Charlie Hebdo

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English translation: "100 lashes if you don't die laughing!"
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of Spider-Man!
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We have the impression that it's officially allowed for Charlie Hebdo to attack the Catholic far-right but we cannot poke fun at fundamental Islamists
Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier[1]
In Charlie Hebdo, nothing resembles a Muslim more than another Muslim. Always represented as weak-minded, fanatical, terrorist, on the benefit. A Muslim woman? Always a poor dumb thing reducible to her headscarf, with no other social function than to arouse the libido of your comedians.
— Former Charlie Hebdo collaborator Olivier Cyran, in 2013 about the change of culture in the newspaper[2]

Charlie Hebdo is a satirical politically incorrect French newspaper founded in 1970. The paper generally takes a leftanarchist political position (it was even farther-left in the past) and strongly criticises religion.[3][4] From the 2000s onward, its criticism of Islam in particular has drawn significant attention: in 2006, the magazine was unsuccessfully sued by Muslim organizations for publishing the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons.[5][6]. In 2011, the magazine's offices were destroyed by a molotov cocktail.[7] In 2015, ten Charlie Hebdo employees, including its director and several major cartoonists, were killed in a terrorist attack carried out by Muslim terrorists.

"Charlie" is a diminutive for French president Charles de Gaulle (in office 1959 to 1969 - the name references a joke at de Gaulle's expense which caused the banning of the journal's predecessor), while the word Hebdo is a vernacular contraction of hebdomadaire, meaning "weekly".

Accusations of racism[edit]

Cartoon satire for dummies: an exasperated cartoonist explains one of his colleague's cartoons.

Charlie Hebdo has published cartoons some consider racist,[8] though some readers have always claimed the magazine satirizes racists through mocking and exaggerating right-wing talking points and depicting mock party logos (such as Front National).[9][10] In France, the satirical newspaper is controversial, and there were some debates, even amongst academics, on their treatment of Muslims and Islamic subjects.[11] French opinion is also divided, as for example on the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons publications: before the attack (in 2006), a minority, 36% of the French population, thought this publication was a good idea, but 5 years after the attack (in 2020), this initiative is now supported by a majority of 59%.[12]

In non-French-speaking countries, the tone of the newspaper is regularly misinterpreted:

  • A 2014 cover showed pregnant Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped and raped by Boko Haram demanding welfare, which, of course, is when right-wing French people would care a lot less about their plight.[13] Commenters, however, explained that this is a double-take against Boko Haram and right-wing fear-mongering (particularly about immigration and healthcare benefits), which is a typical method Charlie Hebdo employs as its satire.
  • In another incident, after 800 peaceful Egyptian protesters, some of them from the Muslim Brotherhood, were shot dead protesting an Egyptian coup against the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood, the magazine published a cartoon of a protester shielding himself with a Qur'an; the point of this aggressively secularist magazine is that religion won't save you.
  • Amidst the European refugee crisis, Charlie Hebdo published several cartoons depicting Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned trying to immigrate to Europe. The cartoons garnered outrage on the Internet. One published after sexual attacks in Germany "said" Alan Kurdi would become a rapist (depicted as a pig-like person) if he had survived. There is another cartoon with the dead boy near a billboard with a caricature of Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse, with the caption "Si près du but..." ("so close yet so far...")[14] that has drawn outrage, including from the boy's family, for the apparent mockery of the boy. Many people, unaware of the context of French satire, assume Charlie Hebdo believes it is good or hilarious that the little boy drowned, while the authors have argued that it employs vulgar satire to lampoon the anti-refugee hysteria raging in Europe. One Charlie Hebdo cartoonist drew a contemptuous cartoon in response to the outrage, expressed disappointment that cartoonists cannot document events that a photographer can, that the plain photograph was judged more "acceptable" than a cartoon, while also criticizing how other artists affix angel wings to the back of the child.[15]

