Charlie Hebdo did not spark the fire

Given the broader debate on France and its clumsy policies towards Islam and its Muslim population and recent attacks, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should have been but a footnote. But the president and its cronies are determined to bring this to headlines and use it as ammunition in I-am-the-voice-of-discriminated-Muslims game.

Fighting words are hardly a novelty in the Ankara-Paris axis – the two countries’ leaders have sharply contrasting interests/allies/views/images on almost everything, from Nagorno-Karabakh to NATO; from Islam/secularism to blasphemy. What they seem to have in common is the knowledge that a well-publicized fight serves them well domestically, provided that its economic costs are not too high.

Leaving the analysis of the diplomatic aspects to well-versed diplomacy writers, I’d like to muse on a single front of the battle – the one around Charlie Hebdo, a weekly magazine known for its raw, crude, scabrous, and Rabelais-esque sense of humor. 15th-century writer Rabelais, France’s “father of bawdy jokes,” is perhaps best known for his mock-hero Gargantua, who went pages and pages on how to wipe off sh**  with a goose feather or fart while reflecting on “foolosophy.” As this column loves the outrageous, the irreverent, and the politically incorrect, it is impossible not to feel a particular affinity with the magazine.

A bit of background: Originally named Hara-Kiri, the magazine was banned when it mocked the death of French President Charles de Gaulle. The same team of cartoonists launched a new magazine, calling it Charlie Hebdo – Charlie as the diminutive for Charles, as in Charles de Gaulle, and a tribute to another cartoon character, Charlie Brown, whom the editors admired. 

Charlie Hebdo, particularly its single-image front page, targeted power-yielders and villains du jour one after the other, with its trademark raw humor. My personal favorite remains the one in 1997, right when the French Interior Minister Jean-Louis Debre wanted to pass a law that required French citizens who invite foreigners to their homes to notify their local mayor and obtain a “lodging certificate” that would specify the date of entry and departure. Charlie Hebdo responded by a cartoon that showed a woman in bed, happily making love to an African man, while holding a bedside telephone. “Hello, is it the mayor’s office?” she said in the talk balloon. “He gets in, he gets out, gets in, gets out.” Vulgar? Sure. Pornographic? Yes, delightfully so. Could drawing a blonde Frenchie and an African man, rather than the other way around, be interpreted as a sexist and racist cliché? Perhaps. But it ridiculed a law that was impossible to implement much more efficiently than any wordy European Parliament resolution.

Charlie Hebdo’s attack on sacred and not-so-sacred cows continued throughout the years and endless court cases. While Pope Francis was on tour to Rio de Janeiro, it portrayed the Argentine-born pope in a show-girl costume with feathers, sandals, and nail polish, saying, “All set to solicit some clients!" Last year, far-right politician Marine Le Pen sued the magazine for printing a mock election poster depicting a pile of excrement in front of the French flag and the words: “Le Pen, the candidate who is like you.” It painted Jesus sitting down with a bunch of evangelists and racists, with the title “Diner des Cons/Dinner of Schmucks,” a reference to a famous French film.

If a magazine that has been attacking all fronts came to be known as one that systematically and only picks at Muslims, this is primarily due to a bunch of Islamophobia-exploiting Muslim or non-Muslim politicians and media/intellectuals who claim to be the police of good taste and political correctness. And the magazine paid dearly for this. In 2011, shortly after it published a special edition called “Charia Hebdo” – spurred by the introduction of Shariat in Libya and an Islamist victory in Tunisia - the magazine’s headquarters was fire-bombed and its website hacked. Even following the attack on Jan. 7, 2015, where two Islamist gunmen forced their way into the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo and claimed the lives of 12 including its top cartoonists and editors, the chorus of condolences, solidarity and cries that “I am Charlie” were mixed with accusations that the magazine was “guilty” of Islamophobia, blasphemy and picking on a vulnerable community

Charlie Hebdo columnists deny that they single out – or target – Islam and the Muslims. In “Open Book,” a post-humous book published in 2015, Stephane Charbonier, better known as “Charb,” the slain editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, writes that they have targeted Islamic radicals and politicians who exploit political Islam. “To give prophet of the faithful a bomb for a hat was not to suggest that all his followers were terrorists…Showing Mohammad in a bomb-hat could have been a way of condemning the exploitation of religion by terrorists.” Another caricature shows an ISIS militant about to decapitate what he calls an “infidel” while the latter shouts, “I am the prophet, you idiot.”

In September, the weekly decided to feature a dozen of Prophet Mohammad cartoons to mark the start of the trial of the 2015 shooting. The decision sparked angry condemnations from Pakistan, Iran, Egypt and Turkey. Still, the paper stood by its decision, "We worked on the principle that some people don't know the cartoons, some weren't even born when Charlie published them in 2006, and they need to understand why the attacks happened," Charlie cartoonist Juin said. 

Things moved quickly from there on: On Oct. 16, Samuel Paty, a middle-school teacher of a school in a Paris banlieue, was beheaded by an 18-year-old for showing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in class. As France and the international community mourned for Paty, the mayors of two cities – Toulouse and Montpellier – projected the images of Charlie Hebdo cartoons on the local mayor’s offices. On Thursdsay, an Islamist attacker killed three people – including a sixty-year-old woman whose throat was slit - in Nice. Though condolences were offered to France, the role of Charlie Hebdo once more came up – with efforts to place the blame on the cartoons that allegedly “provoked anger” as if an act of imagination (which are what cartoons, poetry, plays are) merited to be replied with acts of violence.

Given the broader debate on France and its – clumsy - policies towards Islam and its Muslim population, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should have been but a footnote. But the president and its cronies are determined to bring this to headlines and use it as ammunition in I-am-the-voice-of-discriminated-Muslims game. "My sadness and anger are not because of this disgusting attack against me, but because the very same media is the source of impudence against our beloved prophet whom we hold so dear," Erdoğan said in Parliament, as he announced political and legal action against Charlie – just as Marine Le Pen did a year ago.  But the most efficient way to fight humor is with humor: Therefore, bravo to the tweeter who wrote under the Charlie Hebdo cartoon, “How dare you picture our president in an ordinary chair?” and posted one of the shiny baroque chairs in the presidential palace.

As for a Turkish bureaucrat’s response to the cartoon by tweeting that Charlie Hebdo writers were “bastards, sons of dogs!” it somehow made me think of a famous epigram written by a master of satire, Alexander Pope, for a dog given to the Prince of Wales in 1730. “I am his highness’s dog at Kew;/Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?”