Charlie Hebdo yet again

There cannot be freedom without responsibility and accountability

‘Imbecility’ is variously defined. To many, foolishness that is sustained and involuntary is imbecility. The word comes from the Latin phrase imbecillitatem, which means “weakness, feebleness.”

If someone is feeble of mind or weak of intellect and acts accordingly, that is imbecility. But more figurative connotation of imbecility can point towards someone refusing to learn from the mistakes of the past.

The most recent and obvious example of that state is Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly magazine, known for taking liberties with issues that are offensive to people’s sensitivities. Its management describes itself as anti-racist, atheist, sceptic, secular and within the tradition of left-wing radicalism.

Ironically, this magazine opts to ridicule other ideologies to authenticate its own, an act which can hardly be categorised as its right to free speech. The tradition of left-wing radicalism allows constructive criticism on socio-political aspects of any religious tradition but subjecting it to brazen mockery is condemnable.

Respecting the religious sensitivity of a fellow human is the most vital aspect of any civilisation. Secularism also enjoins us to respect the existence of religion(s) as a significant social force. But Charlie Hebdo, despite several closures and three attacks in 2011, 2015, and 2020, is obdurately persistent in being insolent towards the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) without taking any cognizance of the level of sensitivity that Muslims repose for their prophet.

The state authorities of France ignored an important fact that a sizable population of France is Muslim, which may react with extreme indignation if their prophet is subjected to such ridicule or irreverence. To them, it is an extreme case of blasphemy. The second attack directed at Charlie Hebdo was a clear elucidation of the anger of Muslims in which 12 people lost their lives, including the publishing director Charb and several cartoonists.

Charlie Hebdo was conjured up into existence in February 1970 as a smaller version of the monthly magazine titled, Hara-Kiri, founded in 1960 by Georges Bernier and Francois Cavanna. Hara-Kiri was banned the year after its commencement and again its publication was ceased for six months in 1966.

In 1969 the Hara-Kiri team decided to launch a weekly publication, which would focus more on current affairs. Initially, it was called Hara-Kiri Hebdo. In November 1970, former French president Charles de Gaulle, died in his home village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, eight days after a nearby night club had caught fire causing death of 146 people.

The magazine released a cover spoofing the popular press’s coverage of this disaster with the headline, “Tragic Ball at Colombey, one dead.” Consequently, a ban was clamped on Hara-Kiri Hebdo. To circumvent the ban, it was given a new name, Charlie Hebdo. (Ironically, when it caricatured the Prophet of Islam, which it has repeatedly done with impunity, the magazine was not even impeached or admonished, let alone banned.) Its publication was ceased in 1981 and it remained dormant for a decade and revived again in 1991.

Supporters of the unbridled freedom of speech must come out of the state of imbecility that has blinded them to the obvious Islamophobia of the magazine.

Thus, Charlie Hebdo has had a roller coaster life and no one seemed to care much if it was published or not. Its niche seemed to be poking into the sensitivities of the people at the margins. Its management has never nursed any qualms of conscience in publishing stuff with anti-Semitic content. Once Philippe Val’s article found its way into the pages of that magazine in which Palestinians were called “non-civilised”.

Despite such a reputation, Charlie Hebdo was awarded the PEN/Toni and James C Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the PEN American Center Literary Gala in New York City, on May 5, 2015.

After the third attack against Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015, the show of support for the magazine was mind boggling. Its usual circulation was 60,000 but immediately after the attack the print run exceeded all expectations and reached an astonishing 3 million.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande expressed full support to the magazine. The French government donated around I million euros to the magazine. The Digital Innovation Press Fund partially funded by Google donated 250,000 euros, which was matched by a donation by the French Press and Pluralism Fund.

The Guardian Media Group pledged 100,000 pounds. All this support rejuvenated the fervour of the management of Charlie Hebdo and it continued its campaign of maligning figures and personalities held in great reverence by various groups, communities, and nations.

Why this magazine is so blatantly and repeatedly targeting the Prophet of Islam is a question that defies any plausible explanation. When it comes to freedom to choose, act, or speak, it must also be applicable to the case of those Muslim women in France who want to cover their heads with scarves. They are barred from exercising their freedom to wear whatever they want and when it comes to reining in such reckless magazines as Charlie Hebdo, freedom appears to be in jeopardy which is an exhibition of double standards.

With freedom comes responsibility. I sincerely hope that the country which is the legatee of momentous events like the French Revolution and the 1968 movement understands that that there cannot be freedom without accountability.

I wonder how the French arguing for unfettered freedom for Charlie Hebdo will feel if I posit here that Islamic fundamentalism and Islamism are phenomena originally created by the West and used to fight the menace of Communism, and that France was one of the nations responsible for re-inventing some Muslims as Islamists and fundamentalists.

Charlie Hebdo must direct its satire to itself or to those whom it represents. Otherwise, there might be an unfortunate recurrence of such acts of violence as happened a few days ago when an 18-year-old Pakistani reacted violently and made an extraordinarily strong statement, by injuring a few bystanders.

Supporters of the unbridled freedom of speech must come out of the state of imbecility that has blinded them to the obvious Islamophobia of the magazine. Charlie Hebdo, being a satirical magazine, must not lock horns with Muslims by mocking their Prophet. That is a sincere piece of advice.

Charlie Hebdo yet again