French Aid Worker reflects on Charlie Hebdo

Charlie Hebdo has polarised and monopolised public opinion. The events of early January in France have reignited debates about free speech, religious antagonism and access to information. And yesterday we saw an event about free speech attacked in Denmark.

The frenzy however, is not about Charlie Hebdo at all, but about what the magazine represents. It has been manipulated by media and political agendas alike.

Several contextual facts often left out of news reports are of importance. Firstly, Charlie Hebdo’s international fame comes almost entirely from the attacks that were made against it. It started with the firebomb thrown at their offices in 2011 and the attack against a German retailer selling the magazine. In their home country, the publication has always been on the fringe of French press, with a meagre 300 subscriptions/year. Right after the attack, it sold over 8,000 memberships within 48 hours.

Consequently, far from flaunting offensive cartoons, Charlie Hebdo was largely unknown and easily ignored by the wider population. The radicals that targeted it are responsible for making those images viral, not France, and not even the magazine itself.

Secondly, Charlie Hebdo is an anarchistic journal. They are anti. Anti-politics, Anti-Capitalism, Anti-religion, Anti-system, and most of all, Anti-symbolism.

Commentators who have used Charlie Hebdo as a platform to reignite arguments for or against free speech, civil liberties, or religious tolerance… have taken advantage of the momentum created by the event, but do not understand or care much what Charlie Hebdo is about.

Ironically, even the widespread I am and I am not Charlie movements have been using the magazine as a poster-child it never chose to be. Luz recently said in an interview*: “There is a symbolic burden that has been put on our shoulders, which doesn’t exist in our drawings and which is a bit beyond us. I am one of the people who has an issue with this”. He goes on to say the recent attacks have seen the magazine portrayed as either offensive provocation, or the “white knight of the freedom of the press”, when what they have always believed in is simply the “irresponsible nature of caricature work”.

The “Je suis Charlie” march was organised in the name of Charlie Hebdo, and supposedly in that of free speech, but saw some public characters condemned as “hypocritical” for their role in it. It was also a golden opportunity for Hollande to increase popular support for his party (which he successfully did). A political manipulation which aimed to foster a sense of solidarity but did not provide clear answers to important questions of taboos, social inclusion and anti-terrorism laws.

Should a comic, a cartoonist, a novelist or a movie writer be curbed in her/his creative rights so as not to offend some or part of the public? And if so, where does the censure end?

Should the moderate French Muslim population be unwillingly put under the spotlight to denounce the attacks perpetrated by the Kouachi brothers and Ahmed Coulibaly? Do they have a right to condemn those attacks but also refuse to condone the cartoons? Or simply to stay silent because they do not see themselves as more involved than any other non-Muslim French citizen?

The lawyer in me wants to scream that freedoms are, by definition, whole – which does not preclude self-imposed limits and consideration for people of different cultural backgrounds. The attack has already led to some new restrictions placed on civil liberties. For example, in France, 54 people were detained for “defending or glorifying terrorism”. The potential restrictions on civil liberties justified by the attacks open Pandora’s box, potentially leading to ‘…a new way of living – much closer, ironically, to the terrorists’ fantasy – without the rights, freedoms and values on which our society is supposed to be built and which in the darkest of times more than ever we need to guide us”.**

These attacks have succeeded in creating more visibility for the magazine they were trying to silence; but they have also highlighted questions of policy with serious legal ramifications which have yet to be answered.

* Luz is one of the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. He owes his life to being late to the targeted meeting the day of the attack.

** Shami Chakrabarti “On Liberty”

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