Assaulting Democracy: The Deep Repercussions of the Charlie Hebdo Attack
The terrorists in Wednesday's attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris had a much broader target in mind: Western values. Will the attacks bring people together in this time of crisis or will fear of Islam prevail?
"Can we laugh about anything? Will we be able to laugh about anything tomorrow? These questions are worth asking. No limits to humor that is in the service of freedom of speech, because when humor stops, it is very often to make place for censorship or self censorship."
Cabu (Jan. 13, 1938 to Jan. 7, 2015), -- cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo
They knew what they were doing. The two masked men armed with Kalashnikovs ordered cartoonist Corinne Rey, who had just picked up her daughter from day care, to enter the door code. They then made their way to the second floor where, every Wednesday, the day of publication, the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo gathered at noon to commence their weekly editorial meeting and discuss what they would put in the next issue.
It was a lively session, with around 15 people, including a police officer assigned to provide protection to Stéphane Charbonnier, the satirical magazine's 47-year-old editor in chief. In the end, neither stood a chance.
"Where is Charb?" the killers called out. "Where is Charb?" They shot him as soon as they found him. "I would rather die standing than live on my knees," Charb had once been quoted as saying. At the time, al-Qaida had just placed him on its death list in its online magazine Inspire. "Charb Doesn't Like People" was the name of a regular column he wrote for Charlie Hebdo, but he was in fact a quiet, reserved man who, like everyone here, stood for humanity as he saw it. They were people who fought for the freedom of the press, freedom of expression and, yes, for the right to occasionally trangress taste or to insult. In the end, they paid for it with their lives.
They were people like Cabu, whose real name was Jean Cabut. The 76-year-old with shaggy hair and a rough drawing style had a laugh so hearty it could literally lift him out of his chair. His most famous character was "Grande Duduche," a perpetual college student hopelessly in love with the daughter of a university dean.
Or Georges Wolinski, 80, who, like Cabu and the entire first generation at Charlie Hebdo, was a figure cast in the spiritual mold of the 1960s -- hedonistic, libertarian, anarchic and cheerful -- a man who opposed censorship, racism, the war in Algeria, de Gaulle and narrow-minded and dull Catholic France.
Or Bernard Verlhac, 57, who called himself Tignous and once caricatured Front National leader Marine Le Pen featuring a clown nose with a swastika branded on it. He once went out of his way to mock Nicolas Sarkozy as a war president and a man who is positively spastic when it came to power and hyperactive to the point of hysteria.
Or illustrator Philippe Honoré, 73, whose last cartoon was a New Year's card to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (wishing him "especially good health") that had been tweeted by the staff just minutes before the attack.
The hail of deadly bullets also struck left-wing economist Bernard Maris, 68, who wrote a regular column for the magazine, psychoanalyst and columnist Elsa Cayat, copy editor Mustapha Ourrad, police officers Franck Brinsolaro and Ahmed Merabet, a building maintenance man as well as local politician Michel Renaud, who had been paying a visit to the magazine.
A Rich Tradition under Fire
Few other countries in the world have a cartoon culture as rich as France, with its insatiable appetite for comics, or Bandes dessinées, as they are called. It's a culture that expresses an incredible understanding of humor -- be its aim contemptuous or educational, exclusionary or inclusive. It was a constant process, one called the freedom of opinion.
The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo relished in jabbing at their targets and even reaching beyond them. That was all part of the bigger scheme of things. Reacting to the scandal over the Danish Muhammad caricatures in 2005, the editors of Charlie Hebdo initially wanted to run the headline, "Laughter kills," but they ultimately backed away from it, feeling it was too radical. Instead, in 2012, they ran a caricature of a naked Mohammed, showing his derriere, with his rear parts covered with a star and the caption, "A Star Is Born."
Was it funny? And who decides what's funny? They were determined to show that, when it comes to satire, there are no limits. At the time, US President Obama's spokesman Jay Carney said that the White House didn't question the magazine's right to publish the cartoons, only the "judgment behind the decision to publish it."
