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The Charlie Hebdo attack, explained

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.

What is the Charlie Hebdo attack?

Gunmen wearing masks and bulletproof vests attacked Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly newspaper in Paris, around 11:30 am local time on Wednesday, January 7, during the newspaper's weekly editorial meeting. Twelve people were killed: eight journalists, including four well-known cartoonists; two police officers; a building maintenance worker; and a guest of the editorial board. Eleven more were injured, four of them seriously.

Police have identified two major suspects in the attack: brothers Saïd Kouachi, 34, and Chérif Kouachi, 32, both of Paris. A third man sought by police, Hamyd Mourad, turned himself in at a police station near the Belgian border. Chérif Kouachi had a previous conviction for terrorism, in 2008, for helping smuggle fighters to Iraq. Saïd Kouachi had trained with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate.

The motive for the attack is still unclear. It was the deadliest, but not the first, attack on Charlie Hebdo. The left-wing, anti-establishment newspaper is part of a tradition of serious satire in France. It mocked everything — powerful politicians, pop culture, religion — but reserved particular glee for lampooning Islam and Muslims, often with raunchy cartoons. The newspaper's offices were firebombed in 2011 after they published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

The January 7 attack led to an outpouring of support for Charlie Hebdo. At rallies in France and around Europe, thousands of people held up placards reading "Je Suis Charlie" (I am Charlie) or holding pens to represent the power of art and writing.

While the attack's motivation is still unknown, it has nonetheless sparked wide discussion, particularly in France, on issues of free speech and religious tolerance, on concern about the threat from extremist terrorists, and now with "reprisal" attacks against French mosques, about the treatment of the country's Muslim community.

Who attacked Charlie Hebdo?

French police have identified two suspects: Saïd Kouachi, 34, and his brother Chérif Kouachi, 32, both from Paris. A third man, Hamyd Mourad, 18, is from Reims. Mourad reportedly turned himself in at a police station near the France-Belgium border after his name began to circulate on social media, according to the New York Times.

The Kouachis have some prior links to international terrorism, though it's not yet known if their attack was planned or funded by al-Qaeda or any other group.

The Kouachi brothers fled to an industrial building in Dammartin-en-Goele, a village outside of Paris, where they took a hostage. Police were initially put on their trail by an identity card left in a car the alleged shooters used, according to Le Monde. After a brief standoff, police raided the building, and both brothers were killed.

Before the Charles Hebdo attack, Chérif Kouachi was an active member of a cell known as the 19th arrondissement network or the Buttes-Chaumont Group, which sent European Muslims to fight in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion. Chérif and other key members of the group were arrested in 2005; he was allegedly planning to travel to Iraq, but never got to go. In 2008, he was convicted on terrorism charges but released for time served after his arrest.

In 2010, Chérif was arrested again, this time for trying to break a militant out of prison; The Star reports he was released for lack of evidence. In 2011, Saïd went to Yemen to train with al-Qaeda's Yemen affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. According to the New York Times, his training lasted "for a few months" and covered marksmanship and small arms combat.

The alleged gunmen said after the attack that they had "avenged the Prophet Mohammad," according to witnesses. One witness also told the New York Times, "They spoke perfect French, and claimed to be from Al Qaeda."

What is Charlie Hebdo?

Charlie Hebdo is a weekly, French satirical newsmagazine published since 1970 (although it had a long hiatus between 1981 and 1992), known for its cartoons lampooning targets of all sorts, especially religions and particularly Islam.

The magazine's name roughly translates to "Charlie Weekly," and there are two explanations for why it's called that. Decades ago, a satirical publication called Hara-Kiri (tagline: "a stupid and nasty magazine") was driven out of business after mocking the death of Charles de Gaulle; some of its staff went on to start Charlie Weekly, and some of them say the "Charlie" name is a nod to de Gaulle. But others say it's a reference to the Peanuts character Charlie Brown because the magazine printed those cartoons alongside its raunchier, satirical fare.

Charlie Hebdo's editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, who was murdered in the attack, described the newspaper's positions in 2012 as left-wing, secular, and atheist.

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy reads a 2011 issue of Charlie Hebdo (Franck Prevel/Getty)

The magazine has become internationally famous for provocative, often raunchy cartoons and caricatures related to Islam, including images of the Prophet Mohammed. Many Muslims consider such portrayals 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. In 2011, the newspaper published an issue "guest-edited" by the Prophet Mohammed, promising "100 lashes if you don't die of laughter."

