Episode 3.12: Charlie Hebdo Part 1

Hello, and welcome to this episode of Assassinations Podcast, in which we will be looking at the murderous assault on the office of the satirical French newspaper called Charlie Hebdo.

The paper, which specialized in high irreverent cartoons and countercultural commentary, had repeatedly published crude caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed. Though the editors said they were using the power of free speech to lampoon fundamentalist Islam, many ordinary Muslims thought that the images were disrespectful of their faith, and racist to boot.

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And now, let’s launch our investigation into the case of Charlie Hebdo

[Intro music]

A little bit about me. I used to own a coffee shop here in Washington, DC. The things that I liked most about it were: the feeling of being part of the daily life of our regular customers - of being a place for the neighborhood to come together. We had many lovely customers: families, office and shop workers, students, folks who worked from home and needed a break.

One of my favorite customers was a French gentleman. He worked at a grocery store around the corner from my shop. He’d come in afternoons for tea and a pastry. He was thin as a rake - the cookies and brioches and cupcakes did not cling to him as they did to me. And he was always quite dapper, wearing a Panama hat in summer and a fedora in the cooler months.

In short, he seemed very French.

I always tried to make time for him - he was softly spoken, reserved but very pleasant to chat with. 

He seemed a little mysterious as well. He lived - or at the very least seemed to spend a lot of time - on a boat, which I think of as being a terribly romantic thing. He travelled often, to France, but also to more exotic climes. 

I must confess that I was a wee bit jealous, my being chained to the coffee shop in those days.

I hadn’t seen him for a few weeks over the holidays of 2014 and the first week of the New Year. Of course, this was no surprise as I assumed he’d go home to France - or one of those other cool places that he seemed to visit. He came into the shop on Wednesday, January 7th, mid afternoon.

I would have been delighted to see him, to ask about his travels, to let him know about our own holidays, and to share the latest goings-on in the neighborhood. 

But when I saw him, ashen-faced, his body almost limp, I knew that we would talk about something different that afternoon - something real.

He must have heard the news not long before, when he finished his shift at the grocery store. I had been following the news myself, alerts coming through on my phone.

Two men had just forced their way into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. At gunpoint, they had forced one of the employees to enter the access code into the electronic keypad that had recently been installed as a security measure for the old building on the wide treelined Boulevard Richard-Lenoir.

Heavily armed, the men had burst into the editorial boardroom and opened fire, spraying bullets, killing twelve people. Several others in the office were injured - it was not clear how seriously at this point. The gunmen then fled, yelling Allahu Akbar! Upon encountering a police officer in the street they had shot him dead, before getting into a car and speeding away from the scene.  

There was chaos in Paris, of course, as the government and city authorities tried to work out what the hell was happening, assess the threat, guess if more attacks were to come. 

Some witnesses were saying that the gunmen looked like professionals - military training - the way they handled the weapons, the single shot to the head that had taken out the cop in the street, the expert driving in the getaway car.

Others said the attackers were amateurs who’d burst into the wrong building yelling and brandishing their weapons, only to realize their mistake, and run out to find the correct address of their target.

But everyone assumed that the attack had been a reprisal for controversial decision by the editors of Charlie Hebdo to - on multiple occasions - publish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, images that had profoundly offended many Muslims and led a small but angry minority to issue death threats against those who worked at the newspaper.

There would be more attacks that day, more death and suffering, though we did not know that as my French friend and I sat down at a table.

I fixed him a cup of tea - the British cure for everything - but I didn’t know what to say, apart from I’m so sorry - do you know people in Paris?

To my surprise, he did. The woman who had been coerced into giving the gunmen access to the Charlie Hebdo office was an old friend named Corinne Rey, a cartoonist and editor at the magazine, better know by her pen name, Coco.

He had seen her in Paris just a couple of weeks before. He told me that she had been at the office with her young daughter. After threatening to murder both of them unless Corinne let them in, the gunmen had forced mother and daughter inside. They cowered under a desk in the office as the slaughter commenced.

