After armed Muslim extremists barged into the offices of the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday and murdered 12 people, the phrase #JeSuisCharlie—“I am Charlie”—was soon adopted worldwide by individuals and organizations eager to stand in solidarity with the magazine. But before we were all Charlie Hebdo, before Charlie Hebdo was a symbol of free speech and editorial courage, Charlie Hebdo was, for many, a symbol of Islamophobia, its cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed less an exercise in political courage than a gratuitous provocation of a marginalized religious group that has long been made to feel unwelcome in France.
This is worth remembering, even now, even if, like me, you don’t agree with the charges. Missing in much of the coverage of the events of the past few days is a sense of the demographic context in which they occurred. “We’re talking about a country with 6 million Muslims, the biggest population in Europe, where Muslims experience all sorts of discriminations on a day-to-day basis,” the French-Algerian journalist Nabila Ramdani told Sky News in 2011. “Many view [the Charlie Hebdo cartoons] as pure racism dressed up as satire.”
Many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons with Islamic themes are dumb, crudely executed, and not particularly witty (though the humor may have been lost in translation). But I don’t know if the “racist” label fits. It isn’t so much that Charlie Hebdo is suspicious of Islam as it’s suspicious of all religions and authority figures. The magazine exists in an anti-clerical press tradition that is as French as Champagne, one that advocates for a France that is resolutely secular and skeptical. This sort of reflexive secular nationalism is different than straightforward racism, and while it’s perhaps no less ugly, it’s worth understanding, if only to understand why #JeSuisCharlie might not fit as a slogan for our times—and why #JeNeSuisPasCharlie doesn’t quite fit, either.
Crude representations of Islam are common in Europe today, as extremist politicians exploit nativist resentments by doom-saying unchecked Muslim immigration to Europe as the harbinger of a demographic shift that will inevitably lead to the imposition of Sharia law across the continent. Political parties like France’s National Front call for the curtailment of Muslim immigration from countries like Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria, citing the new immigrants’ perceived refusal to assimilate, and their presumed hostility to traditional French values.
The media cannot reasonably be blamed for the existence of political parties like the National Front, nor can it be faulted for covering these parties and their platforms. And it’s worth noting that the French media is not an undifferentiated mass. Most mainstream French publications, like their American counterparts, are newsy and relatively evenhanded. But moreso than in America, France boasts numerous radical and reactionary publications that peddle different varieties of nationalism, some more odious than others.
Far-right magazines like Rivarol and Minute tend to traffic in direct racial and sectarian animus. These magazines are ugly in a way that Charlie Hebdo is not, and this is worth noting. There is a substantive difference between espousing a political ideology that explicitly characterizes a specific religious group as the root of the evils that beset Europe and the publication of dumb cartoons that come from a tradition of mocking all religion and authority. Yet even this is dogmatic in its own way, in its jealous guardianship of a particular vision of France that is rooted in a world that no longer exists.
It is a little bit hard to understand Charlie Hebdo, its place in French culture, and its position in the French media, because the magazine has no direct American equivalent. If you combined Mad magazine, a 1960s underground newspaper, and the sort of political commentary most often seen scrawled in Sharpie above public urinals, then you might come close, but even that wouldn’t cover it. In 2011, John Lichfield of the Independent called it a “garish, scatological, cartoon-dominated publication that mocks religious faith of all kinds and defends women’s rights and a leftist viewpoint.” It is little-read and lowbrow. Its editorial philosophy is one of defiance, and it presents that defiance as being uniquely French.
Charlie Hebdo was born in 1970 from the ashes of another satirical magazine, Hara-Kiri, which was banned by the state after it published an issue mocking the death of Charles de Gaulle. Both magazines were products of the May 1968 nationwide protests that rejected de Gaulle’s capitalist policies and birthed the defiant slogan, “It is forbidden to forbid.” Since then, Charlie Hebdo has hewed to the same anarchic, anti-statist editorial philosophy and the sense that it is dangerous to liberty to be too reverent toward authority.
