The French magazine Charlie Hebdo, attacked on Wednesday by terrorists who worked methodically through its Paris office with Kalashnikovs, was known for its provocative cartoons. Some of them mocked Islamic extremism, and they often portrayed the Prophet Mohammed, a fact that in itself is considered an insult and profound religious violation by many Muslims, extreme and not extreme.
Yet it would do a profound disservice to Charlie Hebdo and its leading cartoonists, many of whom were murdered in the attack, to describe it as an anti-Islam or anti-religion magazine, or to portray it as having provoked just for the sake of provocation.
The cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were making a substantial point with their cartoons. That point is perfectly summed up, albeit in ways more subtle than first meet the eye, in one of its most famous covers, from November 2011. The title reads "Love is stronger than hate":
The cover depicts Charlie Hebdo (the magazine portrayed by a generic male staffer with a pencil behind his ear) kissing a generic Muslim man; in the background are the smoldering ashes of the Charlie Hebdo office.
The context here: the magazine had recently published an issue "guest-edited by Mohammed" that depicted a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed on the cover saying, "100 lashes if you don't die of laughter," with similar fare inside the issue. It was far from the first such cartoon in the magazine, but, in response, unknown assailants hacked Charlie Hebdo's website and firebombed its offices.
The magazine was not just criticized by Islamist extremists. At different points, even France's devoutly secular politicians have questioned whether the magazine went too far. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius once asked of its cartoons, "Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?"
It is, actually. Part of Charlie Hebdo's point was that respecting these taboos strengthens their censorial power. Worse, allowing extremists to set the limits of conversation validates and entrenches the extremists' premises: that free speech and religion are inherently at odds (they are not), and that there is some civilizational conflict between Islam and the West (there isn't).
These are also arguments, by the way, made by Islamophobes and racists, particularly in France, where hatred of Muslim immigrants from north and west Africa is a serious problem.
And that is exactly why Charlie Hebdo's "Love is stronger than hate" cover so well captures the magazine's oft-misunderstood mission and message. Yes, the slobbery kiss between two men is surely meant to get under the skin of any conservative Muslims who are also homophobic, but so too is it an attack on the idea that Muslims or Islam are the enemy, rather than extremism and intolerance.
Laurent Léger, a Charlie Hebdo staffer who survived the attack, told CNN in 2012, "The aim is to laugh. ... We want to laugh at the extremists — every extremist. They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept."
That this mission had gotten the magazine attacked in the past, and may have contributed to the terrorists' motivation in murdering its staffers today, should show us all just how important it is, and how high the stakes are for all of us.