Masked gunmen on Wednesday attacked the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine known for its biting humor — and, more specifically, for a string of satirical cartoons about Islam and the Prophet Muhammed.
Charlie Hebdo, whose name translates roughly to "Charlie Weekly," is a weekly publication that covers French politics through cartoons, satirical articles, and jokes. Although its editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier, who was killed in the attack, has said that he considered the magazine a leftist-pluralist publication, its stance can perhaps better be described as anti-institutional. Its biting satire habitually targeted the government, high-profile politicians, and organized religion. The magazine was founded in 1969, and was resurrected in 1992 following a three-year hiatus.
Those cartoons have provoked a backlash against the magazine in the past, including a firebomb attack on its offices in 2011. But for the editors of the magazine, the offense was the point: the cartoons were directed as much at public sanctimony about Islam and multiculturalism as they were at their nominal subjects. They believed that the short-term decision to avoid offense would damage French secular culture in the longer term.
That debate is not limited to the pages of Charlie Hebdo. The question of whether Islam poses a threat to French culture is a hot-button issue in France, where "laïcité" — secularism — has such importance that it has been described as a "founding myth" of the French republic.
The magazine's most recent cover referred to a current debate about Islamophobia in France. Michel Houellebecq's latest book, Submission, which is about a Muslim governing the country in accordance with the rules of conservative Islam in 2022, has been widely derided as Islamophobic. The cover shows "the mage Houllebecq" predicting that "in 2015 I lose my teeth ... in 2022 I observe Ramadan!"
The magazine's final tweet before the attack was a cartoon depicting ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi offering politically correct "best wishes" for the holiday season.
Meilleurs vœux, au fait. pic.twitter.com/a2JOhqJZJM— Charlie Hebdo (@Charlie_Hebdo_) January 7, 2015
But past covers have been far more biting. In 2011, the magazine published an article "guest edited by Mohammed," calling him "Charia Hebdo." On the cover, a grinning, bearded figure promised "100 lashes if you don't die of laughter."
After that issue was published, the magazine's office was firebombed and its website was hacked. The attackers posted a notice on the hacked site that read, "You keep abusing Islam's almighty Prophet with disgusting and disgraceful cartoons using excuses of freedom of speech. Be God's curse upon you!"
Rather than capitulating to the violence, the magazine lampooned it. The next week, it published a cartoon declaring "love stronger than hate," showing two men kissing — one wearing a "Charlie Hebdo" t-shirt and the other sporting the beard and clothing of a religious Muslim.
Charbonnier firmly rejected the idea that the magazine should stay silent in order to prevent violence perpetrated by those who sought to silence it. In a 2012 interview with Le Monde, he explained: "I don't feel as though I'm killing someone with a pen. I'm not putting lives at risk. When activists need a pretext to justify their violence, they always find it."
Charbonnier insisted that the magazine would continue to mock Islam until it was "as banal as Catholicism." In other words, Islam would remain a target as long as its supporters insisted that it should be given protections that weren't compatible with France's proudly secular intellectual tradition. That framework suggests that provoking outrage was not a bug for Charbonnier, but a feature: a way to highlight what he saw as a damaging consequence of France's deference to extremists.
"I have no kids, no wife, no car, no credit," he told Le Monde in 2012. "What I am saying may be a bit pompous, but I prefer to die standing than live on my knees."
A number of cartoons have emphasized that the magazine's chief target was extremism, not Islam. Indeed, some of the magazine's covers suggested that the Prophet himself would take Charlie Hebdo's side in the debate. An October 2014 cover depicted an ISIS militant beheading the Prophet Mohammed:
A 2006 cover showed the Prophet Mohammed weeping with dismay over his fundamentalist followers. Titled "Mohammed Overwhelmed by Fundamentalists," the prophet is shown covering his face and saying that "it's hard to be loved by idiots."
That issue was particularly explosive because of its contents: the magazine re-published a series of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that had originally been published by the Danish Newspaper Jyllands-Posten and had prompted protests all over the world.
But the magazine's primary focus has always been French politics. In 2010, during the debate over a controversial new law that banned French women from wearing full-face veils in public, Charlie Hebdo's cover depicted a frolicking naked woman who shouted "Yes to wearing the burqa ... on the inside," with a ruffle of blue fabric showing between her legs:
Indeed, no person or institution, no matter how venerable, was safe from being targeted by the magazine's satire. In 2010 its cover went after the Pope Benedict XVI's shifting stance on birth control. He was depicted holding a condom aloft and saying "this is my body" — a reference to holy communion — with the caption "the Pope goes too far!":
In 2006, the magazine mocked France's reality-TV habit with an image of Jesus on the cross, saying "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here!":
After French designer John Galliano was caught delivering an anti-semitic rant in a Paris bar, Charlie Hebdo suggested that right-wing politician Marine Le Pen had become the new model in his studio:
But the magazine that withstood so much and offended so many has finally been silenced. Today, visitors to the Charlie Hebdo website find only a single graphic. "Je suis Charlie," it reads.
"I am Charlie."