January 7 marked the first of three days of unbelievable violence perpetrated by three men with terrorist links. Beginning with the shootout at the Charlie Hebdo offices and ending with the shooting death of the third and final gunman, this was one of the worst security crises France has had in decades. Not including the perpetrators, 17 people were murdered. It started when brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices the morning of the 7th and killed 12 people including editor Stephen Charbonnier and four cartoonists. According to CNN.com, “The gunmen said they were avenging the Prophet Mohammed and shouted ‘Allahu Akbar,’ which translates to ‘God is great.’” The following morning, two people dressed like the brothers were dressed the day before, killed a female police officer and injured another in Montrouge, a suburb of Paris, but the two events were thought to be unrelated at the time. During a shootout with police Friday morning, Said caught a bullet in the neck and eventually the brothers took cover in a printing firm in Dammartin-en-Goele. After an eight-hour standoff, the brothers, who had wanted to die as martyrs, came out firing at police, injuring two before being killed. Just as the Kouachi brothers were being surrounded, French authorities corroborated a connection between the Charlie Hebdo killings and the murder of the policewoman in Montrouge. Then, two gunmen from that shooting, Armedy Coulibaly and Hayat Boumeddiene, walked into a kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes and started taking hostages. According to BBC.com, Coulibaly “was threatening to kill people unless the Kouachi brothers were allowed to go free.” But just 15 minutes after the brothers were killed, police stormed the supermarket, killing Coulibaly in the process. They discovered the dead bodies of four hostages, and as the remaining 15 ran from the store, Hayat Boumeddiene escaped.
At first, there was a lot of confusion surrounding who was pulling the strings because both ISIS and Al Qaeda claimed responsibility, but the rival nature of the two terrorist organizations made many weary of such a possibility. A week after the attack, however, AQAP, Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, released a video of Sheikh Nasr Ben Ali al-Aanesi asserting that AQAP ordered, planned and funded the attack as revenge for the magazine’s recurrent depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in it’s cartoons. Aanesi cited bin Laden who warned against publishing such images. According to cbsnews.com, he quoted him directly, saying, “If there is no check on the freedom of your words, then let your hearts be open to the freedom of our actions. The answer is what you see not what you hear.”
In 1970, Charlie Hebdo was born from the ashes of Hara-Kiri, a satirical magazine that was banned by the state after mocking the death of Charles de Gaulle. Two years prior to its inception, nationwide protests of de Gaulle’s capitalist policies gave way to the opposing perspective and slogan “it is forbidden to forbid.” Charlie Hebdo has since adhered to this radical, almost anarchistic editorial ideology as well as the sense that being respectful of authority endangers freedom. The satirical cartoons the magazine has become known for over the years echo this dissident outlook. For Charlie Hebdo, everything is fair game.
Understanding Charlie Hebdo and its place in French culture and media is difficult because it does not have an American counterpart. According to Slate.com, “If you combined Mad magazine, a 1960 underground newspaper, and the sort of political commentary most often seen scrawled in Sharpie above public urinals, then you might come close, but even that wouldn’t cover it.”
Despite the fact that many believe Charlie Hebdo is a symbol of Islamaphobia, the racist label doesn’t really fit. Islam isn’t the only religion they satire, but in fact they take an equal opportunity stance with satires of all religions and authority figures. According to Slate.com, “The magazine exists in an anti-clerical press tradition that is as French as Champagne, one that advocates for a France that is resolutely secular and skeptical. This sort of reflexive nationalism is different than straightforward racism.”
France’s media has long been rife with anti-clerical attitudes. In the early 1900s, state-mandated secularism was enshrined into French laws because they feared Catholics would weaken and possibly destroy the republic. There were a bunch of magazines being published at that time that believed in an anti-clerical press and featured cartoons that parodied religious practices and attitudes, placing a stigma on Catholics and making them scapegoats. Similar to those magazines from around a century ago, Charlie Hebdo has established itself in a similar vein. The main difference is that it doesn’t focus on only one religion. It is, however, akin to their predecessors in that it works to promote a specific vision of France by disparaging and marginalizing attitudes and behaviors they see as un-French.
The attack came at a time during which Islamic radicalism has become a major concern of security officials throughout Europe. According to the New York Times, “In the space of a few minutes, the assault crystallized the culture clash between religious extremism and the West’s devotion to free expression.”
That night, tens of thousands took to the streets of France and Union Square in New York City and stood in solidarity with the victims of the attacks. Signs that read, “Je Suis Charlie,” were seen everywhere, just as the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie had exploded on Twitter earlier that day. However, for better or worse, most of us are not Charlie. According to The New Yorker.com, “For better, because so many of us have the luxury of often feeling secure enough in our freedom to take it for granted. For worse, because in taking out freedom for granted, we are too often ready to trade it for a greater sense of security. We are not Charlie, in other words, because we risk so little for what we claim to value so much. We are not Charlie, too, because most of us are relatively inoffensive, whereas Charlie, like so many liberating pioneers of free expression, were always glad to give offense to what offended them. And we are not Charlie, today, because we are alive.“