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Charlie Hebdo: its history, humor, and controversies, explained

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Stéphane Charbonnier, a lead editor of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and one of the 12 people murdered in the attack on the magazine's office on Jan. 7, 2015, gave a quote to Le Monde in 2012 that is rapidly becoming his epitaph. Speaking about threats against the magazine over its cartoons portraying the Prophet Mohammed, he said, "What I'm about to say is maybe a little pompous, but I'd rather die standing up than live on my knees."

In the same interview, Charlie Hebdo's editor in chief Gerard Biard, who survived today's massacre because he was in London, explained of his refusal to back down from the magazine's cartoons, "If we say to religion, 'You are untouchable,' we're fucked."

Together, these two quotes capture the publication's gleeful attitude toward mocking powerful institutions — particularly religion, and particularly Islam — even after its offices were firebombed in 2011. But they also hint at the fact that there is much more going on in Charlie Hebdo's satire than caricaturing religious figures: a particularly French brand of political satire quite different from the American kind, a set of complex identity politics that are unique to France and crucial context, and a satirical message whose nuance might be easy for unfamiliar readers to miss. Here's what you need to know about this magazine, its mission, and the larger context around it.

What is Charlie Hebdo?

Je Suis Charlie

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Charlie Hebdo is a weekly, French satirical newsmagazine published since 1970 (although it had a long hiatus between 1981 to 1992). Known especially for its provocative cartoons and caricatures, Charlie Hebdo is part of a long tradition of political satire in France. Its editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, who was killed by gunmen Wednesday, described the newspaper's positions in 2012 as left-wing, secular, and atheist.

It's best known for publishing cartoons mocking religion and religious extremism, especially though not exclusively Islam, Islamic extremism, and the Prophet Mohammed. The cartoons can be raunchy and are made to provoke. The magazine has been attacked in the past: in 2011, after it published an issue "guest-edited" by the Prophet Mohammed ("100 lashes if you don't die of laughter"), their website was hacked and Paris offices firebombed.

Tignous, a cartoonist killed in the 2015 massacre, had previously said that the best cartoons not only make the reader laugh and think — they provoke "shame for having been able to laugh at such a serious situation." That was often the sentiment Charlie Hebdo aimed for.

The magazine's name roughly translates to "Charlie weekly." There are two competing stories about how the name came to be. The first is that a predecessor publication was forced out of business for making fun of French President Charles de Gaulle's death and it was a shot at him. The second is that it is a Charlie Brown reference.

Charlie Hebdo is not broadly popular: its weekly circulation was around 50,000 (compared to about 500,000 for Le Canard Enchaîné, its better-known rival in the satirical press), and it often struggled financially. In November, it asked for donations in order to keep its doors open.

What does Charlie Hebdo satirize?

Charlie Hebdo offices

Charlie Hebdo offices after the attack, featuring one of the magazine's most famous covers. (Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

The magazine made fun of prominent politicians, religion, and pop culture, but it lampooned Islam and Islamic extremists with particular zeal.

A 2006 edition of Charlie Hebdo included the infamous Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed — which sparked riots that left more than 250 people dead around the world — and put a crying Mohammed on the cover, with a speech bubble saying "It's hard being loved by assholes." The newspaper also mocked the Pope (showing Pope Benedict XVI holding a condom and declaring "This is my body!" and in a loving embrace with a Vatican guard), the extremist right-wing French political party Front National (showing Marine Le Pen, the party's leader, as a fashion model for John Galliano, who was in the news at the time for an anti-Semitic rant), and, recently, French president François Hollande.

Charlie Hebdo had a well-earned reputation for focusing on Islam, extremist and not. Many Muslims consider portrayals of the Prophet Mohammed to be a serious insult and religious offense, and Charlie Hebdo defied this by caricaturing him frequently, including in at least one instance shown as nude and bent over.