My friend talked. About Corinne - how terrible for her, for her daughter - the guilt! About Charlie Hebdo - they take the piss out of everyone! The Catholic Church, the politicians; they did not single out Muslims! This was the way with them - everyone was fair game! And he talked of Paris - so multicultural, but there are problems.

Later, after we had talked and checked our phones for updates and talked some more, after he’d gone out to make some phone calls and then come back, he said something to me that was, to me, very, very surprising.

Niall, this thing … my god … when I think of it, you know what goes through my head? I think - these are Frenchmen. They shout Allahu Akbar, but they will be French - born in France. I’m sure of it. Arab parents, perhaps. But these will be young men who were raised in France. This is a failure, Niall. They have committed a terrible, terrible, unforgivable crime. But France has failed - failed that we have created such such people. 

I was taken aback. It was hard to imagine that anyone could think in this way at this time. This was someone who knew one of the people who had been traumatized, brutalized, by this crime. Fresh, raw as it was - indeed, the spree of violence was still ongoing - my friend had been struck by a tragedy behind the tragedy.

That there was something rotten in his beloved homeland.

[Music comes in]

In late September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, the most revered person in the religion of Islam. 

The decision to publish these cartoon was made by the editorial board of the newspaper in response to a minor issue that had to do with the publication of a children’s storybook about the prophet.

The book’s author had difficulty finding illustrators to draw Muhammad, for fear of reprisals from Islamic extremists.

There are a very small number of Muslims who object to any depiction of any person or animal, considering this to be idolatry. And, of course, most Muslims would object to the depiction of Muhammed in a derogatory way, though this would not have been the case with the Danish children’s book, which was intended to be educational.

The editors of Jyllands-Posten stated that they wanted to start a public discussion about free speech and to see the degree to which professional illustrators felt threatened.

Not all the cartoons published in the newspaper were intended to be offensive, and some of them seem relatively benign; though, as I said, for a small number of Muslims any depiction of the prophet would be unacceptable.

But a few of the images were clearly intended to shock, including one that depicted Muhammed as an Osama bin Laden-esque character, drawing a sword, with two females in burkhas standing behind him.

Another cartoon showed the prophet as a crazy-eyed, bushy-bearded man with a fizzling bomb in place of a turban.

The cultural editor of the paper wrote a piece to accompany the images. In it he stated:

Modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where one must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is of minor importance in the present context.

The editor continued:

We are on our way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end. That is why Jyllands-Posten has invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him.

The decision by the newspaper to publish the twelve cartoons whipped what had been a storm in a teacup over drawings in a kids’ book into what would eventually become a massive political and cultural maelstrom.  

The reaction to the publication of these images was at first quite muted. A couple of weeks after publication, a few thousand people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, gathered in Copenhagen to peacefully protest the cartoons, which many believed to be not only culturally insensitive but, in some cases, racist. 

Around the same time, an Egyptian newspaper published a few of the images, accompanied by a highly critical editorial. This seems to have prompted a series of polite requests from various Muslim countries, asking that the government of Denmark dissociate itself from expressions of Islamophobia and derogatory images of the Prophet Mohammed. 

Moreover, many people pointed out that some of the cartoons relied on crude racial stereotypes of an Arab person - and its hard to argue with that, given the depictions of turbans, hooked noses and wild beards.

The Danish government refused to do so, claiming that for it to criticize Jyllands-Posten would be an unacceptable infringement on the principle of free speech and a free press.

In November, several European newspapers re-published the images, triggering more protests. But it was not until December 2005 that things really started to heat up. Protests in the Muslim world started to grow in scale and intensity, spurred on by a few radical individuals and publications, including a Pakistani newspaper that offered a large reward to anyone to killed one of the Danish cartoonists.

On the other side of the coin, a number of people condemned the publication and re-publication of the cartoons as a deliberate incitement to religious hatred and anti-Muslim prejudice. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern over the cartoons, while the Council of Europe criticized the Danish government for invoking the freedom of the press as an excuse for not distancing itself from hateful publications.

Several former members of Denmark’s diplomatic corp also came forward to criticize the government for failing to adequately reassure Muslim countries that it did not condone the offensive images.

