A painted portrait of Stéphane Charbonnier, a French satirist who was murdered in the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January 2015
On an overcast morning in January 2015, 1.6 million people line up on the coast of Paris before chanting for unity in a march across France: 40 world leaders, westerners, immigrants, and Parisians converge in what seems to be a montage of the entire color spectrum of humanity’s diversity. Divorced from real time, the crowd links arms in an act of solidarity as they move across France through hours’ reach, saddened and devastated, firmly determined and charged — lost, but also passionate.
• • •
Only two days earlier, the world stirred when two gunmen opened fire at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, one of the leading and most historically controversial satirical newspapers of France. Avenging what they had conceived as an “offense against god,” the men were identified as Islamic extremists (Chérif Kouachi, the elder brother of the two, was part of filière des buttes-chaumont: a group of European jihadists planned to be sent to Iraq to fight for al-Qaeda after the 2003 invasion), and ushered in a period of rigorous surveillance (over 2,000 police officers were deployed over three days) and extreme anxiety in search of the offenders.
The attack was followed by a second attack on a Kosher supermarket in Viennece, where civilians were held hostage. Yet, in the midst of terror, also came many heroes to hail. Among them was Lassana Bathily, a young Muslim who had helped a group of hostages hide in a walk-in freezer while one of the gunmen (an old colleague of Chérif), Amedy Coulibaly, was aggressively “preparing their deaths.” After a shootout with the Paris police outside the market, 17 people in total were recorded to have been killed after the three-day assault.
Bathily’s gesture briefly alleviated the heightened freight of Islamaphobia in that week, and, more broadly, reminded the world again that religious extremists, the exaggerators of misconceptions, deliberately dismiss the Quran’s sensitivity towards taking human life:
…if anyone slays a human being, unless it be [in punishment] for murder or spreading corruption on earth, it shall be as though he had slain all mankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind. (Qur’an 5:32)
A few days after the Charlie Hebdo incident, the National Post released their soon-viral article, Charlie Hebdo heroes were Muslims themselves: ‘Madness has neither colour nor religion,’ prompting many Muslims to speak out about their boiling criticism of the fanatics who had the “nerve to call themselves Muslims in the interest of taking one’s life,” as well as their collective disapproval of the publication’s offensive “religion-as-a-nuisance” illustrations.
Surprisingly calm and poised, Charlie Hebdo still released their weekly publication after the tragedy with an interesting response: the prophet Mohammed holding the sign of Je Suis Charlie. As Olivier Tonneau, a French lecturer at Homerton College, exclaimed, “Yes, right now Mohammed too would be Charlie, because he would be horrified by the crime committed in his name.”
Bombarded again with the perplexing notion of freedom of speech, a famous prisoner of historical controversy (and indeed a right of humanity), the world’s response to the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo has been extremely mixed, especially in re-questioning the parameters of satire. If one seeks a framework for measuring the extremities of such a form, it would only be as paradoxical as trying to standardize a definition of “art.” What the world does have, however, is the ability to evaluate responses to satire.
As demonstrated by Charlie Hebdo, satire has the ability to provoke fanatics. It can make people pugnacious, it can make people protest, and it can be ignored by those who (cleverly) choose to ignore it when offensive. More prevalently than ever, professors, journalists, critics, researchers, and the media have attempted to grapple with this universal issue: scholars have been called upon to clarify the extent of “censorship” in the Quran; the Dalai Lama declared that, “Muslim practitioners must extend love towards entire creation of Allah”; and many have pointed fingers at Mark Zuckerberg after he “accidentally” deleted Hamza Abbasi’s post, which defended Islam by accusing fanatics of being “those who pretend,” yet vaguely concluded by saying that the “Western world has forever been the historical rival.” Indeed, contemporary satire and the “offense” it carries openly enflame the simmering passions underlying this ongoing debate about free speech.
In conclusion, I leave the implications of this un-answered debate to the seamless response of Salman Rushdie, recipient of over 29 global literary awards:
“I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity… Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms… This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. ‘Freedom is indivisible,’” he wrote. “You can’t slice it up otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hebdo … But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak.”
Laureen Andalib is a junior in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning at Cornell University, pursuing a degree in Digital Media.