But the newspaper also mocked the Pope (showing Pope Benedict XVI holding a condom and declaring "This is my body!" and — in another cartoon — 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's 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 2014, it asked for donations in order to keep its doors open.

Charlie Hebdo's satire is of a specifically anarchic, raunchy, provocative, anti-establishment French variety. But it plays out against a backdrop of debate in France over the role of a growing Muslim population in a secular state.

What does Charlie Hebdo's satire mean?

Charlie Hebdo is known for its cartoons, which are often raunchy and provocative, whether they depicted the Prophet Mohammed or portrayed the Pope performing holy communion with a condom.

One technique they frequently use is combining two news stories into one, such as this cover imagining Boko Haram sex slaves as "welfare queens."

On Islam, in particular, the magazine portrayed its often offensive cartoons as challenging taboos and self-censorship and opposing Islamic extremists who wanted them withheld. "As soon as we say to religion, 'You're untouchable,' we're fucked," Gérard Biard, who survived the attack, told Le Monde in 2012.

Laurent Léger, another staffer who survived, 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 French tradition of making outrageous satirical attacks on established institutions. 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 the day of the terrorist attack.

Satire is central to French political culture. Le Canard Enchaîné, another weekly satirical newspaper (and a much more popular one than Charlie Hebdo), doesn't only mock the government; it has revealed scandals that have caused cabinet ministers to step down. And Les Guignols d'Info, an eight-minute satirical segment on TV news featuring latex puppets, has had tremendous cultural influence.

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.

Why is Charlie Hebdo so controversial?

Charlie Hebdo had a well-earned reputation for focusing on Islam, extremist and not. One issue — "Chariah Hebdo," for the word meaning sharia — was "guest-edited by the Prophet Mohammed," with a drawing of him on the cover saying, "100 lashes if you don't die of laughter":

charia hebdo

(Charlie Hebdo)

Shortly after publishing this cover, the magazine's website was hacked and its office firebombed in retaliation.

Many Muslims consider portrayals of the Prophet Mohammed to be a serious insult and religious offense. These cartoons and covers have drawn criticism beyond France's Muslim community, 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 satire of religion in general, and Islam in particular, also plays out in a country where religion officially has no place in the public sphere; secularism is a cherished tradition in France. At the same time, France has been undergoing an identity crisis about the role of Islam, religion, and racism in public life.

France has the largest population of Muslims in Europe per capita, around 10 percent. Many are the descendants of immigrants from former French colonies in North Africa. And 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 left to question whether French Muslims, even those who have been there for generations, are really French. 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 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.

What is "Je Suis Charlie," and why are people holding up pens?

On January 7, the night of the attack, thousands of people in Paris and several other European cities rallied in support of and solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and its murdered journalists.

The rallies had two symbols, which have since spread to online shows of support, as well: holding up a sign reading "Je Suis Charlie" or a simple pen.

The phrase "Je Suis Charlie," which is French for "I am Charlie," is an expression of solidarity with the magazine, a way of saying that this attack is also an attack on me and my values and that I share the newspaper's fate and mission. At rallies across Europe, attendants held up signs or wore t-shirts with the phrase:

journalists Hebdo rally

Supporters of Charlie Hebdo rally at the Place de la Republique in Paris. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty)

Some supporters also hold up pens, a reference to the expression "the pen is mightier than the sword" and a way of declaring that the spirit of Charlie Hebdo and its work lives on, that the terrorists who attacked it did not succeed in silencing it. It's a show of defiance to those attackers as much as a show of support for the magazine.

journalists Hebdo rally

Journalists hold up press cards and others hold up pens at the Place de la Republique rally in Paris. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty)

Hebdo pens

Protesters holding up pens at a rally in Rennes, in western France, in solidarity with the murdered journalists of Charlie Hebdo. (Damien Meyer/AFP)

Card written by Max Fisher

What are some of Charlie Hebdo's most famous cartoons?

The magazine's satirical cartoon covers, always provocative, typically lampooned the magazine's latest targets. Those targets were almost always large institutions of some kind, especially institutionalized religions, and especially Islam. While Charlie Hebdo targeted all religions, as well a secular politicians, with equal glee and force, its most famous covers tended to focus on Muslims and Muslim extremism.

"Guest-edited" by the Prophet Mohammed

charia hebdo

(Charlie Hebdo)

This is one of the magazine's most famous covers, from November 2011, when it ran an issue "guest-edited" by the Prophet Mohammed (depicting the Prophet Mohammed is considered blasphemy and an serious insult by many Muslims, extremist and not). The magazine's title was changed to "Charia Hebdo" (Charia is French for Sharia, as in Sharia law); its cover depicts the Prophet Mohammed saying, "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!"

