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<i>Charlie Hebdo</i>, Firebombs and the Role of Satire

Thenumber did everything to scorn the Arab Spring abroad and nothing to contest French clichés and institutional racism against Muslims.
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Paris -- At approximately 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, Stephane Charbonnier, better known as "Charb" to his readers, had a rude awakening. Overnight, the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, where he serves as editor, had been the target of a firebombing. The website had also been hacked and the police were looking into the act.

For many, the publication has been an iconic soapbox for the far French left since its creation in 1960. Charlie Hebdo publishes weekly. Every issue is filled with comic strips, cartoons and caricatures that push the boundaries of everything taboo in France. Over the years, politicians, celebrities and even a dead Jesus Christ have fallen prey. But what could have angered someone so much to attack the weekly's headquarters?

On Tuesday night, the magazine had finished the final printing of a special Arab Spring edition. Renamed Charia Hebdo for the occasion and playing on the word in French for Shariah law, the cover features a picture of the prophet Muhammad as 'guest' editor. Every spread of the 14-page newspaper insults Islam. making jokes about sodomy, the niqab and even scolds the idea that the rise of modern Islamic governments in newly liberated Libya and Tunisia can be democratic.

Regardless of the fact that authorities have not provided any more details, the event has already provoked public outcry.

The Associated Press quoted Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, who disapproved of the publication for its depiction of the prophet but condemned the violence that had ensued. Meanwhile, Prime Minister François Fillon, said that "all attacks on the freedom of the press must be condemned with the greatest firmness."

And so, here begins another chapter in the battle between the French ideal of laïcité (secularism) and Islam's role in France.

Focusing on the wrong issue

Before the blast, media outlets were already speculating over how this week's issue would depict the religion of five million French citizens. Following the attack, however, the conversation quickly shifted to discuss the intolerance for Islam's critics and freedom of the press.

Charb defended the values of Charlie Hebdo. "There is no question of us giving in to Islamists. We are a news magazine and will continue commenting on the news. What we are doing is nothing like the polemical tone of the Muhammsd cartoons [in Denmark]. We approach this with our own sense of humor," Charbonnier told France 24 in an interview during the breakfast show Live from Paris.

Nothing else was important. It did not matter that the publication fetishized over the different ways to wear the controversial veil, mocked Muhammad's penis in a cartoon and scoffed at the recently elected Ennahda party in Tunisia. No, this was not demeaning, disrespectful or racist. This, by Charlie Hebdo's definition, was satire: the kind that everyone had to accept as part of the French tradition.

Even the BBC's Hugh Schofield wrote that publications like Charlie Hebdo are longstanding in French history, all the way to the scandal sheets that denounced Marie-Antoinette in the run-up to the French Revolution. In an almost apologist fashion Schofield wrote, "over the years, it [Charlie Hebdo] has printed examples which make today's representations of Mohammed look like illustrations from a children's book... police would be shown holding the dripping heads of immigrants; there would be masturbating nuns; popes wearing condoms, anything to make a point. So today when the paper's staff say there is nothing unusually provocative about the Charia Hebdo issue they are being perfectly truthful."

While this might be so, what is also inherently French is the country's deeply rooted malaise with its Muslims citizens. Partly, because it has never really explored its colonialist legacy in North Africa nor has it established a body politic inclusive of minorities.

So whether the discussion of the day is about a niqab or the role of prayer, it is seen as something diametrically opposed to French values. The real conversation to be had is about how to create a more inclusive socially-just France.

The role of satire

By definition, satire is based on the premise that however serious the subject, it can achieve a greater effect if a society's follies are held to ridicule. The greater purpose is constructive criticism. However, the Charia Hebdo number did everything to scorn the Arab Spring abroad and nothing to contest French clichés and institutional racism against Muslims.

The issue was not thought-provoking; it simply contributed to burgeoning anti-Muslim sentiment. What it should have been doing was pushing the conversation forward to confront the seemingly dormant but rampant institutional bigotry. After all, is that not the point of having a free press tradition in the first place?

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