Other writers have pointed out that using drowned Syrian children and raped Nigerian schoolgirls is still using marginalized people as ambiguous props which only emboldens racists and might belie the unconscious racism at worst and indifference at best held by the cartoonists themselves.[16] But the critique of using marginalized people as ambiguous props is not unique to Charlie Hebdo, as it is a common tactic by many political cartoonists to get a succinct point across. Nathaniel Tapley, a writer for the BBC's Have I Got News for You, has turned that critique and the outrage on their heads by pretending to be outraged at similar cartoons by others in the English-speaking world.[17]

Not all criticisms are due to cultural misinterpretations or overindulgence towards Muslim communities. For example, Olivier Cyran, former Charlie Hebdo collaborator, reports having observed, in Charlie Hebdo editorial policy, a drift in treatment of the Muslim communities since 9/11, and pointed out non-satirical political positions in the written articles that fed into Islamophobic prejudices.[2]

Accusations of antisemitism[edit]

Controversy arose when a cartoonist working for the magazine named Siné wrote an article about the possible marriage of Jean Sarkozy (son of President Nicolas Sarkozy), that could be interpreted as antisemitic.[18] Publisher Philippe Val fired Siné (then aged 80), who soon retaliated by creating his own newspaper, Siné Hebdo (now discontinued).


The paper strongly opposes Islamism, classifying it as a totalitarian threat alongside fascism, Nazism and Stalinism.[19] They reprinted the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, leading to criticism.[20] In November 2011 the paper responded to the victory of an Islamist party in Tunisia by jokingly announcing that its next issue would be edited by Muhammad; the cover for this issue featured a caricature of Muhammad and the usual title defaced with a banner reading Charia Hebdo. The day after the announcement the offices of the newspaper were destroyed in a petrol bomb attack.[21]

In September 2012 the magazine decided to feature several satirical drawings of Muhammad highlighting the Islamic overreaction to Innocence of Muslims.[22] The French government immediately closed several embassies and schools worldwide, concerned about retaliation.[23] Through Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the French government reinforced the right of the French media to free speech, but seemed largely frustrated that this particular publication was simply "throwing oil on the fire" in an attempt to gain publicity. Echoing Fabius, the White House questioned the judgment behind releasing these cartoons.[24]

Reaction from other French media has been mixed:-

  1. Le Monde argues that the fundamental right of free expression is paramount. Liberation claims self-censorship is the first step on a path that leads to capitulation. Other French newspapers take a similar stance.
  2. Figaro opposes what it calls silly provocation. Sud Ouest calls the publication playing with fire. Other newspapers are also critical.

This publication has reignited the discussion of limits to freedom of expression, and responsibility of the press.[25][26]

2015 attacks[edit]

On 7 January 2015 Charlie Hebdo's headquarters in Paris[27] was assaulted by two heavily-armed cowards. The attack caused the death of twelve people, including the magazine's editor, Stephane Charbonnier — widely known by his pen name Charb — plus his police bodyguard Franck Brinsolaro, assigned after the 2011 death threats. Also among the victims were well-known cartoonists Cabu, Honoré, Tignous and Wolinski, and one other police officer, Ahmed Merabet.[28] A further 7 were wounded.

Two brothers aged 34 and 32, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, were the prime suspects. They came from the 10th arrondissement of Paris and had recently returned from Syria.[29] The identification was made from an ID card left in the getaway car.

On 9 January, after hostage-taking in the small town of Dammartin-en-Goële, both the Kouachi brothers were killed in the course of a police assault.

