Qui est Charlie?
Paul Demarty asks, who exactly is Charlie?
The last but one issue of Charlie Hebdo had a print run of 60,000. A satirical journal of niche interest within France and total obscurity without, however, has just published three million copies, in many languages, which is destined to sell out.
This has, of course, been achieved under the most morbid of circumstances. For once, Charlie Hebdo basks in notoriety not of its own making, but that of the Islamist militants who unleashed a massacre at an editorial conference and killed five others later. Apart from the bloody toll, the assault has changed Charlie Hebdo dramatically, for the time being at least; it has been turned into an unlikely cause célèbre for the global establishment.
Charlie Hebdo began as a monthly, Hara-kiri, in 1960, and already many of the features that would characterise its successor were in place: a fiercely iconoclastic tone and scant regard for bourgeois ‘good taste’, attacking politicians and priests with equal vigour. It revelled in the accusation that it was “bête et méchant” (“stupid and nasty”), adopting the slogan on its front page. It was banned for two brief periods in this incarnation.
Hara-kiri ultimately lived up to its name in its own fashion. After the death of Charles de Gaulle, its front page lampooned the enormous media attention around the passing of this national hero of official France, juxtaposing it with a disastrous nightclub fire that killed 146 people around the same time. This was a step too far for the French state, which was run by fervent Gaullists in the backlash against May 1968, and had been remade around the great man with 1958’s Fifth Republic. Hara-kiri was permanently banned by the interior ministry.
Those who had formed it 10 years earlier were in no mood to give up; still less were the young guard, including a number of soixante-huitards (not for nothing did Jean-Marie le Pen demur from offering solidarity to the magazine’s “anarcho-Trotskyists” this week1). So they relaunched it as Charlie Hebdo (“Charlie weekly”), its name both an approving nod to Charlie Brown of the Peanuts strips and a raised middle finger to the deceased de Gaulle.
Having closed again in 1981 - this time voluntarily - Charlie reappeared in the early 1990s, as many of the old writers and cartoonists drifted back together partially in response to the first Gulf War. Yet it is the era of the second American adventure in Iraq, under George W Bush, that has brought the magazine intermittently to international notoriety.
The September 11 attacks and subsequent ‘war on terror’ had the effect of rendering militant Islamism a clear and present concern in western political life; from something episodic, it became permanent. To the list of religious establishments in the crosshairs of Charlie Hebdo, in this period, was added Islamist reactionaries. The paper has printed caricatures of the prophet Mohammed several times this century, including reprints of the infamous Jyllands-Posten cartoons; a special edition, Charia Hebdo, supposedly “guest-edited” by Mohammed, provoked the firebombing of their offices.
This more or less brings us up to the present day, and last week’s atrocities. The significance of Charlie Hebdo is now a matter of interest to many people who, until the Paris bloodbath, had no awareness of it at all. On the evidence, many of them still do not really get it. There is the accusation flying around that Charlie, in the representative words of the Socialist Workers Party, “has become a specialist in presenting provocative and racist attacks on Islam”.2
To put it charitably, this statement is half-right - the magazine made attacks on Islam, which were provocative. The idea that it “specialised” in the same is simply confirmation bias; it is only attacks on Islam that make a moralistic SWPer angry, and crude cartoons about the pope, senior rabbis, politicians and everyone else who feels the full force of the “bête et méchant” pens of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists slip by unnoticed.
More tiresomely regrettable still is the accusation of “racism”, which most notably in the Anglosphere has become as empty a word as “terrorism” is in the mouths of our rulers. It seems that any group of oppressed people, whether or not they consider themselves a ‘race’, and whether or not bigots consider them to be one, can be remade as such for the purposes of lazy liberal rhetoric. If you are black, you will almost certainly always be black, and thus subject to the hostility of anti-black racists. If you are a Muslim, you can become an atheist, or a Christian, or a Jew - and, though none of these actions will necessarily spare you the tender attentions of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, it will not be because they still consider you a Muslim.
This is not to say that attacks on Muslims cannot be coded attacks on immigrants, or indeed particular ethnic groups in which Islam is more common; just that they are not necessarily. Cartoonist Joe Sacco drew a strip explaining his difficulties with the Mohammed cartoons, using for illustrative purposes caricatures of a banana-wielding black man in a tree, and a Jew “counting his money in the entrails of the working class”.3
The problem with this reasoning goes like this: it would be easy enough for me to crop out the text in Sacco’s black caricature frame, post it on Twitter and get a lynch-mob up against him within five minutes. And I would be doing no more than the SWP and Sacco, and many others, have done to Charlie Hebdo - ripping bits out of context for convenience of condemnation.
The missing context is, first of all, that the protests of Charlie editors are quite true - they issue provocations against religious fundamentalists of all religions, and not the run-of-the-mill faithful as such. The first Mohammed cartoon Charlie published saw the prophet lamenting the fact that some of his followers were “jerks”; the most recent is, of course, this week’s, where he holds up a Je suis Charlie placard under the slogan, “All is forgiven”. Observant Muslims may object to the portrayal of Mohammed at all, of course, but it is unreasonable to expect non-Muslims to forego pork, and by the same token, to observe bans on graven images of Qu’ranic extraction.
The wider context is the sharp antagonism in French history between the laïcité in the republican tradition, on the one hand, and the close ties between the right and far right and the church, on the other. In the whole history spanning the dying days of the ancien régime to the present, the French left, in its myriad guises, has had the tendency to extreme anti-religious sentiment. It is encapsulated in the quote attributed to the apostate priest, Jean Meslier - “I would like the last of the kings to be strangled by the guts of the last priest” - and rewritten many times since. This attitude is understandable, given the history of Catholicism and its support for monarchism, and later for the emergence of proto-fascist religious organisations.
Charlie Hebdo is in that tradition. It is not a ‘racist’ tradition, but a leftwing one. That is hardly to say it is beyond criticism. Aggressive revolutionary attacks on religion have met with, shall we say, mixed success. We want to convince people to abandon religion for a materialist outlook, in which humanity and not providence has agency; insults and mockery do not always achieve this effectively.
This is hardly surprising, from a Marxist perspective: possibly the best known line of Marx’s writings is the characterisation of religion as the “opium of the people”. The point, of course, is not to seize the painkiller, but remove the source of pain; and convince the people at large that they must do this themselves.
Whether this is the mission of Charlie Hebdo is another matter, of course: it may be so for its contributors, but the magazine is rude, crude, stupid and nasty - and proud, perhaps now prouder than ever. In the future, we hope they give Hollande, Cameron, Obama and co many reasons to regret declaring that ‘they were Charlie’.