Responding to this criticism from within Denmark and internationally, the prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen made a speech in which he condemned any expression or action that attempted to demonize groups of people. Though this statement fell short of what some people thought was necessary, it seemed that, at the beginning of 2006, the controversy might fade away.

But, instead, things started to snowball. Several Swedish newspapers republished a few of the cartoons. Then a Norwegian paper re-released all twelve images, including the most inflammatory depictions. 

A slew of other European newspapers and magazines followed suit, publishing either some or all of the cartoons. The images appeared in media outlets in Iceland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ukraine, and Switzerland. Even the most venerable European newspapers, such as Le Monde in France and Die Zeit in Germany each republished one of the images. The reprinting of the cartoons was justified by these publications as a statement of the right of free speech and an act of solidarity with Jyllands-Posten.

By an large, the American and British media abstained from the cartoons, with many prominent people, especially in the United States, pointing to the racially incendiary, as well as the religiously offensive, character of the images.

On the 8th of February, 2006, Charlie Hebdo republished cartoons from Jyllands-Posten, plus an additional cartoon of its own. Drawn by longtime contributor Jean Maurice Jules Cabut, it shows Muhammad crouching down and holding his head, saying: “It’s hard to be loved by so many idiots.” This was not the first time that “Cabu” had drawn a controversial cartoon depicting the prophet. In 2002, he drew a crude picture of Mohammed judging a sort-of Miss World pageant in which all the contestants are wearing burkhas. This was par for the course for Cabu, and for Charlie Hebdo in general. The paper often contained images that lampooned - in profane, sexualized or scatological forms - religious personages. The usual butt of the joke was whoever happened to be the pope at the time.

Founded in 1970, Charlie Hebdo is famously non-conformist and unashamedly crude. But it is also known for its reporting and commentary on social issues, pursuing a stridently secular and anti-racist editorial line that commonly attacks the French far-right National Front Party. It wasn’t a particularly big publication, selling maybe 40,000 copies a week, but it had an outsized influence due to its place within the French firmament of radical politics.

French Muslim organizations heavily criticized and tried to take legal action against Charlie Hebdo for publishing the cartoons in 2006. The repeated publication of the offending images prompted a new wave of public outrage across the Muslim world, as well as calls to boycott goods from Denmark, Norway, and other European countries. There were more official complaints from Muslim countries, with Saudi Arabia recalling its ambassador from Copenhagen.

Massive protests, strikes, and even riots broke out in countries such as Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia. Collectively, over a million people in Muslim-majority countries were estimated to have demonstrated against the cartoons, with many burning Danish flags, effigies of the Danish prime minister, and attacking embassy buildings.

As tensions rose and violence spread, former US President Bill Clinton condemned the publication of the cartoons as “totally outrageous” attacks on Islam. He compared them to the caricatures of Jewish people in the European press in the early 20th Century, and he warned that Islamophobia threatened to become the modern equivalent of the antisemitism that had scarred Europe in previous generations.

Despite reassurances from the Danish government that it respected the feelings of Muslims, and an official statement from Jyllands-Posten that, while it did not apologize for publishing the cartoons, it was sorry that it had cause deep offense to some people, anger across much of the Muslim world did not abate. Several people at Jyllands-Posten faced death threats, including a planned bomb attack on the culture editor of the paper. And, there was an assassination attempt against Kurt Westergaard, one of the Danish cartoonists. 

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Charlie Hebdo was caught up in legal trouble for months after its publication of the Mohammed cartoons. In 2007 the Grand Mosque of Paris initiated a lawsuit against the newspaper, utilizing France’s hate speech laws, claiming that it had publicly abused Muslims as a group on the grounds of their religion. The lawsuit referred to three specific cartoons, including the one depicting Muhammad wearing a bomb as a turban. But the editors remained defiant. As the court case loomed, an edition of the newspaper featured on its front page an image of an Orthodox Jew, a Catholic priest, and a Muslim cleric, arm in arm, all shouting “Charlie Hebdo must wear a veil!”

