A ring of Roman Catholic cardinals voting on a new pope are drawn engaged in group gay sex. A mock movie ad for “Untouchables 2” shows a Jewish rabbi pushing a Muslim imam seated in a wheelchair. Singer Michael Jackson is depicted as a dancing skeleton just days after his fatal drug overdose. President Obama tries to “reassure” white American voters by asking a hooded KKK member to be his running mate.
The Paris weekly Charlie Hebdo and its stable of nationally known cartoonists and writers never pulled their punches.
In its history, the magazine has successfully defended itself against lawsuits that claimed it was anti-Muslim and lawsuits that accused it of anti-Semitism. The Vatican was a favorite target. Despite criticisms from French leaders, it defiantly reprinted provocative Danish cartoons showing the Prophet Muhammad after the images sparked riots and threats of retaliation across the Islamic world in 2005. The magazine’s 11th arrondissement offices were firebombed in November 2011, and its website was hacked after it published an issue “guest edited” by Muhammad that mocked Koran-based Shariah law.
Drawing on a long, no-holds-barred national tradition of political and cultural satire, editorial director Stephane Charbonnier and his staff drew global attention with their attacks on Muslim fundamentalism, attacks that apparently cost Mr. Charbonnier — a popular cartoonist himself known popularly as “Charb” — and nine of his colleagues their lives in Wednesday’s attack during a staff gathering the day before publication.
But the magazine, which in its current incarnation has published weekly since 1992, was an equal-opportunity offender, with a distinctly Gallic and at times borderline obscene approach to political commentary that made U.S. satirists such as Jon Stewart look “tame by contrast,” according to longtime U.S. France-watcher Arthur Goldhammer of Harvard’s Center for European Studies.
While proudly left-wing, Charlie Hebdo followed in the grand French tradition of mocking pomposity and claims to special virtue regardless of race, color or creed, Mr. Goldhammer wrote on his French Politics after the attack Tuesday morning.
“It’s an anarchic populist obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred, powerful, etc.,” Mr. Goldhammer noted. “… It is a humor that is at heart blasphemous rather than political, and it is a tradition of blasphemy from which it derives.”
But that uninhibited tradition of commentary — and the biting cartoons in a nation that has considers cartooning a high art — have increasingly proved problematic given France’s growing Muslim population, the largest in Europe. Mr. Charbonnier repeatedly rejected pleas from the country’s political leadership to tone down the publication’s attacks on Muslim fundamentalism, attacks balanced by similar articles mocking the Catholic Church, French politicians, entertainers and moralists of all stripes.
The original Charlie Hebdo — French for “Charlie Weekly” and in part a reference to the Peanuts comic strip that ran in the first issues — appeared in 1969 and folded 13 years later. An early issue faced government censorship by linking the death of longtime President Charles de Gaulle to a nightclub fire that took nearly 150 lives.
The magazine was revived in July 1992, and it remains one of the country’s more popular political publications with a circulation of about 100,000. Mr. Charbonnier was the head of a stable of cartoonists who were famous throughout the country for their biting political imagery, including Jean Cabut (“Cabu”), George Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac (“Tignous”).
All were reportedly killed in Wednesday’s attack.
Staffers at the magazine were aware of the risks. Two of those killed in Wednesday’s assault were police officers stationed near Charlie Hebdo’s offices because of threats.
A staunch defender of free speech Mr. Charbonnier vowed never to back down or submit to censorship despite the threats.
He once told the French newspaper Le Monde, “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”
Warned he should not mock Islam’s prophet in his magazine, he said, “We can’t caricature Mohammed in France? Oh yes we can caricature Mohammed, we can caricature everyone in France. In France, religion is part of a philosophy, like an idea. I can caricature Mohammed, just like I can caricature Marx.”