2015: The year Charlie Hebdo was hailed, blasted and misunderstood

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This article was first published on Café Pacific

By Benjamin Dodman in France 24

IN THE 12 months since the gruesome attacks on its Paris office, Charlie Hebdo has been praised, mourned, cursed and debated by a global panel of commentators, politicians and religious zealots – most of whom have never read it it, let alone understood it.

By all accounts it has been a tumultuous year for the satirical weekly – one that began with carnage,
brought the cash-strapped paper fame and scrutiny, and left its
traumatised survivors holed up in a bunker with more subscribers than
they ever dreamt of having.

Charlie had been a household name in the French media
landscape, its notoriety surpassed by that of its most illustrious
cartoonists, including Jean Cabut (known as Cabu) and Georges Wolinski,
two icons of French popular culture, both of whom were murdered a year
ago by jihadist gunmen, along with six other staff members.

And yet its actual readership, barely reaching the tens of thousands,
was a tiny – and shrinking – minority in a country where few people
still read the papers, least of all in print.

“Je suis Charlie”, the hugely contagious and effective
slogan that spread across the world within hours of the bloodbath, was
at best a posthumous tribute. The truth is hardly anyone read Charlie –
let alone was Charlie.

No wonder some of the survivors were disgusted by the sudden,
overwhelming endorsement of Charlie and what it stood for. The very same
people who had always abhorred the weekly and its caustic style were
suddenly claiming its mantle.

Laughing at everything and everyone
Throughout its existence, the impertinent weekly had made it a point
of “laughing at everything and everyone”, resorting to scatology, soft
porn and intentional bad taste in its often obscene drawings.

It was the scion of a long and rich tradition of satirical
cartoons going back to monarchical times, when grotesque depictions of
Louis XVI and his unloved wife Marie-Antoinette helped undermine the
prestige and dignity of French royalty. In Charlie’s case, that
tradition blended in with a fierce anti-establishment stance born out of
May ’68.

It was this brazen irreverence that saw its predecessor, Hara-Kiri,
banned in 1970 after it published a cartoon mocking France’s late World
War II hero and longtime president, Charles de Gaulle.

Hara-Kiri’s team soon rallied under the new banner of Charlie Hebdo
reportedly named after de Gaulle – and pursued its struggle to break
down the remaining barriers of censorship in France.
More recently, the weekly had struggled to stem a steady decline in
readers. Perhaps its brand of provocative, no-holds-barred humour had
gone out of fashion. Or maybe it was just caught up in the seemingly
irreversible decline of France’s print media.

Global scrutiny
Just weeks before that fateful January 7, 2015, Charlie was on the
verge of closing shop. The heinous murders by al Qaeda-linked gunmen
were supposed to finish it off. Instead, they brought the struggling
weekly unprecedented visibility, readers and cash.

But the paper’s rise to global fame also brought it more scrutiny
than ever before. Suddenly Charlie was on everybody’s lips. Predictably,
most of its new readers recoiled in shock at the very first cartoons.
Many rushed to say “je ne suis pas Charlie”.

Over the past 12 months, media outlets around the world have rushed to check out Charlie’s latest cartoon at every major event.

In some cases the reaction was positive, as in the aftermath of the
November 13 attacks, when the front-page cartoon featured a reveller
drinking champagne, with the bubbly flowing from holes in his
bullet-riddled body.

To many in France, the accompanying title – “They have weapons. Screw
them, we have champagne!” – was a heartening celebration of the culture
and joie de vivre reviled by jihadist murderers.

Other drawings proved far more controversial, in one case prompting a
furious complaint by Russian diplomats outraged by Charlie’s take on
the terrorist attack that destroyed a Russian airliner over Egyptian
soil.

A spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry used Facebook to ask: “Is anyone still Charlie?”

‘Six pussies in search of character’
While Charlie Hebdo was always bound to be unpalatable to
conservatives, much of the recent backlash against the weekly has come
from politically correct liberals, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon
world.

Within days of the attack, denunciations of Charlie’s “Islamophobic
provocations” and “bullyingly racist agenda” featured alongside words of
mourning in prominent liberal publications.

The cartoonists, critics said, had been guilty of mocking Islam with
relish and thereby singling out a particularly vulnerable segment of
French society.

When the weekly was nominated for a freedom of speech award at the
PEN Literary Gala, six prominent authors boycotted the event in protest.
One of them, Peter Carey, lamented “PEN’s seeming blindness to the
cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its
moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their
population.”

The move prompted an unusually heated row
between literati that saw author Salman Rushdie blast the dissidents as
“Six pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character” (a reference
to Pirandello’s play “Six Characters in Search of an Author”).

“This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged
minority,” said Rushdie, who has spent much of his life being persecuted
by religious fundamentalists.

“It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam,
which is highly organised, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us
all, Muslims as well as non Muslims, into a cowed silence,” he argued,
adding that the six writers had “made themselves the fellow travellers
of that project”.