"Love is stronger than hate"

The November 9, 2011, cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine (Charlie Hebdo)

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 a beard and clothing meant to suggest a conservative religious Muslim. The smoldering ruins of the magazine's offices (it was not actually burned down) are visible in the background.

This is, arguably, the magazine's best cover. It 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.

"It's hard to be loved by idiots"

Charlie Hebdo Mohammed Overwhelmed

A 2006 cover of Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Hebdo)

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. This 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 significant 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.

"The Pope goes too far!"

Charlie Hebdo Pope

(Charlie Hebdo)

No person or institution, no matter how venerable, has been safe from the magazine's satire. In 2010, one 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!"

"Marine le Pen, a mannequin for Galliano"

Charlie Hebdo Galliano

Still, the magazine has long focused on French politics as well. After French designer John Galliano was caught delivering an anti-semitic rant in a Paris bar, Charlie Hebdo suggested that right-wing political leader Marine Le Pen had become the new model in his studio. The caption reads, "Marine le Pen, a mannequin for Galliano."

"Boko Haram's sex slaves are angry"

An October 2014 cover depicts Nigerian women demanding welfare checks (Charlie Hebdo)

This October 2014 cover stats "Boko Haram's sex slaves are angry"; the women, presumably victims of the Nigerian terrorist group, are shouting "Don't touch our welfare!" There are two ways to read this cover: as a deliberately tasteless, and indeed racist, depiction of Nigeria women; or as a provocative but nuanced satire expressing support for the French welfare state. There is real validity to both.

Charlie Hebdo covers often combined two unrelated stories to make a satirical point. In the context of the magazine's leftist politics, this seems to be about spoofing not Nigerian trafficking victims, but French welfare critics, who have argued that France should cut welfare programs to prevent immigrant women from exploiting them. The cover, in this view, seems to say, "Hey, welfare critics, you're so heartless that you probably think that even Nigerian sexual slavery victims are money-grubbing 'welfare queens.'"

At the same time, there is no getting around that the cover's point, even if its intention is to protect welfare for Nigerian immigrants to France, indulges some awfully racist stereotypes along the way.

This cover in many ways, then, captures Charlie Hebdo at its best and its worst, as a magazine that was daring and bitingly satirical, but whose bravery and defiance of the normal rules of good taste often took it several steps beyond mere provocation. That is not to condemn the magazine, but to understand it, which is among the least of what we owe them.

Card written by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub

Why are French mosques being attacked?

In the first 24 hours after the Charlie Hebdo attack, several mosques were attacked across France. The misguided reprisal attacks appear to be aimed at punished all French Muslims for the attacks.

According to reports by AFP and others, the attacks have included:

• Three training grenades thrown at a mosque in Le Pen; a bullet hole was also found in a mosque window

• A bomb blast at a restaurant adjacent to and associated with a mosque in Villefranche-sur-Saone

• Gunshots fired at a mosque in Port-la-Nouvelle

The apparent logic of the mosque attacks badly misunderstands the initial Charlie Hebdo attack: if it was carried out by al-Qaeda-linked extremists, as one of the shooters reportedly claimed, then this is a group that has made fellow Muslims its primary victims.

Further, such attacks play directly into al-Qaeda's own logic and agenda, treating the act of few fringe extremists as representative of the non-extremist whole, and fomenting the idea of existential conflict between non-Muslims and Muslims where none actually exists.

It's important to understand, though, that these attacks and the sentiment behind them did not come from nowhere. French attitudes toward Islam are, to say the least, complex — something evidenced at every stage of this story.

The growth of France's Muslim population — estimates suggest that about 10 percent of the population is Muslim — has led to deep concern about what that means for France's secular traditions. (While France is predominately Catholic, most French Catholics don't practice their religion.) The government banned head scarves and other religious symbols from public schools in 2004. In 2014, they banned concealing one's face in public — a ban widely seen as targeting burqas and niqabs and suggesting that devout Muslim women were unwelcome in public life.

The role of Islam in France 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. In a very different way, it's also important for understanding the attacks on French mosques. This is not to say that Charlie Hebdo and the mosque attackers share the same beliefs or motivations — there is every evidence that they do not — but rather that they exist in the same complicated melange of French identity politics.

Card written by Max Fisher


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