In September 2020, five years after the attack, a trial is held where 14 suspects are questioned in their aid for the attacks. During the trial, Charlie Hebdo has republished its cartoons.[30]

Irony of Charb's last cartoon and tweet[edit]

The last editorial cartoon was headed Still no terrorist attacks in France, above a sketch of a bearded man with a rifle slung over his shoulder. The character is saying "Wait. Season's greetings are good up till the end of January."[31] The last tweet had a cartoon of the Islamic State terrorist group leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,[32] with a caption, "Best wishes. To you too, Al-Baghdadi." Baghdadi replies, "And especially good health."[33]

World and media reaction[edit]

Many world leaders and media outlets condemned the shootings as an attack on freedom of speech and freedom of the press. For example, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny described it as "a direct attack on the basic values of freedom of speech and of tolerance". French President François Hollande used the No True Scotsman fallacy by stating that the terrorists were "fanatics who have nothing to do with the Islamic religion", although this may have been said in order to prevent reprisal attacks.[34]

Although some papers did reprint the cover images, such as the cover of German tabloid B.Z. and every major Danish newspaper except Jyllands-Posten, in reality, much of the world's media self-censored and refused to show or print the controversial cartoons. BBC News showed several covers of Charlie Hebdo on air, but specifically mentioned that they would not be showing the ones depicting Muhammad. The New York Daily News even went as far as pixelating the cover image that led to the 2011 firebombing in their online article.[35]

Despite signs in Paris proclaiming "Not Afraid", it seems maybe that many of us are afraid. By contrast historian Tom Holland and some others tweeted Charlie Hebdo's cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. Holland wrote:

The right to draw Muhammad without being shot is quite as precious to many of us in the West as Islam presumably is to the Charlie Hebdo killers. We too have our values - and if we are not willing to stand up for them, then they risk being lost to us.[36]

The editor of Private Eye, a UK satirical twice-monthly which is in some ways an analogue of Charlie Hebdo, printed the following tribute in the next edition:

I am appalled and shocked by this horrific attack - a murderous attack on free speech in the heart of Europe. I offer my condolences to the families and friends of those killed - the cartoonists, journalists and those who were trying to protect them. They paid a very high price for exercising their comic liberty. Very little seems funny today. --Ian Hislop

On the other hand Pope Francis argued that anyone who cursed his mother could expect a punch and suggested that violent reactions are similarly normal if faith is ridiculed. Polly Toynbee, writing in The Guardian, called it "the wife-beater’s defence".[37]

The issue following the shooting again featured a cartoon of Muhammad, this time weeping and proclaiming "All is forgiven." An initial print run of five million sold out before most people were out of bed.[38] Other media including the Italian Corriere della Sera, German Frankfurter Allgemeine, The Guardian and the Washington Post also published it.[39][40]

In response, a number of anti-Charlie Hebdo protests erupted in Islamic countries around the world. They ranged from peaceful marches to violent riots, including one in Niger that resulted in a number of churches and the French Cultural Centre in Zinder being set ablaze, and 10 people killed.[41] A terrorist attack in Copenhagen on February 14 against a gathering of people supporting Mohammed cartoons and a synagogue, which left 2 innocents dead, is believed to have been inspired by the shootings in Paris the previous month.

A 2nd Tehran city-sponsored[42] Holocaust-denial cartoon contest was announced in 2015—this one in response to the Hebdo attacks.[43]

The conspiracy theorists gather like vultures[edit]

David Icke immediately questioned the "official" account.

Something called the Institute for Political Economy produced a very poorly reasoned internet essay suggesting that the true purpose of the attack was to "cow France and place France back under Washington’s thumb." The article was dated January 13, two days after 1.3 million very un-cowed French people had marched through Paris expressing defiance. Washington's official interest in the event was minimal — the highest ranking dignitary from the USA was the Ambassador, and she was positioned well back from the front row of heads of state.[44] As of 2016 Charlie Hebdo is still defiantly mocking Islam and a great deal else while threats continue.[45]

Kerry Cassidy commented on 11 January "Anyone who had any doubts about this being a False Flag should now be fully aware that this incident has been faked. Among the questions that remain are who was actually killed within the offices of the paper if anyone and if they weren't killed, where are they?"[46] Later the same day Cassidy was fretting about the shoe that one of the terrorists picked up and put back in the getaway car. She wrote "Uh, really? Where did the random SHOE come from and why would he pick it up? He is apparently wearing 2 shoes so it isn't his!!"[47][note 1]