These cartoons and covers have drawn criticism, including at one point by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who asked of them, "Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?" But Charlie Hebdo's editors and cartoonists were often careful to articulate their satire as about challenging taboos and their power to cause self-censorship, and to champion freedom of speech, not to offend simply for the sake of offending.

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."

Charlie Hebdo is part of a tradition of serious satire in France, most of it much less comic or comforting than political satire in the US. Called "gouaille," "it's an anarchic populist form of obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred or powerful," Arthur Goldhammer, a French translator and author, wrote for Al-Jazeera America today.

The power of this political satire is evident in the fact that, for example, Le Canard Enchaîné, another weekly satirical newspaper, doesn't only mock the government; it's revealed scandals that have caused cabinet ministers to step down. Les Guignols d'Info, an eight-minute satirical segment on TV news featuring latex puppets, has had tremendous cultural influence.

Even the closest American analogies — the most biting political segments on Saturday Night Live or the harshest articles in The Onion — don't really capture what French political satire is about.

Why would anybody want to attack Charlie Hebdo?

Police and ambulance at Charlie Hebdo

Police cars lined up at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. (Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

Many Muslims — not just extremists — consider it blasphemous to draw the prophet Mohammed at all, let alone in the crude, satirical way of Charlie Hebdo. Charlie Hebdo has been attacked before, and had some serious security precautions for a small-circulation magazine. Its old offices were firebombed in 2011, after the "guest-edited" Prophet Mohammed issue appeared. Since then, it's been under police protection.

Still, while many Muslims may have found Charlie Hebdo offensive, the vast majority of Muslims reject violence, and focusing on the cartoons and the issue of blasphemy is somewhat of a red herring. The real provocation for the attack was not the cartoons or any offense they may have given, but rather the psychopathic minds and ideologies of the killers.

Militant jihadists are reviled and rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who are their greatest victims. As Globe and Mail columnist Nahrain al-Mousawi points out, biting satires of Islamist extremists such as ISIS are common in Muslim-majority countries as well.

What makes Charlie Hebdo so controversial?

Protestors demonstrate against France's veiling ban in 2011. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Charlie Hebdo's satire of religion in general, and Islam in particular, plays out in a country where religion officially has no place in the public sphere; secularism is a cherished tradition in France. But it's also taking place amid a conflict about the role of Islam, religion, racism, and cultural identity in French public life.

France has the largest population of Muslims in Europe per capita, around 10 percent of its population. Many are the descendants of immigrants from former French colonies in North Africa. But France has had trouble integrating its Muslim population (or, by some views, has had trouble overcoming non-Muslim opposition to integrating them). Second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants still face discrimination in schooling, housing, and more.

It's considered acceptable on both the French right and the left to question whether French Muslims, even those who have been there for generations, are really French. The notion that you can represent two religious or ethnic identities — common in the US — simply isn't a part of political life. The French census doesn't even record people's ethnic backgrounds, for example.

In 2004, the French government banned head scarves and other prominent symbols of religion in public schools. In 2014, France made it illegal to cover one's face in public, a ban that theoretically applies to everyone but was widely seen as targeting burqas and niqabs, and hence as a way of telling devout Muslims that they are unwelcome.

This is the fraught, complicated, and often tense French national identity crisis that is the context for Charlie Hebdo and its satire. This is important for understanding the culture war in which the magazine's satire is entrenched, and its implications for a sense that France can be unwelcoming or intolerant of Muslims. But it is also important for seeing that the cartoons at the expense of Islam, as pointed as they would be in the American context, still stop well short of the open Islamophobia of France's political far right.

As anti-institutional as Charlie Hebdo's cartoons could be against institutionalized religion, though, they upheld another French institution: laïcité, the absolute separation of church and state.

"We’re a newspaper against religions as soon as they enter into the political and public realm," Biard told The New York Times in 2012. "You’re not meant to identify yourself through a religion, in any case not in a secular state." This was a crucial plank of the magazine's identity.

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