Heroic Obstinacy

Jeremy Harding · Charlie Hebdo

At the time of writing, ten of Charlie Hebdo’s staff are reported dead following this morning’s attack on the paper’s offices off the Boulevard Richard Lenoir. They include the editor Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (Cabu) and Bernard Verlhac (Tignous). Two police officers are dead and five other people are seriously wounded. Only a narrow provincialism imagines that blasphemy is not a dangerous pastime. But Charlie Hebdo isn’t a cosy backwater: it has always blasphemed in earnest, as a vocational duty with high attendant risks; the signs are pretty clear so far that this terrible attack was carried out as a lesson of some kind.

The paper republished the Danish Jyllens-Posten cartoons in 2006; in 2011 it did a ‘Sharia Hebdo’ edition in the wake of Ennahda’s victory at the polls in Tunisia; its premises, then in the 20th arrondissement, were set on fire and its website was hacked. The following year it went to town on Islamic sensibilities with a suite of incendiary cartoons. On a different tack – Islamism rather than Islam – its last tweet before these murders was a cartoon birthday greeting to the Isis caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Charb was always clear about Islam: it was one of several targets (Catholicism included) but he didn’t expect everyone to be amused and threats were no dissuasion as far as the paper was concerned.

Whatever we think about this view it has its shortcomings, not least a heroic obstinacy that we wouldn’t applaud in other professions. It also refuses to imagine that injury takes many forms and some insults go deeper than we care to know. But how could Charb and his colleagues have thought or behaved any differently? They were not ordinary journalists, who refine the art of circumspection: they were exemplary satirical cartoonists and provocateurs who dealt in the currency of excess. Why endorse one strain of piety and not another?

The air in Europe is already thick with the fumes of the new identity politics and they’re heady. In France – where shock has not yet turned (or been turned) to fury, Muslim minorities will be the next to suffer. It will be the same in other countries. This is so obviously the consequence of today’s events that any killers of any persuasion – far right, or off the map; Islamist or white supremacist – who want to tip us into the cauldron would do well to invoke the Prophet, as these ones did when they burst into Charlie Hebdo’s offices and opened fire. The news is very bad, the stakes are high and France is braced.


  • 8 January 2015 at 4:31pm
    lordarsenal says:
    Islam, as a whole, is in dire need of a PR makeover. This is no joke. In order to seperate itself from the ideological gangsters that are the focus of the West's revulsion, Islam needs to present itself not as the 'other', but just another version of the Abrahamic faith. Here in the United States, religious groups such as the Mormons, were looked upon with great suspicion, but over time, are no presented as just another Christian relative, safe, banal and non-threating. Islam needs to counter it's image in a much more robust fashion. Without a publicity tilted toward the friendly, 'nice' Islam, Westerners will continue to see Islam as a wild and bizarre concoction of intolerance, and violence.

    • 8 January 2015 at 9:21pm
      ander says: @ lordarsenal
      Easier said than done. The overwhelmingly pro-Zionist American media would not allow an effective pro-Islam PR campaign.

    • 9 January 2015 at 1:41am
      lordarsenal says: @ ander
      Agree. The media in America can not fathom the deep resentment the Arab community have with Israel, never mind Islam. It's all presented as a good vs. evil drama, with all the attendant hysteria.

    • 9 January 2015 at 8:16am
      stettiner says: @ lordarsenal
      Lordarsenal and ander must live in a world without the NYT, Washington Post, CNN, NBC, NPR, Huffington Post....

    • 9 January 2015 at 8:22am
      ander says: @ stettiner
      You are forgetting Fox News.

    • 10 January 2015 at 12:59pm
      jack says: @ lordarsenal
      The U.S. was built with immigration. It can also be said it was built on slavery and genocide. In any case, for the most part we do have a tradition of integrating new immigrant groups. We have our own extreme fundamentalists who have taken up arms but they do not have much of a community to support them. It is interesting to note that the guys in Paris also did not have a community that was willing to hide and support them. But France now has to take a very hard look at itself. These were French men. Not immigrants.

