Fighting intimidation with controversy, the Charlie Hebdo way

Updated - November 28, 2021 07:40 am IST

Published - January 08, 2015 12:16 am IST

The magazine’s publishing director Stephane Charbonnier; (right) Caricaturists Georges Wolinski and Cabu.

The magazine’s publishing director Stephane Charbonnier; (right) Caricaturists Georges Wolinski and Cabu.

Charlie Hebdo has a long record of taking its satire seriously. The weekly magazine’s response to previous efforts at intimidation was to be even more controversial or outrageous, defying the constraints of religious sensitivity or political correctness.

In November 2011, its offices were fire-bombed after it had published a special edition, supposedly guest-edited by the prophet Muhammad and temporarily renamed Charia Hebdo .

The petrol bomb attack completely destroyed the Paris offices, the magazine’s website was hacked and staff were subjected to death threats. But six days later, it published a front page depicting a male Charlie Hebdo cartoonist passionately kissing a bearded Muslim man in front of the charred aftermath of the bombing. The headline was: L’Amour plus fort que la haine   (Love is stronger than hate).

Less than a year later, the magazine published more cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, including images of him naked and a cover showing him being pushed along in a wheelchair by an Orthodox Jew. The French government had appealed to the editors not to go ahead with publication, and shut down embassies, cultural centres and schools in 20 countries out of fear of reprisals when they went ahead anyway. Riot police were also deployed to the Charlie Hebdo offices to protect it from direct attacks.

Gerard Biard, the editor-in-chief, rejected the criticism. “We’re a newspaper that respects French law,” he said “Now, if there’s a law that is different in Kabul or Riyadh, we’re not going to bother ourselves with respecting it.”

The magazine’s earlier history reflects a readiness to offend all religions and challenge all taboos. In 1970, its precursor, Hara-Kiri Hebdo , was banned for publishing a spoof of the reverent French coverage of the death of the former President Charles de Gaulle.

To sidestep the ban, the editors renamed the magazine, choosing Charlie Hebdo because there was a monthly comic book in existence called Charlie Mensuel (named in turn after Charlie Brown) and as an irreverent reference to the recently deceased father of the French fifth republic.

The magazine folded in 1981 because of a lack of sales but re-launched in 1992 in its present form. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2015

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