Two weeks after the massacre, the French weekly current affairs magazine L'Obs (formerly Le Nouvel Observateur) published a guide to the main theories dominating what it called "the conspirasphere," citing eight websites or blogs as typifying the rumours that were current at the time.[48] Kevin Barret, a former Islamic Studies professor from UW Madison compiled a collection of essays called We Are Not Charlie Hebdo[49] by conspiracy theorist, antisemites and even an anti- Zionist Jew. Barrett claimed that the Mossad has staged the attack to vilify Muslims. Globalresearch also claimed that attack was a false flag.[50]

“Blasphemy against 11 January”[edit]

In May of 2015 the French daily Libération accused French intellectual and sociologist Emmanuel Todd of committing "blasphemy against January 11"[51] (the date of French street rallies in support of Charlie Hebdo) with the release of his enormously controversial book, Who is Charlie?[52] On August 28, 2015, the Guardian reported Todd's book "is now being published across the world with a preface warning that in all western societies 'a Charlie lies slumbering' – a horrific event that cleaves society apart and sees the highly educated and well-off stick their heads in the sand."[53]

Todd's thesis is that the largest French demonstrations happened in "historically Catholic and reactionary regions," and constituted "an affirmation of the middle class’s moral superiority and domination, and their Islamophobic quest for a scapegoat," which gave "a sudden glimpse of totalitarianism."[54] A similar point of view is seen in interviews of various French citizens, leftists, and officials in the documentary, Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie.[55]

When the cover article's target stops being Muslims...[edit]

Back in 2015 when Muslims were being mocked, one with no background knowledge of Charlie Hebdo could not only defend Charlie's right to publish offensive cartoons, they also had to defend their content, i.e. it couldn't be criticized for being "crass" or anything.[56]

But later, in 2017, when the target changed to Neo-Nazis in Texas who had been killed in the floods (and Texans, having largely voted for Donald Trump, can be hastily conflated with neo-nazis), many former defenders, who have no background knowledge of Charlie Hebdo, believed the cartoon mocked all victims of the hurricane and shifted to being against Charlie because the cartoon was "crass", some sticking to that and others reaffirming its right to free speech.[56]

One can conclude two things (both Glenn Greenwald quotes):

  1. "It’s almost as if the glorification and praise for Charlie Hebdo that became morally mandatory in 2015 had nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with love of the anti-Islam content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons";
  2. "Whatever else is true, let this episode bring about the full and permanent death to the new, warped principle that to defend free speech, one must celebrate the ideas under attack and honor those expressing them".[56]

The whole outrage and commentary may not even be relevant. Given the cartoon's history of double-takes, rather than having mocked victims of a hurricane or having generalized them as Neo-Nazis, that particular cartoon may have instead attempted to mock the tendency of religious evangelicals appropriating natural disasters as God's punishment for a demographic they hate, such as punishment for legalizing gay marriage.[57] Regardless, discussion likely should've revolved around how this cartoon conveyed its message, as its intents were lost, but the media, reveling in outrageous headlines, have barely even mentioned, if at all, as a possibility.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Understanding Charlie Hebdo, an explanation of the socio-political context of Charlie Hebdo's caricatures, especially some that seem blatantly offensive to those unfamiliar with French politics.


  1. The answers to Cassidy's questions are [1] It fell out of the car [2] He needed to put it back in the car [3] Like well-trained terrorists, these guys had getaway clothing and footwear that would not incriminate them with bloodstains.


