Skip to main content
book review

Stephane Charbonnier, also known as Charb, in 2012.Michel Euler/The Associated Press

The night of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, just over a year ago, I went to a comedy show. Not as some act of solidarity or anything. Just because some friends were putting together a comedy show. Some of the performers made uncomfortable jokes about the shootings, and about cracking wise under a dark pall that saw a group of French satirists and cartoonists brutally murdered by Islamist terrorists. Like, I think, most people on Jan. 7, 2015, I was shocked and saddened by the attacks. Yes, it was a shock and sadness that has become, these days, so rote as to feel almost banal. But nevertheless.

I learned about Charlie Hebdo in the days (and even hours) after the attacks. I soon found myself at odds with sentimental liberal acquaintances on the Internet, who hastily championed the Hebdo jokers as martyrs in some imagined war against freedom of expression. It became increasingly difficult to square the image of the slain Hebdo staffers as secular saints with their crude drawings depicting the Prophet Mohammed prostrated on his stomach, splayed anus pointed at the reader, or Jesus Christ having anal sex with God, drawings that began to strike me as inciting, offensive, sometimes racist and, more than anything, just stupid.

This is not meant to diminish their deaths, or the tragedy of it. But making an overstated case for the political, social and satirical relevance of the kind of infantile scribblings that you might find on a White Power message board online strikes me as oversimplifying. That Charlie Hebdo was racist and idiotic doesn't justify the murder of its staff. But it doesn't justify their work, either.

Open Letter, a posthumous "manifesto" by Hebdo editor Charb (a.k.a. Stéphane Charbonnier), one of the 11 people gunned down in the paper's offices last year, is an opportunistic, largely facile attempt at justifying Charlie Hebdo. What might otherwise have been distributed as a tatty, Xeroxed pamphlet plunked on Parisian newsstands is packaged by Little, Brown in a slim, hardcover volume, and tacked with a forward by The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik (who apparently studied the history of cartooning and caricature in grad school). Even in presentation, it's a garish artifact targeted at the same schmaltzy liberal simpletons who hailed the Hebdo shooting victims as sacrificial offerings in the West's war against both Islam and free expression.

Charb's so-called manifesto – like Gopnik's framing essay, and like a lot of the conversations about Charlie Hebdo and freedom of the press in the wake of the shootings – is cobbled around a sloppy and entirely fallacious premise. "The Charlie cartoonists," Gopnik writes, "were, always, radically democratic and egalitarian in their views." It's a sentiment Charb repeats ad nauseum. As he puts it, "If we suggest that it's okay to make fun of everything except certain aspects of Islam because Muslims are much more sensitive than the rest of the population, isn't that discrimination? Shouldn't we treat the second-largest religion in France, exactly as we treat the first?"

In response to such moronically reductive questions, and against claims of Charlie Hebdo's "radically democratic" tendencies, I'd say, quite simply: No. Reading wobbly defences such as this, I keep coming back to that old adage about "perfect laws for a perfect world." It's something philosophers, historians, and economists such as David Hume and Adam Smith wrote about – that the ideals of law (whether the constitutional laws of men or the "higher laws" of God and religion) seem to presume a perfect world in which they can be applied; one in which all things are equal. Of course, this wasn't the world Hume or Smith lived in. And it's sure not the world we live in. To presume that the standards of law and civility should be applied in a manner where all other things are considered equal is a rhetorical trick, and one Charb and the Hebdo defenders deploy with childlike abandon, like school kids playing semantics to weasel out of trouble.

Depicting a Christian icon such as Jesus (even if he's engaged in buggery with his Holy Father) is not the same as depicting Mohammed. There are two main reasons for this. First, as mentioned above, all things aren't equal. Peaceful, law-abiding Muslim and Arab communities are persecuted, feared and openly antagonized (in France and elsewhere) in a way that's not commensurate with the treatment of Christians, whose moral universe shapes that of huge swaths of the Western world. Second, Islam is pretty particular about an iconism: The religious prohibition against representing sentient beings, particularly God and Mohammed. So, to depict the Prophet at all, let alone in one or another state of sexual degradation, is especially offensive. It's not an example of some "radically democratic" ethic (unless it's so "radical" as to be entirely undemocratic). It's deliberately, pointedly provocative.

Charb drapes his racism and intellectual feebleness inside basic counterintuitive inversions of logic, as if he's playing the role of Baby Žižek. The basic thrust of Open Letter is, "Well, are not the real Islamophobes the ones who automatically assume that all Muslims would be offended by our silly doodles?" Again: no.

The late Charb would likely brand me as one of the "terrorized intellectuals, moralizing old clowns and half-witted journalists" who rail against Charlie Hebdo. That's fine. Freedom of speech and all that. But a dashed-off leaflet such as Open Letter proves to me that the real clowns, and the real Islamophobes, are the ones who stir sentiments of racism, xenophobia and religious persecution while hiding behind their constitutional protections and civil guarantees of freedom of expression like giggling cowards.

Again, I say this not to devalue the Hebdo shootings, but to dispel something of the aura of martyrdom surrounding it. Their ethics of freedom of expression and unchecked expression are all noble and good and all. But they're built for a perfect world. And a world in which cartoonists who earn their livings doodling the genitals of major religious figures are hailed as vanquished heroes strikes me as the furthest thing from a perfect world.