Je suis grand, je contiens des multitudes

A few final links on Charlie Hebdo I missed before, plus some further thoughts first posted in the giant Metafilter thread about them.

Je suis Charlie? It’s a bit late.

“All eyes are on us, we’ve become a symbol.”

How the “survival issue” was made.

“It’s okay, you’re alive, you’ll be able to keep drawing me.”


A 2011 article by ex-staffer and longtime observer Oliver Cyran accusing Charlie Hebdo of racism has been cited in some quarters as evidence that it’s no magazine worth être. As a non-French person, I’ve been trying to pay particular attention to French voices in this debate, and the overwhelming majority I’ve seen have decried accusations that Charlie Hebdo was racist. I can’t dismiss every point Cyran makes out of hand, because I just don’t know the specific cartoons and writings to which he objects, or the wider context, let alone the internal politics of Charlie Hebdo. Even if there’s a response to specific accusations (such as the “flies around Muslims”, which another cartoonist points out are “flies around bad guys, racists, extremists”), there’s no denying that the negative cumulative impression of such imagery could extend beyond the overt target (“extremists”) to all members of their wider group, in the eyes of some readers. That seems to be what one author was reporting from her discussions with some French Muslims.

However, that point has been completely overshadowed by misconstrued examples which have been raised again and again to suggest, not that “Charlie Hebdo may think they’re anti-racist but the wider racism of the post-9/11 age has crept into their imagery and jokes, which their focus on being staunchly anti-religion has blinded them to”, but instead that they’re unabashed, overt racists.

The contextualised responses to the Taubira cartoon, Dieudonné cover and so on demolish the “unabashed, overt racists” charge, to my mind. Cyran’s charge, that they may think their aims are different, but they’ve been contributing to a general racist mood, is less easily dismissed. It’s something that a great many more people than the Charlie Hebdo team could be accused of, and have to grapple with, and could probably never say that they’ve addressed perfectly, because human beings aren’t perfect.

But the whole debate seems to imply that the Kouachi brothers somehow cared whether the magazine contributed to a general post-9/11 racist mood, or even was explicitly racist (why not attack Minute, in that case, or the headquarters of the Front National?), when what they explicitly objected to was simply that the paper had portrayed Muhammad. The debate about racism seems to have skirted around this: what was at issue wasn’t how offensive or inoffensive the imagery was, it was that any images were published at all. Charlie Hebdo could have published a cover image of Muhammad with Chuck Close-like levels of photorealism and still been at fault. Which brings us back to their professed anti-religious and anti-extremist stance, because:

The most explicit fatwa banning the portrayal of Muhammad ... isn’t tucked into some ancient text. It arrived in 2001. And its creator was the Taliban. The ban is a very modern construct.

A pretty spectacular point, that. Media organisations who refrain from posting images of Muhammad out of professed respect for their Muslim readers and viewers are effectively heeding the wishes of the Taliban—and inadvertently implying that their own countries’ Muslim populations, and any Muslim readers or viewers anywhere, are entirely under the intellectual sway of the extreme wing of modern Islam. Wasn’t that Cyran’s problem with Charlie Hebdo in the first place?

31 January 2015 · Events