  1. Magazine’s nude Mohammad cartoons prompt France to shut embassies, schools in 20 countries
  2. 2.0 2.1 'Charlie Hebdo, not racist? If you say so…' Former employee lambasts magazine's racist trajectory
  3. Arthur Berdah,"Charlie Hebdo et la religion: l'art de la provocation," L'Express 07/01/2015
  4. "Charlie Hebdo, 22 ans de procès en tous genres," Le Monde, 08/01/15.
  5. "Charlie Hebdo French cartoons: Complaint filed in Paris", BBC News, 20 September 2012
  6. Charlie Hebdo – more anti-Islamic than anti-clerical, Philippe Marlière, The Guardian, September 19 2012
  7. Un incendie d'origine criminelle ravage les locaux de "Charlie Hebdo", Le Monde, November 2 2011
  8. Charlie Hebdo adds to its long history of racist cartoons by portraying dead refugee babies as future monkey rapists: It depicts dead refugee babies as future "ass gropers," uses the n-word & makes fun of massacred Egyptian activists by Ben Norton (Wednesday, Jan 13, 2016 07:00 PM PST) Salon.
  11. Charlie Hebdo, obsédé par l'islam ? (Le Monde) in French in Arrêt sur Images that review a series of opinion pieces published in the French newspaper Le Monde
  12. Droit au blasphème, caricatures, liberté d’expression… Les Français sont ils encore « Charlie » ?
  14. Logan, N. (September 14, 2015) "‘Charlie Hebdo’ criticized for Alan Kurdi, refugee crisis cartoons" Global News. Retrieved August 25, 2020
  15. Murphy, R. (June 9, 2017) "Headless May, Yet Still, Je Suis Charlie" '"Wordpress. Retrieved August 25, 2020.
  17. Mackey, R. (September 15, 2015) "Charlie Hebdo Mocks Europe’s Response to Migrant Crisis With Cartoons of Dead Syrian Boy". The New York Times. Retrieved August 25, 2020.
  18. Siné Tempest In A Trash Can
  19. Full text: Writers' statement on cartoons
  20. French magazine offices petrol-bombed after it prints Muhammad cartoon
  21. French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo attacked in Paris
  22. see here for a copy of the comic with English translations
  23. Magazine’s nude Mohammad cartoons prompt France to shut embassies, schools in 20 countries
  25. En Direct roundup
  26. Charlie Hebdo row: Cartoons divide French press
  27. The office is in the 11ème arrondissement. The most recent StreetView image of the building, captured in August 2014, shows very overt police surveillance.
  29. Attentat à Charlie Hebdo : les trois suspects ont été identifiés — INFO METRONEWS, 7 January 2014
  30. BBC News. (September 1, 2020). "Charlie Hebdo: Magazine republishes controversial Mohammed cartoons". Retrieved September 3, 2020.
  31. See repro by RTL
  32. Meilleurs vœux, au fait.
  33. Charlie Hebdo's mysterious last tweet before attack
  34. France fears new attacks may be ahead
  36. Viewpoint: The roots of the battle for free speech
  37. On Charlie Hebdo Pope Francis is using the wife-beater’s defence
  38. Print run for new issue expanded --BBC News, January 14
  39. Defiant Charlie Hebdo depicts Prophet Muhammad on cover
  40. Charlie Hebdo: first cover since terror attack depicts prophet Muhammad This includes the new cartoon.
  42. Iran Cartoon "About Us"
  43. The Hypocrisy of Iran's Holocaust Cartoon Contest
  44. As world leaders march in Paris, the US represented by ambassador AFP, 11 January
  45. Once Again, Charlie Hebdo Artists Receive Death Threats Over Controversial Cover
  46. Project Camelot blog 11 January 2015
  47. Project Camelot blog 11 January 2015
  48. Charlie Hebdo : qui sont ces sites qui vous parlent de complot ? L'Obs 23 January 2015
  49. We Are Not Charlie Hebdo
  50. Paris Killings: Media Lies, Unanswered Questions. Was it a False Flag? --Stephen Lendman, 11 January 2015
  54. The Guardian
  56. 56.0 56.1 56.2 Glenn Greenwald (September 1, 2017): "Charlie Hebdo May Now Be Criticized Because It Mocked White Texans Rather Than Muslims", The Intercept.
  57. Salandra, A. (September 8, 2017). newnownext. "7 Natural Disasters Evangelicals Have Blamed On Gay People". Retrieved September 14, 2020.