Others gave Charlie Hebdo a reluctant backing
for the award, while lamenting that “its courageous actions are not
being directed at the vested interests and powers that are the most
worthy targets of satire”.

It is hard to think of an allegation more grievous to the Charlie staff – and furthest from the truth.

A formidable foe of the high and mighty, Charlie has always
been scathing in its criticism of police brutality in the immigrant-rich
banlieues and of politicians’ disregard for the poor and
disenfranchised.

Nobody has felt the sting of its pencil more than the far-right,
anti-immigrant and frequently anti-Muslim National Front party of Marine
Le Pen.

‘Islamophobia frauds’
Liberal thinkers are not entirely wrong when they disparagingly
describe the Charlie Hebdo team as “ideologues”. They are indeed
militant leftists and atheists.

Anti-clericalism has always been at the heart of the magazine, but it
has been directed far more often at France’s dominant faith,
Catholicism – or, more precisely, at the Catholic clergy.

Throughout its history, Charlie has been a merciless critic of
bigotry, intolerance, misogyny, homophobia, corruption and sexual abuse
by clergymen of all faiths. The cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, which
defied a Muslim ban on depictions of Islam’s holiest figure, account for
a fraction of their blasphemous output – and yet they got all the media
attention.

Two days before he was murdered, Charlie Hebdo’s editor Stéphane Charbonnier, better known as “Charb”, completed a short book titled “Letter to the Islamophobia Frauds who Play into the Hands of Racists”.

The text, published posthumously, is a passionate rejection of claims
the weekly had become “racist” and “Islamophobic” under his
stewardship, and a fierce critique of liberal “multiculturalists” whom
he accuses of serving the interests of radical Islam.

“The strategy of the multiculturalists disguised as anti-racists is
to muddle blasphemy and Islamophobia, Islamophobia and racism,” he
wrote, rejecting the notion – which he described as genuinely racist –
that a critique of “religious terrorism” was necessarily an attack on a
given community.

“Religion is not transmitted genetically as the multiculturalists –
and the far right – would have us believe,” he said, stressing that
Charlie Hebdo drawings do not have the vast majority of Muslims as
their target”.
Charb argued that Charlie Hebdo drawings are both “misunderstood by
the ignorant” and “re-drawn by very clever people who want to mutilate
their meaning”.

He added: “We believe that Muslims are capable of recognising a
tongue-in-cheek. By what twisted argument should Islam be less
compatible with humour than other religions?”

Lost in translation
Charb blamed the media for purposefully seizing on inflammatory
interpretations of cartoons because they made for better business. He
pointed to a notorious cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed with a
bomb-shaped turban as illustration of his point.

“Its critics decided that it was an insult to all Muslims: to put a
bomb on the Prophet’s head was to say that all believers were
terrorists,” Charb said. “But there was another interpretation that did
not interest the mass media (it was not scandalous and it did not sell
newspapers). To show Mohammed wearing a bomb on his head could be an
attack on terrorists for exploiting religion.”

When Charlie Hebdo published the so-called “survivors’ issue” just
days after the January 7 attack, cartoonist Renald Luzier (“Luz”) – who
had survived the massacre because he was late for work – broke into
tears as he sought to explain the front-cover drawing of a tearful Prophet Mohammed holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign under the heading “All is Forgiven”.

“I drew my little drawing, and I looked at his face; he was
crying,” Luz said. “I saw this character who had been used in spite of
himself by nut jobs who set shit on fire, by terrorists. Humorless
assholes: That’s what these terrorists are.”

The issue reached a print run of 7.95 million copies, setting a new
record for the French press. It also sparked violent protests in several
Muslim countries.

Other controversies soon followed, as when the paper’s new editor
Laurent Sourisseau (“Riss”), who was severely wounded in the attack,
drew a cartoon of Aylan, the Syrian toddler found dead on a Turkish
beach last year, under a McDonald’s billboard. Few people got the
acerbic critique of consumerism and of sensationalist mass media; many
more saw it as a gratuitous, racist slur aimed at desperate refugees.

When they weren’t misunderstanding the cartoons, Charlie’s critics
were busy misattributing other people’s allegedly racist drawings – such
as one Algerian paper’s depiction
of African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean (which, incidentally,
is a powerful denunciation of Europe’s indifference to their plight).

Overall, evidence suggests Charlie Hebdo is struggling to cope with
the challenge of reaching out beyond an audience of faithful readers
fine-tuned to its particular brand of humour.

In what was probably the most misinterpreted cartoon in the paper’s
history, the late Cabu once drew a dejected Prophet with his head in his
hands under the headline “Mohammed overwhelmed by fundamentalists”. The
speech bubble said: “It’s tough being loved by cretins”.

The word “cretins” obviously referred to the fundamentalists, but
many accused Charlie Hebdo of describing all Muslims as cretins.

The more readers Charlie has, the more its unique brand of humour is
likely to be misread. Were he alive today, Cabu might well be joking:
“It’s tough to be read by cretins”.

Republished from France 24

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