A Brief History
On January 7, 2015, a day celebrated by millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians (Greek Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Catholic, etc) as Christmas Day, France was stunned by a vicious terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper offices that left 12 people dead and another 11 wounded. The incident was a case of misguided Islamic extremism fueled by religious outrage over the politically incorrect newspaper’s penchant for poking fun at anyone and everyone, including the Prophet Muhammad. Outrage over the terrorist attack and murders vis-à-vis the assault on free speech spurred the phrase, “Je suis Charlie,” French for “I am Charlie,” a statement of solidarity with the journalists that were attacked and killed for practicing free speech.
France during the Revolution (1789-1799) chucked its Catholic nature out the window as it chucked the Monarchy, establishing “Cult of Reason” as the national “religion.” This rejection of not only the Catholic Church but also of religion in general was later replaced by another non-Christian, though not atheistic, national “religion” called “Cult of the Supreme Being,” a non-denominational “deist” belief. Although Napoleon Bonaparte, soon to be Emperor of the French, re instituted the Catholic Church as a major factor in French culture (he was by heart anti-religion and used religion for his own purposes in controlling populations) in a move called The Concordat of 1801, the stranglehold on France that the Catholic Church had enjoyed prior to the Revolution (exemption from taxes and granted a 10% tithe on all income, kind of a religious income tax) was forever changed, and in 1905 France made separation of church and state the law of the land by the “laïcité” (secularism) of the government, while allowing freedom of religion for the people. People in France are free to believe whatever religious beliefs they want to believe and practice their religion without interference from others as long as they do not interfere with the religious rights of other people. The state stays out of religion and endorses no particular religion or set of beliefs. This acceptance of all religion while endorsing no particular religion is quite similar to the American approach to religion enshrined in the Constitution of the United States and many court decisions (especially Supreme Court decisions) over the years. Any laws pertaining to “blasphemy” were eliminated by France between the onset of the Revolution in 1789 and 1830.
In France, a liberal, free country that has a strong Catholic heritage while also hosting a considerable Muslim minority (due in part to colonialism of Muslim areas such as Algeria) and recent immigration trends (as with much of Europe), no religion is protected against satire in the media. When Charlie Hebdo depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a cartoon, a segment of the Muslim population was outraged, as Muslims are prohibited from depicting the Prophet in images, statues and the like. (The point these extreme Muslims do not seem to get, it that non-believers are under no legal or moral obligation to obey that same proscription against making images of Muhammad.) The folks at Charlie Hebdo are certainly irreverent toward Islam, just as they are against all other religions, and in fact they have had a policy of reducing religions from special, untouchable objects of veneration to simply just another social construct. Radical Muslims on the other hand demand their religion and its precepts be venerated and obeyed by all people, regardless of their personal beliefs, a condition not granted to any other religion in France or most of the Western world.
Thus, religious outrage against Charlie Hebdo and their “blasphemous” use of the image of Muhammad generated a response by French Muslims that saw themselves aligned with Al-Qaeda, the Islamic extremist terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. Logically suspecting that just such a response could lead to violence against Charlie Hebdo and its writers and cartoonists, the Editor-in-Chief and cartoonist Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier applied for a permit to carry a firearm, but his application never received a government response. This lapse of duty on the part of the French bureaucracy may have cost Charbonnier his life.
On the fateful morning of January 7, 2015, 2 hooded gunmen stormed the building the Charlie Hebdo staff was meeting in (in Paris, France, an unmarked site they had chosen to prevent such an attack) at about 11:30 a.m. with bad intentions. Armed with AK-47 style rifles (7.62 x 39mm caliber) and Škorpion vz. 61 (.32 ACP caliber) submachine guns, the pair of terrorists were also packing Soviet Tokarev TT 9mm pistols and a pump action shotgun. These heavily armed terrorists had no problem forcing their way into the building. (Note: Immediately prior to the attack, the gunmen had actually attempted to storm the wrong building! Realizing their error, the terrorists quickly corrected their mistake and redirected their attack where the Charlie Hebdo staff was meeting.) Spraying gunfire liberally around the lobby of the building, the terrorists stormed into the meeting where the Charlie Hebdo staff had mistaken the gunfire in the lobby as seasonal celebratory firecrackers. Specifically targeting Charb Charbonnier for his work as the cartoonist responsible for the image of Muhammad, the terrorist shot as many of the people in the meeting as they could during an 8 to 10 minute fusillade of gunfire. A couple of staffers managed to survive the shootings by hiding under desks. The terrorists are said to have claimed allegiance to Al-Qaeda of Yemen during the attack.
During the escape of the terrorists, a gunfight developed between the terrorists and a police officer, whom they wounded and then executed on the spot. The escape of the terrorists was aided by a getaway car and driver, and then a switch of cars to one that was hijacked at gunpoint. The terrorists exchanged gunfire with police as they fled, running over a pedestrian along the way. The gunmen were killed 2 days later in a gunfight with police after being located not far from Charles de Gaulle Airport. A siege situation developed, including a gunfight between the terrorists and the police, with both of the gunmen eventually killed as they ran outside brandishing their firearms. Found near the dead terrorists were Molotov cocktails and a rocket launcher. While the siege/gunfight was going on with the terrorists, another Muslim extremist took hostages at a Kosher grocery store and threatened to kill those innocent people if the 2 terrorists were harmed by the police. The grocery store terrorist was also killed by the police, but only after he had killed 4 of the hostages. The getaway driver/co-conspirator was not arrested until December of 2018.
The horrific terrorist incidents related to the Charlie Hebdo attack resulted in anti-Muslim backlash in France (and other countries) and generated at least 54 incidents of anti-Muslim attacks in France. While all over the (mostly Western) world people adopted the “Je suis Charlie” slogan in a show of solidarity with the victims and as a sign of support for a free press and free speech, not everyone expressed approval of depiction of Muhammad in a less than flattering way. Those that accused Charlie Hebdo of “hate speech,” racism, anti-Muslim behavior, etc., took to wearing and bearing the logo “Je ne suis pas Charlie,” or “I am not Charlie.” Those that found excuses and “legitimate” reasons for the terrorist action were prosecuted in France as “apologists” for terrorism, with 12 convictions. Vladimir Putin and his Russian henchmen have been accused of stirring up anti-Muslim fervor in the West over the Charlie Hebdo attack in an effort to destabilize Western society. Government sponsored Chinese media condemned Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of Muhammad in an effort to attack Western freedom of speech.
The debate over whether or not depictions of the Prophet Muhammad should be avoided as a courtesy and show of respect for Islam and the counter argument that no religion or religious idea is protected against public discourse through the freedom of speech and of a free press continues today. Likewise, the actions of terrorism as a means to counter perceived “wrongs” also remains a contended subject. We do not predict a resolution of these debates any time soon. Do you?
Questions for Students (and others): Do you believe terrorism is a legitimate response to a religious insult? Do people have a right to insult other religions? Or should all religious criticism, satire, and degradation be illegal? Have you ever heard of Charlie Hebdo or read any of its issues? Do you believe Allah (God) would approve of terrorism done in His name?
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For more information, please see…
Barrett, Kevin, Cynthia A. McKinney and Paul Craig Roberts. We Are NOT Charlie Hebdo!: Free Thinkers Question the French 9/11. Khadir Press, 2015.
Titley, Gavan and Des Freedman. After Charlie Hebdo: Terror, Racism and Free Speech. Zed Books, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a photography by Miguel Discart of “Je suis Charlie” in many languages in Brussels, 11 January 2015 from https://www.flickr.com/photos/130251635@N03/16256645425, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. You are free:
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