Gunmen gesture as they return to their car after the attack outside the offices of French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo (seen at rear) in this still image taken from amateur video shot in Paris January 7, 2015. REUTERS/Reuters TV/ NTB scanpix
Yesterday, one day before the opening of the trial for 14 defendants accused of involvement in a string of terrorist attacks in France, which included the murders of their fellow journalists and cartoonists on January 7, 2015 at their Paris office, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo republished the «Mohammed Cartoons» under the title «Tout ça pour ça» («All of that for this»). «We will never give up», they said.
The defendants in the trial, some in absentia, «face a variety of charges related to helping perpetrators carry out attacks that killed 17 people over three days in January 2015.» In addition to the 12 victims in and around the office of Charlie Hebdo, a police officer was murdered in the street and four people were murdered in a kosher supermarket.
François Molins, then public prosecutor of Paris, recalled his arrival at the Charlie Hebdo office. He found «the smell of blood and gunpowder. In the newsroom, it is carnage. It is more than a crime scene, it is a war scene, with a frightening tangle of bodies».
Charlie Hebdo‘s editor, known as Riss, has detailed the heavy security surrounding the weekly since the terror attack. Charlie Hebdo is now subsidizing part of its own protection, spending 1.5 million euros per year. «When you take 3 euros out of your pocket to buy a copy of Charlie Hebdo, 1.30 euros goes to the distributor and with the remaining 1.70 euros the magazine pays the employees, the rent, the service providers, as well as its security», he said. After paying an even greater price in 2015 in terms of blood, and paying an exorbitant price in terms of security, it would have been understandable for Charlie Hebdo‘s editors to have stopped using their freedom of speech to subject Islam to criticism. That is not what they chose to do.
«We have often been asked to publish other cartoons of Mohammed», they wrote.
«We have always refused to do it, not because it is forbidden — the law allows it — but because we needed a good reason to do it, a reason that made sense and that would bring something to the debate».
The last time Charlie Hebdo had run a cartoon of Mohammed was five years ago, on the cover of the issue just after the massacre, which sold eight million copies. It showed the prophet of Islam accompanied by the title «All is forgiven«.
«We must continue to portray Muhammad; not to do that means there is no more Charlie«, said Patrick Pelloux, a cartoonist who has since left the magazine. Is Charlie still Charlie, many wondered after the massacre? Today, yes — but France is starting to reflect on the dramatic decline in its freedom of expression.
Philippe Lançon, who was seriously injured in the 2015 attack by the Kouachi brothers, was still recovering when he attended a party, where he met the author Michel Houellebecq. The two had a brief conversation; Houellebecq concluded it by quoting the gospel of Matthew: «… the violent take it by force».
«Charlie Hebdo, freedom or death», Le Figaro recently wrote in a headline. At first glance, yes, the battle is lost, explains the French newspaper. Political Islam, hand-in-hand with the cultural left, «advances under the guise of human rights and the fight against discrimination». Much of the French media has been welcoming Charlie Hebdo‘s trial with a feeling of withdrawal and surrender. «My unfortunate client will be freedom and I fear that in the medium term it is a lost cause», Charlie Hebdo‘s lawyer Richard Malka told the weekly Le Point.
«Kouachi brothers and those who armed them won, yes … Who would publish the caricatures of Muhammad today? Which newspaper? In what play, in what film, in what book do you dare to criticize Islam?»
In recent months, «several attacks have been averted», said Jean-François Ricard, France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor. France is under severe jihadist threat. Former Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve was quoted in Le Parisien saying that «violence has taken root in the heart of society», the country risks «a conflagration» and he defines communitarianism (a system of small self-governing communities) as «a slow and fatal poison». The journalist Etienne Gernelle wrote in Le Point:
«Charlie Hebdo still lives under a death threat; what it represents, freedom, is under house arrest; France is paralyzed as soon as the word ‘Islam’ appears and political world and media celebrated Charlie and then distanced themselves».
Former Charlie Hebdo journalist Zineb El Rhazoui, author of the book Détruire le Fascisme Islamique («Destroying Islamic Fascism«), regularly receives death threats. She pointed the finger at those accusing the magazine of Islamophobia. «I remember all those who contributed to Charlie’s isolation and descent into hell», Rhazoui said.
«They have a moral responsibility for Charlie’s fate. Is it normal that five years after this horrible crime, this horrible setback for freedom of expression and French culture, there is still a ‘collective against Islamophobia’ in France? Is it normal that five years after this attack, I have to continue walking protected by gunmen in the heart of Paris?».
The weekly Marianne asked: «Can the Kouachi brothers boast a posthumous victory? Yes». They then listed five acts of capitulation from the past five years:
First act: Charlie Hebdo‘s journalists had just been murdered when the writer Virginie Despentes wrote in Les Inrockuptibles about the terrorists: «I have loved them in their clumsiness, when I saw them, weapons in hand, spreading terror and screaming ‘we have avenged the prophet'». Not a word about the fate of Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoonists, journalists and employees who were murdered for making fun of Islam, or the people murdered in the kosher supermarket.
Second act: On November 17, 2015, four days after the terrorist attacks in Paris in which 130 victims were murdered, French journalist Antoine Leiris, whose wife was murdered in the attack on the Bataclan Theater, wrote: «You will not have my hate». It will become, Marianne explained, the «informal slogan in progressive circles. Leiris’s faith prevented not only indignation but also a lucid analysis of the situation».
Third act: The editor of Mediapart, Edwy Plenel, held a meeting in the suburbs of Paris with the prominent Islamist Tariq Ramadan. Plenel accused Charlie Hebdo of engaging in a «war on Muslims«.
Fourth act: In 2019, in Paris, a «march against Islamophobia» was attended by 13,500 people. The slogan from the circle of Salafist religious associations was adopted by «almost all the political leaders of the left», according to Marianne. During the march, activists shouted «Allahu akbar«, the same cry used by the terrorists who struck Charlie Hebdo.
Fifth act: «Can we criticize Islam without fearing for our own safety?», Marianne asked. In January 2020, a 16-year-old girl, Mila, responded to homophobic insults (she was called «dirty lesbian» by a Muslim) on her Instagram account by criticizing Islam. Mila, threatened with death, fled from her school and was put under police protection. «Radio silence from left-wing political parties, feminist organizations and LGBT associations: when the aggressors are Muslims, the watchword is obviously to close eyes and cover ears».
Western democracies have paid dearly for the right to freedom of expression and, if not protected and exercised, it can disappear overnight.
Preventive self-censorship and a «strategic retreat» in the face of Islamist fury appear only as an epic regression. With the «spirit of Charlie» retreating in France and «cancel culture» advancing in the US, it seems that freedom of expression is being dragged into court, rather than its killers and their useful idiots. In January, on the fifth anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the author Pascal Bruckner said:
«I have the impression that our immune defenses have collapsed and Islamism is winning. Its main demands have been met: no one dares to publish caricatures of Muhammad anymore».
Charlie Hebdo has bravely done it again: it has published cartoons of Mohammed. It is still the last and only European magazine ready to defend freedom of expression. A French philosopher, Elisabeth Badinter, in the documentary «Je suis Charlie» said: «If our colleagues in the public debate do not share part of the risk, then the barbarians have won». Will those who proclaimed «Je suis Charlie» stand with them now?
Giulio Meotti, Cultural Editor for Il Foglio, is an Italian journalist and author.