The final cartoon Charb published on the day of his death showed a mockingly caricatured jihadist, heavily armed, with the caption: "There still hasn't been an attack in France. Just wait, we still have until the end of January to send New Year's greetings." It was an eerie coincidence. But it also evoked the kind of stubborn spirit readers had come to expect from Charlie Hebdo over the years. It was what they wanted it to be.
The shock over the killings spread quickly across France as people registered that the attacks had in fact been also been aimed at France and democracy as a whole and not just some satirical magazine.
Judging from the outpouring of grief seen in France on Wednesday night, even an attack on the Louvre wouldn't have struck a deeper nerve. Jan. 7, 2015 has become for the French what 9/11 was to the United States. It was an attack on the country's proud history of Enlightenment and the French Revolution, but also one against Europe. It goes far beyond the publication itself -- at issue are fundamental questions of freedom and humanity. Accordingly, politicians, journalists and everyday people around the world sought to express their solidarity. It happened en masse on social networks, but also in public spaces. Hundreds of thousands of people attended vigils in cities spanning the globe from New York to Sydney on Wednesday, with further demonstrations planned for this weekend. Newspapers dedicated their front pages to the tragedy, although not all dared to publish the cartoons featured in Charlie Hebdo. A number of cartoonists also drew images illustrating the inequality of weapons and pens. The pope prayed for the dead.
From Pakistan to Turkey, Muslim dignitaries took pains to distance themselves, using tough words to condemn the attacks. Tunisia's Islamist al-Nahda party issued a statement condemning the "cowardly and criminal act." Egypt's spiritual leader also sent his condolences, as did Russia and China.
A Turning Point
France is no stranger to terrorism, but Wednesday's attack marked the worst it had seen since 1961. The country survived the Organization of the Secret Army (OAS), a French dissident paramilitary group that fought against Algeria's independence during the 1960s. Later, during the 1990s, Algerian Islamists planted bombs in commuter trains. But the attack that took place on Wednesday against Charlie Hebdo was a siege against the very values that France embodies.
"This is a turning point -- quantitatively but for that reason also qualitatively," says Olivier Roy, a respected scholar of Islam at the European University Institute in Florence. "It was an attack designed for the maximum effect," he says. "They did it to shock the public and, in that sense, they were also successful."
At the same time, at least for a short period, the attackers united a country that in recent years had appeared to be frightened, beat down and hopeless in a way rarely seen before in its history. The day after the attacks, President Hollande even met with his political nemesis, Nicolas Sarkozy, in Elysée Palace. "This isn't just about democracy," the former president said. "It's about civilization."
Hollande also invited right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, a woman considered to be an outsider in the French political system who normally wouldn't get invited to the presidential palace. Meanwhile, leftist Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve visited the editorial staff of the conservative daily Le Figaro on the day of the attacks. It may not sound like much, but these are meaningful gestures in today's politically polarized France.
Anxiety about Islam
This week's events in France could ultimately pour fuel on the flames of widespread French anxiety about an Islam that many believe is threatening the fabric of the country's very identity along with fears that other radical Islamists might conduct similar attacks.
Of course, that applies not only to France, but to the entire Western World, including Germany, which has so far been spared attacks comparable in scale. Nevertheless, Germans too harbor a diffuse fear of Islam, which has been manifesting itself of late on the streets of Dresden in the form of protests held by the loose-knit group calling itself Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (Pegida). All over the place, it seems, people incapable of differentiating between Muslims and murderous assassins feel affirmed in their views.
The debate is raging particularly intensely in France, where Marine Le Pen's Front National has been winning big with voters for years with its Islamophobic messages. Still fresh on the minds of the French is the March 2012 killing spree waged by 23-year-old Mohamed Merah, who hunted down soldiers, Jewish children and their teacher in Toulouse with a handgun and a scooter, killing seven.
Merah sowed the seeds of fear in the hearts of the French, raising concerns that the country could become the focus of a bloody jihad -- one led not by foreign perpetrators but by French citizens who have gone astray. Merah was French, just like the two suspects in the Charlie Hebdo terror attack, the brothers Saïd und Chérif Kouachi, aged 34 and 32.
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