Hebdo is the weekly staple of a large swathe
of the French radical left. Founded by Philippe
Val in 1992, it draws inspiration from satirical
forerunners rooted in the 1960s and 70s. It has
established a reputation for itself as 'nonconformist
and liberal' and has become something of a bulwark
at the centre of press freedom. Val became known
as a humorist with the alternative media in the
1970s and 80s. In the 1990s, he helped found the
Volatire Network, a body promoting the separation
of church from state and which successfully helped
block the French government from financing the religious
dimension of a papal visit to the country. He was
also involved in ATTAC France which was central
to the anti-globalisation movement.
Charlie Hebdo published the Danish anti-theocrat
cartoons it was following a well established satirical
and secular tradition of challenging religion. Images
elsewhere in the issue which featured the Danish
cartoons caricatured Christianity and Judaism. Often
the magazine had been taken to court by 'extremist
Christians' but had defended itself successfully.
Muslim groups in the country sought a court order
prohibiting the Danish cartoons being reprinted.
The court rejected the pleas of the Muslims on grounds
of a technicality. For Val this was, 'good news
to us all. We are defending the principle of the
right for caricature and satire
religion is legitimate in a state of law and must
was not a view shared by the president of France,
Jacques Chirac, who spoke out against 'overt provocations.'
Chirac added that 'anything that can hurt the convictions
of someone else, in particular religious convictions,
should be avoided.' This placed Chirac in the company
of the Union of Islamic Organisations of France,
one of the groups seeking the court injunction.
It said, 'one cannot insult a religion.'
difficulty faced by Chirac and those who endorse
his position is that blasphemy laws were abolished
in France as a consequence of its Revolution towards
the close of the 18th Century. They were reinstated
under the Restoration but by 1840 were no longer
on the statute book. Today the country is free from
laws specifically forbidding blasphemy. That religious
convictions should somehow be privileged in a country
like France with its solid secular tradition is
exactly what Phillipe Val and Charlie Hebdo
aimed to challenge.
religious men think that what's sacred is sacred
for eternity, that God does not know change. Absurd.
History shows that dogmas evolve and religions appear
and disappear. We live in a perpetual movement of
things and in an eternal debate between those who
don't want things to change and those who accept
the incessant evolution of life to organize it better.
the front cover of the magazine which featured the
Danish cartoons was a full page image entitled Muhammad
Overwhelmed by the Fundamentalists. It depicted
Muhammad, who sat face buried in hands, bemoaning
that, 'it's hard to be loved by fools.' In similar
fashion to the initial twelve Danish cartoons published
in Jyllands-Posten, Charlie Hebdo's
front cover depiction was contextualised by its
editor as not constituting a full frontal assault
on a complete group of people but rather as a challenge
to a considerably smaller number of theocrats determined
to use religion for power and advantage.
the editorial explaining the reasons behind printing
the cartoons Val said:
is unacceptable that religious groups are setting
down the rules for the rights of the press and freedom
of expression. It is not up to religious groups
to decide what to publish or not
extract concessions from democracies on points of
principle, either by blackmail or terror, democracies
do not have long left.
Hebdo which has a weekly run of around 100,000
copies increased its output for the cartoons edition
to 160,000. By the middle of the first day on the
streets even this proved too little. Another 150,
000 copies were rushed off the printing presses.
By the end of the production run 400, 000 copies
had been sold. Reactionary attempts to curb what
people may view and deny them the right to make
up their own minds failed miserably. The French
were not prepared to ditch their literary culture
to placate theocrats. It is a culture in which cartoons
feature strongly. As one BBC report put it:
to walk through the comic book department in any
bookstore and you have to step carefully over several
cross-legged figures on the floor, oblivious to
all around them as they devour yet another Asterix
the threat from the theocrats Val said, 'I think
individuals are allowed to have fears. That's legitimate.
On the other hand, institutions have no right to
express fear.' His magazine in defence of solid
secular left wing values was an institution that
chose to shun fear. Staff at the magazine later
had to be placed under the protection of French
police and the magazine's offices in Central Paris
had police guards stationed at the front doors while
nearby parking space was cordoned off in a bid to
prevent a car bomb attack.
his decision to publish, Val referred to the most
controversial cartoon, which showed the prophet
Mohammed with a bomb in his turban. While the censors
in Ireland and Britain have sought to depict this
as a stereotype, purposely crafted to depict all
Muslims as terrorists, Val rubbishes this interpretation
and argues that it is not a comment on Muslims and
their religion but on the interpretation of both
Islam and the Prophet by theocratic fascists. To
have refrained from publishing would have been handing
a victory to the fascists.
can be interpreted in different ways by everybody.
The crime depends on who watches the caricature.
It does not represent Islam but the view of Islam
and the prophet offered by the Muslim terrorist
groups who affirm that the prophet inspires them
to kill and launch attacks.
type of defence has made it difficult for the censor
to shout 'racism' as a means to stymie debate for
the purpose of ensuring the reactionary views of
the censor are the only ones that shall be aired.
Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist who initially penned
the contentious image for Jylaands-Posten, had elsewhere
outlined motives far removed from those ascribed
to him by opponents of the cartoons, and which reflected
the sentiments of Val and Charlie Hebdo:
interpretations of it are wrong. The general view
among Muslims is that it relates to Islam as a whole.
That is not the case. It relates to certain fundamentalist
views, which of course are not shared by all Muslims
the cartoon is not directed against Islam
as a whole, but against the part of it which obviously
can inspire to violence, terrorism, death and destruction.
And therefore the fundamentalist aspect of Islam.
I wanted to show that terrorists get their spiritual
ammunition from Islam.
Val has added his voice to the volume already protesting
attempts to mischaracterise the cartoons as racist.
He argues that there is an 'amalgam' - an Islam
devised concept aimed at making a doublet which
binds criticism of Islam with racism:
is expressed when what's reproached to a member
of a community is reproached to the whole community.
When a Danish caricaturist caricatures Mohammed
and Danish people start to be chased in the Middle
East, we're dealing with a racist phenomenon similar
to that of the pogroms and the brutality exerted
against the ethnic groups.
often, those supposedly defending freedoms traditionally
valued by the Left have lost their way and have
found themselves defending the reactionary positions
they previously hurled themselves against. Philippe
Val by not seeking alliances with anti-Gay lynch
mobs and women stoning gangs has helped protect
the integrity of a Left wing project in a world
where the Left is assaulted from without and corroded
from within by the cartoon commissars that all too
often make up its ranks.
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