  • 8 January 2015 at 10:03pm
    Higgs Boatswain says:
    This may not yet be the time for truth-telling. Obviously there's still a lot of grief and anger to be confronted on the part of the French public.

    But the glib cliches about free speech and freedom of expression emanating from political figures and journalists in France and abroad (some of them very recent converts, it would seem, to the cause of free expression!) do not inspire great optimism that a grown-up discussion will emerge from this crime. For all the hackneyed phrases about French freedoms, it remains the fact that free speech is a freedom very unequally enjoyed in France. Like most of the freedoms of liberal democracies, it belongs primarily to the powerful and is still exercised at the expense of marginal communities, including French Muslims.

    It is unfortunate that France, like the United States, is so wedded to a naive language of republican liberties that it may struggle even to formulate an intelligent dialogue on the exercise and necessary limits of free speech. I do not know whether 'Charlie Hebdo' or any other publication should be allowed deliberately and maliciously to wound the religious sentiments of one of France's more vulnerable minority communities. But I do wonder whether a publication that labelled itself a "journal irresponsable" should necessarily be lionised as a champion of a free society. Is irresponsible speech really the best sort of speech we can hope for?

    There are legitimate different ideas about what the purpose and nature of free speech is. One assumption, often unchallenged, is the 'free-market' idea that somehow more and more unregulated speech will always produce better and more informed citizens. That, perhaps, is an assumption that needs to be challenged. There may well be practical and prudential reasons for opposing any legal constraints on freedom of expression (I think there are), but maybe we need to be critical of the ideal of a society in which public discourse is dominated by those who can shout loudest. At any rate, let us be critical of the politicians and their pieties in the coming days. When Cameron and Obama waffle vapidly about the importance of free speech, let's remember to ask 'free for whom?'

    • 8 January 2015 at 11:08pm
      ander says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      Well said. Note, however, that Charlie Hebdo's robust satire more or less evenhandedly lays waste to Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism, without targeting a "vulnerable (presumably Islamic) minority". Their target is religion in whatever form it comes. And that's to a net gain to the human race.

    • 9 January 2015 at 10:28am
      frmurphy98 says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      Blimey, stetty, the first four you mentioned there are far more dangerous clarions of corporate America and Likkud than Fox. Check out thommy Hartmann's show on rt, mike papantonio, and jacobin magazine.

  • 11 January 2015 at 5:29pm
    Denverchas says:
    With all due respect to the great cartoonist Ann Telnaes, it is simply not the case that Charlie Hebdo “were equal opportunity offenders.” Like Bill Maher, "Sam Harris and other anti-Islam obsessives, mocking Judaism, Jews and/or Israel is something they will rarely (if ever) do. If forced, they can point to rare and isolated cases where they uttered some criticism of Judaism or Jews, but the vast bulk of their attacks are reserved for Islam and Muslims, not Judaism and Jews. Parody, free speech and secular atheism are the pretexts; anti-Muslim messaging is the primary goal and the outcome. And this messaging – this special affection for offensive anti-Islam speech – just so happens to coincide with, to feed, the militaristic foreign policy agenda of their governments and culture." Clear and to the point. by Glenn Greenwald at The

  • 12 January 2015 at 10:09am
    ander says:
    The Americans have been so brow-beaten by the ever-present threat of being called anti-Semites (which is lethal to one's career) that hardly anyone dares to pronounce the word "Jew". If unavoidable, they resort the adjective "Jewish" to designate a Jew. "Jewess" has been eradicated altogether. Speaking of Jews has become such a minefield that it is no longer done in a 'polite' company.

    • 13 January 2015 at 8:02am
      stettiner says: @ ander
      That's why, for example, Jesse Jackson uses the word Hymie instead.... Others, especially within the academia, say "nazi" or "zionist" or "murderer", more seldom the old Sovjet word for Jew: "cosmopolitan"....

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