that the only way to deal with religious extremism was to laugh at the extremists and depict them as being illogical. This the publication found to be less violent than the standard political response of sending out soldiers after extremists.
Some of the cartoons published can also be seen as deeply sensitive to the current politics of Islam. In fact, in some of the ‘provocative’ cartoons, the Prophet is shown to be at his wits’ end as he surveys his present day followers saying “it is difficult to be loved by idiots.” In another cartoon, the Islamic State is beheading the Prophet — Charlie Hebdo may have been trying to rescue Islam from the extremists. Perhaps this is precisely why extremist fury surrounded the publication.
Stress on secular culture
However, its satire was itself a fulmination of identity politics in France. The French public sphere has sworn by secularism, only very recently being challenged by the rise of the French right wing. With immigration increasing over the last decade, and people of colour from former French colonies moving in as citizens of France, there has been considerable strain on French identity. You see, it is an identity which can only be expressed as a non-ethnic, non-religious one. However, the reality is that now in France there are people who exhibit not one French identity, but at least two or three competing ones. Not only has this fed into the rise of the right wing led by Le Pen, but it has placed stress on secular culture. The French government banned headscarves in public schools in 2004, and in 2014 it became mandatory to reveal one’s face at a place of work.
Charlie Hebdo’s work falls within this context of stresses on national identity and secular culture. Of course, it targeted one religion, Islam, more than others in recent years. However, we need to understand Charlie Hebdo not as an anti-Islamic publication, but as an anti-religion, anti-institutional, anti-extremist publication.
Charlie Hebdo is a brave magazine that took on one of the most powerful organised institutions of all time — religion. Over many years, the publication interrogated the political, personal and ritual logic of religion and the micro foundations of religion’s relationship to individuals and the state. And it did so in one comic panel or less. Through these panels, which were simultaneously provocative, thoughtful, funny, obscene and anti-institutional (almost anarchist, as one commentator described), Charlie Hebdo saw to it that the church and state stayed apart in France, as best they could, using the only weapons they had: pen, ink and Photoshop.
(Vasundhara Sirnate is the Chief Coordinator of Research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy.)