The cartoons for which Charlie Hebdo has become internationally known reflect this irreverent outlook. In Slate on Wednesday, Miriam Krule translated and commented on several controversial Charlie Hebdo covers, including one with Pope Benedict XVI holding a condom above his head as if it were the Eucharist. At BuzzFeed, Luke Lewis and Alan White compiled 12 notable Charlie Hebdo covers from recent years. One features God being sodomized by a crown of thorns–clad Jesus Christ, who is in turn being sodomized by a disembodied triangle that signifies the Holy Spirit. Another features the baby Jesus virtually exploding out from the spread legs of the Virgin Mary. After Michael Jackson’s death, the magazine ran a cover of Jackson, as a skeleton, grabbing his crotch. After French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York on charges of sexual assault, Charlie Hebdo put him on the cover as the recipient of a ticker-tape parade in which the ticker-tape had been replaced with condoms. You get the idea. Charlie Hebdo acts aggressively on the idea that nothing is sacred. “It is forbidden to forbid,” after all.
That’s not to say the magazine’s stance of equal-opportunity skewering has always been consistent. In 2008, the magazine published a column by the elderly cartoonist Siné that contained a lame, vaguely anti-Semitic joke about former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s son possibly converting to Judaism. Outrage built, and Charlie Hebdo editor Philippe Val eventually asked Siné to apologize. “I’d rather cut my balls off,” replied Siné, who had made a career out of deliberately offensive and irreligious cartoons. He was promptly fired by Val, who explained that Siné’s joke “could be interpreted as making a link between the conversion to Judaism and social success”—an unacceptable and potentially defamatory opinion.
Charlie Hebdo’s readiness to back off Judaism in this one instance might seem to support the notion that the magazine has a special grudge against Islam. In 2011, for example, after Charlie Hebdo published an issue of Islam-themed humor that purported to celebrate the electoral victory of an Islamist political party in Tunisia, the journalist Ramdani told Sky News that “there’s a very serious message behind this kind of humor, saying, effectively, that Islam is not compatible with democracy.” It’s not an uncommon message in France. During a television appearance in October 2003, Claude Imbert, the founder and editor of the news magazine Le Point, acknowledged that “I am slightly Islamophobic and I don’t mind saying it,” calling Muslim attitudes toward women and the rule of law as archaic and antithetical to the French way of life. “[S]tigmatising Islam has become extremely common in France,” wrote Marie Dhumieres in a 2012 Independent column pegged to an ostensibly offensive Le Point cover story about “brazen” Muslim women who insisted on going veiled in public. The column’s headline: “When Did Islamophobic Attacks Become the Norm for the French Media?”
Anti-clerical attitudes have long been a facet of the French media, actually. At the turn of the 20th century, fears that Catholics would undermine the republic led to the enshrinement in French law of the state-mandated secularism known as laïcité. At the time, this attitude was advanced via a number of irreverent anti-clerical magazines that used cartoons to mock religious attitudes and practices—and, frankly, to scapegoat and stigmatize Catholics. Charlie Hebdo exists in this same tradition, and, like its predecessors, works to advance a certain vision of France by marginalizing and ridiculing what it sees as un-French attitudes and behaviors.
Religious extremism, to Charlie Hebdo, is an un-French attitude, and if we’re talking about the sort of violent religious extremism that encourages believers to respond to blasphemous speech by grabbing a Kalashnikov and murdering the blasphemers, then, of course, that deserves to be marginalized and ridiculed and stamped out of existence. But “religiosity” is not always synonymous with “religious extremism,” and the anti-clerical press has a history of disingenuously conflating the two. In modern France, Charlie Hebdo’s brand of comedic hostility toward organized religion is increasingly fraught, in part because its accompanying vision of Frenchness clearly has no room for many of the nation’s most recent arrivals. The weekly is perhaps best understood as a particularly grotesque example of the reflexive nationalist sentiments that cleave and animate French public life, defining “Frenchness” in exclusionary terms. #JeSuisCharlie works as an immediate expression of solidarity with the victims of an unthinkable attack, but France hasn’t been Charlie for a very long time.