The publisher of the paper stated that it mocked all religions equally, and that over the years it had been accused of blasphemy by the Church, anti-semitism by some Jewish people, as well as Islamophobia and racism. The publisher claimed that the paper was strongly anti-racist and opposed all forms of religious hatred. Rather, the purpose of all of its work - cartoons, news stories, and commentaries - was to skewer religious extremists who wished to push their beliefs onto other people. 

In March of 2007, a Paris court acquitted the publisher of newspaper, finding that the cartoons did not represent “hate speech” because they targeted Islamic fundamentalists, rather than ordinary Muslims in general.

The controversy did nothing to dampen the irreverent - and, some would say, inflammatory - temperament at Charlie Hebdo. In 2011, the paper released an issue supposedly featuring the Prophet Muhammad as the “guest editor”. The front page featured a cartoon of a hook-nosed and googly-eyed Muhammed with the caption, “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter.”

While the edition went into detail about various aspects of life in some Muslim countries that the writers objected to, the so-called “guest editor” was actually portrayed as a good-humored voice of reason, decrying extremism, calling for a separation between politics and religion, and stating that Islam is compatible with humor. However, many Muslim people did not find any of this funny at all. There were more angry denunciations, further protests in France and around the world, and the newspaper’s office was firebombed. The Charlie Hebdo website was also hacked.

In response to all of this, the paper issued an edition with a front page depicting a stereotypical Muslim man wearing a traditional skullcap passionately making out with a male cartoonist wearing a Charlie Hebdo teeshirt. The cartoonist appears to be the director of the newspaper, a man named named Stéphane Charbonnier, better known by his pen name “Charb”. The headline read: “Love is stronger than hatred.”

Then in 2012, the paper went even further. It published a series of new cartoons, including nude caricatures, such as a depiction of Mohammed performing in a pornographic film. This cartoon referred to a highly controversial film that had been released on Youtube that year. Titled “Innocence of Muslims”, the thoroughly amateurish short film features obscene depictions of the prophet that, I can only assume, were designed to induce a visceral reaction from Muslims. The film resulted in worldwide demonstrations, with incidents in Yemen, India, and Tunisia leading to many deaths and injuries.

The nude cartoons in Charlie Hebdo caused such outrage among Muslims, both in France and internationally, that the French government had to take extraordinary measures. Riot police were deployed to surround the Charlie Hebdo office to protect it against attack. Meanwhile, some twenty French embassies were temporarily closed in majority-Muslim countries for fear of reprisals. The newspaper and its principal personnel were inundated with angry correspondence, in many cases death threats. The Islamist extremist group Al-Qaeda added Charb to its list of “most wanted” infidels. Charb and others at the newspaper were given police protection. 

This was the context in which the murderous assault on the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris took place. It was a tinderbox, into which the editors, writers, and illustrators of the satirical newspaper defiantly flung matches. 

Even after the horror of the attack, Charlie Hebdo remained unrepentant and unbowed. As millions of people around the world shared the hashtag “Je suis Charlie” and millions more condemned the newspaper for blasphemy, the first issue of Charlie Hebdo to appear after the killing of most of its leading personnel contained an editorial from the publisher. It read: 

All those who claim to defend Muslims, while accepting the totalitarian religious rhetoric, are in fact defending their executioners. The first victims of Islamic fascism are the Muslims.

Describing the magazine as staunchly anti-religious in general, the editorial stated that the church bells of Notre Dame de Paris ringing in honor of Charlie Hebdo had made the surviving employees laugh.

Thank you for tuning into this episode of Assassinations Podcast.

In next week’s conclusion to this case, we will examine the biographies of the men who carried out the mass murder of newspaper’s personnel, as well as their accomplices. We’ll describe the manhunt that took place after the assault and also look at a coordinated second attack on a kosher supermarket that took place at the same time.

Finally, we will consider the broader implications of the case, both in terms of press freedom and relations between the Western media and the Muslim world.

This episode was researched & written by me, Niall Cooper. 

Lindsey Morse produces and edits the show. 

Our theme music was created by Graeme Ronald. To hear more of Graeme’s music, check out his band, Remember Remember.

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Thank you so much for tuning in, and we look forward to seeing you next week. 

Until then, goodbye.