Editorial: Je suis Charlie?

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This past Wednesday, three Islamic extremists carried out a deadly attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, leaving 12 people dead. A national hunt for the terrorists came to a violent end when French police caught the two remaining suspects, and simultaneously ended a connected hostage situation in Paris.

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Within hours of the initial attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French government, its people, and much of the world demonstrated outrage, denouncing the act as an assault on freedom of expression. Cartoonists around the world flooded Twitter with their own work in support; international media outlets reprinted or retweeted the drawings of Charlie Hebdo‘ artists. Others spoke out in solidarity with the murdered journalists. Even one of France’s most famous cartoonists, Albert Udezo, came out of retirement to join the movement.

The French government announced that it would give the magazine almost 1 million euros to continue operations. A Google-backed Press Fund is donating $300,000 to Charlie Hebdo. The Guardian Media Group has also pledged £100,000.

Je suis Charlie” quickly became the words of solidarity.

Mais nous ne sommes pas tous Charlie. We are not all Charlie. The 45- year old satirical magazine has built its reputation through the regular mocking of national and international figures and institutions, including religion. Their most publicized target was, of course, Islam. While the magazine’s cartoons were, at times, politically poignant, others were just simply offensive, or provocative at best.

je_suis_charlie_fist_and_pencilBabette Petiot, a French Polytheist living in the Auvergne countryside, said, “Je n’aimais pas particulièrement “Charlie Hebdo,” je ne l’ai jamais acheté, parce que je trouve que c’est vraiment de mauvais gout…” [I did not specially like Charlie Hebdo, didn’t buy it even once, because I thought it was really of bad taste.]

Slate‘s Jordan Weissman, as well as others, have gone as far as labeling the magazine “racist.” Weissman writes, “This, in a country where Muslims are a poor and harassed minority, maligned by growing nationalist movement that has used liberal values like secularism and free speech to cloak garden-variety xenophobia.”

This complication provokes a necessary recalibration of the expressions of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. Can we stand in silent vigil for the victims, but not necessarily endorse their work? Can we create an allegiance with the movement “Je suis Charlie,” speak out against the violence wrought by religious extremism, while ignoring the fact that Charlie Hebdo is what could be considered journalistic extremism?

Satirical writing and cartoons, like those produced by Charlie Hebdo, are meant to provoke, to challenge and often to incite. Satire raps on the door of decency and often just knocks it completely down. Satirists cross cultural lines of acceptable rhetoric with the intent of creating discomfort and provoking reaction. It is what’s expected of that genre and, within a free press, it is allowed.

With that said, quoting the famous American broadcast journalist, Walter Cronkite, “Freedom is a package deal – with it comes responsibilities and consequences.” As demonstrated in a recent New York Times article, Charlie Hebdo’s writers were willing to shoulder the responsibility for crossing lines and knocking down doors, and fully exercising their freedom to express.

In the Times article, the Charlie Hebdo staff is depicted not as radicals, militants or doctrinaires; rather they are described as fierce defenders of and believers in the freedom of expression. The article quotes Françoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker as saying, “They weren’t hiding behind their drawings. They knew the dangers. There had been firebombs and threats. They were actually defying a gag order given to them by extremists.”

She added that the publisher, Stephane Chardonnier, had once equally defended the rights of local Muslims to protest his paper. At the time, Chardonnier said, “We have a right to express ourselves. They have a right to express themselves, too.”

Charlie Hebdo's Editor talks to media after 2011 fire bombing [Photo Credit: Coyau / Wikimedia]

Charlie Hebdo’s Editor talks to media after 2011 fire bombing [Photo Credit: Coyau / Wikimedia]

The editor’s fierce defense of free speech is admirable. In our pages here, we write about topics and share points of view that are considered provocative outside of our collective communities. I am grossly aware that, in some countries and communities, and in many past eras, The Wild Hunt would never have been permitted to thrive. Our ability to publish, without fear of arrest or worse, is founded on the very same freedom of expression.

Regardless of the Charlie Hebdo’s content, the deadly attack was still unthinkable. No act of journalism warrants an act of extreme terror. No act of journalism warrants bloodshed.

