By James Boggs
A little less than two weeks ago, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked by two gunmen, resulting in the deaths of 12 people, including two police officers.
The attack was executed by two radically Islamic brothers, Saïd Kouachi and Chérif Kouachi, who shouted, “Allahu Akbar,” and, “The Prophet Muhammad is avenged,” as they slaughtered editors, cartoonists and police officers. The attack was, in the brothers’ eyes, retribution for the blasphemous comics produced by the blatantly and purposefully offensive magazine.
Scandalous drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as significant figures from other faiths, are not uncommon in the magazine, and the editors and cartoonists admit to attempting to offend everyone.
This isn’t the first time Charlie Hebdo has come under attack. In 2006, the publication was sued by several Muslim organizations for racism after it published a picture of the Prophet Muhammad declaring that “it is hard to be loved by jerks.” The magazine was ultimately acquitted, with the court claiming that, because the magazine was clearly satirical, its pictures should not be taken as racist.
In 2011, the attackers became extrajudicial, firebombing the office of the magazine after it published a special “Charia Hebdo” edition, claiming that Muhammad was the magazine’s editor-in-chief. On the cover of that issue, Charlie Hebdo portrayed Muhammad saying, “100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing.”
In the wake of the latest and most tragic attack, citizens across the country have banded together in solidarity for Charlie Hebdo and, more broadly, satire and freedom of speech. Across France, millions of people marched in solidarity, rallying to the cry of, “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” in French.
Vigils and memorials were held in hundreds of places, and street-side shrines popped up across the country and even the globe. In Paris, 1.5 million people rallied, singing “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, crying, “Je suis Charlie,” and holding up countless pens and pencils in defiance of censorship and fear.
Among the masses were 47 world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made the trip to Paris to show their support for freedom of expression. Notably absent from the rally was President Barack Obama.
Thanks to World Opinions Editor Drew McCalmont, I was able to talk to Professor Keith Martin, a British-born English professor at the University of Rennes. He, along with 115,000 others, marched through the city of Rennes.
When asked to describe the march he took part in, Martin stated, “It was dignified, calm and extremely moving.”
He continued, stating that it “was very big indeed — 115,000 people — old, young, families, most of whom were wearing or holding ‘je suis Charlie’ cards … Every now and then the march would stop and there would be a simple round of applause that snaked its way along the cortege.” Likewise, he described the rallies across the country as “an extremely dignified movement of national unity.”
“The mood in France at the moment,” he commented, “is one of deep sadness that so many talented cartoonists and journalists were gunned down simply because they have spent their lives applying the important fundamental right of freedom of speech.”
It is this right to free speech that has gathered so much support for and solidarity with the magazine. France’s long history of both satire and secularism has combined to make this an extremely poignant event.
One aspect of this can be seen in the dramatic surge in Charlie Hebdo’s popularity: Where it once printed 60,000 copies of each issue, its latest issue has more than 3 million copies in print.
Martin noted that, “Charlie Hebdo was published (Jan. 14) and they were all snapped up in a few minutes. Millions more will be published in the next few days to meet demand … Millions of people are now intending to buy subscriptions to Charlie Hebdo, which is great news — that’s what I’ll be doing very soon.”
Though for now the situation seems to have calmed, the question of how this attack will change French policy is still open. France’s Muslim population is now under even more scrutiny and is even more stigmatized than it already was. Although no serious violence against Muslims has yet been perpetrated, there have been numerous reports of mosques being vandalized.
Moreover, according to Martin, “The extreme-right Front Nationalist party will no doubt jump on the back of all of this to fuel their anti-Islam ideas — they have already spoken about the need to bring back the death penalty, which was abolished in France in 1981.”
Worsening relations between secular and Muslim members of the French population may lead to an even greater increase in the number of young Muslim men fighting for radical Islam in the Middle East, an issue with which France already has a problem.
The challenge for France and its leaders now is to find a way to unify its people, all of them, in a way that allows Muslims to feel secure and respected. Whether this will happen is yet to be seen.