Petiot said “Je ne vais certainement pas supporter que des fous qui furieux attaquent et tuent des journalistes et des dessinateurs pour leurs idées! Pour quelques dessins idiots?! C’est totalement et proprement inacceptable! Oui, je suis avec le mouvement “Je suis Charlie” parce que c’est une attaque contre la liberté d’expression.” [“I will not stand for some crazy people attacking and killing journalists and cartoonists for their opinions! For their silly cartoons! This is totally and utterly not acceptable! Yes I stand with “Je suis Charlie” because it was an attack on liberty of expression.]

Siannon, a Wiccan living Paris, expressed a similar thought, “Je suis bien sûr choquée que l’on tue des dessinateurs, que certains s’attaquent avec une telle violence à la liberté d’expression.” [“I am absolutely shocked that someone would kill cartoonists that people would attack freedom of expression with such violence.“]

Over the past few days, French Pagans have been attending the spontaneous vigils in public squares and lighting candles for the victims. Cogann Moran is collecting signatures on a statement from members of the French Pagan community.

Although she supports the movement, Siannon has not felt compelled to pray, saying, “Une païenne a fait une remarque qui a attiré mon attention: elle rappelait que les principales victimes étaient athées, défenseurs de l’État laïque, et n’auraient peut être pas aimé qu’on leur fasse des prières.” [“One Pagan made a remark that really got my attention. She remembered that the main victims were atheists, defenders of a secular state, and would never have liked anyone praying for them.”]

[Photo Credit: Valentina Calà/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Valentina Calà/Flickr]

I also spoke with a third Parisian, who is vehemently opposed to the “Je suis Charlie” campaign, but not because of the magazine’s content. Mariane, an Asatruar living in Paris, said:

Les deux frères ont eu davantage de couverture médiatique qu’un homme politique français ne pourrait rêver d’obtenir. Les chaines d’infos ont littéralement parlé d’eux 24/24. D’autres chaînes leur ont consacré tous les bulletins d’infos, comme si rien d’autre ne s’était passé entre-temps dans le monde entier. Même Obama parle d’eux! Il est allé à l’ambassade française avec les meilleures intentions, j’en suis sure, mais j’ai peur qu’il n’envoie un message indésirable à quelques tarés qui rêvent de devenir des héros… Personnellement, je ne me joindrai pas à la mouvance “Je suis Charlie,” parce je pense que, moins nous parlons de ces gars-là, moins nous risquons d’inspirer d’éventuels imitateurs.

[“The two brothers are getting more news coverage than any French politician could ever dream of. News channels literally talked about them round the clock. Other channels devoted all the newscasts to them, as if nothing else had happened meanwhile in the whole world. Even Obama is talking about them! He went to the French Embassy with the best intentions, I’m sure, but I’m afraid he is sending the wrong message to some crazy bastards dreaming of becoming heroes… I’m personally not joining “Je suis Charlie” because I think the less we talk about these guys, the less we risk inspiring copycats.”]

Both Siannon and Petiot noted the presence of real fear in the country as well as a notable surge in Islamphobia. Siannon said, “Les plus sages soulignent l’importance de ne pas nourrir la haine.” [The wisest and most important point to stress is to not nourish hate.”]

With that, we are reminded of the original question. If we stand in solidarity with a magazine noted for mocking religion, are we nourishing hatred or, at the very least, supporting an indifferent tolerance of it? Or is it possible to surgically separate Charlie Hebdo’s satirical work from Charlie Hebdo’s philosophy on free expression? Can we separate the content from the belief?

This brings us to the Ahmed Merabet, the French police officer who was murdered defending Charlie HebdoAccording to reports, Merabet was a French Muslim, who was guarding Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters, while those inside mocked his beliefs. When news of this spread, a second solidarity campaign was born. Je Suis Ahmed. While there is still speculation on whether he is actually Muslim, the new solidarity statement has gathered its own power, meaning and momentem. It says, “I don’t agree with what you say. But I defend your right to say it.”*

While Charlie Hebdo‘s approach to journalism is not one that I, personally, would endorse. As a writer and editor, I can’t help but approve of its fierce support of freedom of expression and of the press. Non, je ne suis pas Charlie. Peut-être, je suis Ahmed. Mais, je suis certainement la liberté.

 

* This is statement is inspired by a sentence out of a Voltaire biography written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1906.