Note: This post contains depictions of Mohammed. If you find such things offensive, do not read this. If you choose to read anyway, don’t blame me.


When I wrote about the Charlie Hebdo massacre a year ago, I headed the post with this quote from Stephen Fry. It remains one of my favourites, and makes an important statement about freedom of speech.

Stephen Fry on Offensive

On 7th January 2015, we saw the horror of the murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. The editor  Stéphane Charbonnier, known to his friends as “Charb,” eight other staff members, two police officers and a maintenance worker were all killed by two brothers who proudly announced, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad,” (in French) and, “God is Great” (in Arabic).

L'Obs

L’Obs logo: initially France Observateur, later Le Nouvel Observateur, but since 23 October 2014 simply known as L’Obs.

Yesterday, French weekly news magazine L’Obs has published an interview with Laurent Sourisseau, who is known by his pen-name Riss.  Riss is a long-time cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo, and is now its publishing director. Riss was seriously injured in the January attack, but managed to draw four cartoons from his hospital bed that were included in the 14 January 2015 issue of Charlie Hebdo, published a week after the massacre. Riss talks to L’Obs of what it was like working for Charlie Hebdo before the attack, and the attack itself.

According to L’Obs, Riss told them of an “éditorial rageur” (angry editorial) he has written for the first anniversary edition of Charlie Hebdo:

… pour défendre la laïcité et dénoncer les “fanatiques abrutis par le Coran” et “culs-bénits venus d’autres religions” qui avaient souhaité la mort du journal pour “oser rire du religieux”.

“Les convictions des athées et des laïcs peuvent déplacer encore plus de montagnes que la foi des croyants”, dit-il.

(My translation) … in defence of secularism, to denounce the “fanatics brutalized by the Qur’an'” and “the arse-blessed from other religions” who have desired the death of the magazine for “daring to laugh at the religious.”

“The convictions of atheists and lay people can move more mountains than the faith of believers,” he said.

Charlie Hebdo 7 Jan 2016

Cover of 7 January 2016 Edition of Charlie Hebdo. The caption reads, “1 year later the murderer is still at large.”

The first anniversary edition, to be published in France on Friday (Thursday French time) will have a million-copy run and be distributed world-wide. It’s cover is an attack on the violence prevalent within all religions. The caption, “1 an après, l’assassin court toujours,” means, “1 year later, the killer is still at large.” As Jerry Coyne pointed out in his post on the anniversary cover, the figure is wearing a hat that is the all-seeing pyramid with the eye that has been “part of religious iconography for centuries” and is “on every American one-dollar bill.”

The Kalashnikov-toting, blood-splattered god is similar in looks to many representations of the Christian god, but he is wearing a robe and sandals that I suspect are meant to bring Muhammad to mind.

The threat to Charlie Hebdo began in 2006 when they republished the Mohammed cartoons from the September 2005 edition of Danish magazine,  Jyllands-Posten. In 2011, the magazine was firebombed, which required them to move to new premises.

Riss told L’Obs:

Un mois avant le 7 janvier, je demandais à Charb si sa protection avait encore un sens. Les histoires de caricatures, tout ça, c’était du passé […] Mais un croyant, surtout fanatique, n’oublie jamais l’affront fait à sa foi, car il a derrière lui et devant lui l’éternité. […] C’est l’éternité qui nous est tombée dessus ce mercredi 7 janvier.

(My translation) A month before 7 January, I asked Charb if [Police] protection was still necessary. The incident with the cartoons, that was in the past … But a believer, especially a fanatic, never forgets an affront to his faith, because he has it backing him and eternity in front of him. It’s eternity that fell on us this Wednesday 7 January.

He went on to describe what it was like that horrific morning:

“Ce matin-là, après le bruit assourdissant d’une soixantaine de coups de feu tirés en trois minutes dans la salle de rédaction, un immense silence envahit la pièce”, raconte-t-il. “J’espérais entendre des plaintes, des gémissements. Mais non, pas un son. Ce silence me fit comprendre qu’ils étaient morts.”

Et lorsque enfin un pompier m’aida à me relever, et après avoir dû enjamber Charb allongé à mes côtés, je m’interdis de tourner la tête vers la pièce pour ne pas voir les morts de Charlie. Pour ne pas voir la mort de Charlie

(My translation) “That morning, after the deafening noise of sixty shots fired in three minutes in the newsroom, a huge silence filled the room,” he recalls. “I was hoping to hear complaints, moans. But no, not a sound. The silence made me understand that they were dead.

“And when finally a firefighter helped me up, and after having to step over Charb lying beside me, I forbade myself from turning my head to the room so as to not see Charlie’s dead. Not to see the death of Charlie.”

This is the original page from Jyllands-Posten that Charlie Hebdo republished in 2006:

Jyllands-Posten-pg3-article-in-Sept-30-2005-edition-of-KulturWeekend-entitled-Muhammeds-ansigt

Page 3 of the 30 September 2005 edition of Kultur Wee (Culture War). Muhammeds ansigt = The Face of Muhammed.

According to Wikipedia (which has an excellent article on the controversy in the link), “the newspaper announced that this was an attempt to contribute to the debate about … criticism and self-censorship.”

Perhaps predictably, the Vatican has come out in opposition to the Charlie Hebdo cover. (Once again I have to thank Jerry Coyne – I’m busy writing, so I wouldn’t have known this without my daily visits to his website, Why Evolution is True.) The daily news of the Vatican, Osservatore Romano, said of the cover:

In Charlie Hebdo’s choice, there is the sad paradox of a world which is more and more sensitive about being politically correct, almost to the point of ridicule, yet does not wish to acknowledge or to respect believers’ faith in God, regardless of the religion.

As I said on Why Evolution is True, I’m happy to acknowledge faith in God, but I do not see why I’m required to respect it. All speech and ideas must be open to question, wherever they come from. Religious speech is too often regarded as being separate, even by advocates of free speech. It should be exposed, just like every other stupid idea. What are the religious so afraid of? If what they say can stand up to scrutiny, it will be exonerated. I think they know as well as atheists do that it can’t handle the scrutiny, which is why they’re so determined to protect it in order to protect their power.

Commenter “eric” from that site replied to my comment, pointing out (among other things):

I would argue that society does respect religion; it gives fairly wide latitude for religious practices. Gives religious nonprofits tax benefits and breaks on property taxes, and so on. Heck, our entire western 5-day-on, 2-days-off calendar is a monument to respecting Christian religious observances.

I have to agree with him – there is more respect given to religious speech than any other form of speech, and certainly more than it deserves. In the United States, when the owner of a company believes IUDs cause abortions (they don’t), and abortions aren’t allowed in their religion, they are allowed to not cover the cost of IUDs for their employees. This is because it’s considered a closely held belief. But that terminology seems to only apply to religion. If the same person had the closely held beliefs of white supremacists, no-one would be protecting their right to not employ people of colour.

The Author of Jesus and Mo came up with a great cartoon on the Charlie Hebdo anniversary cover:

2016-01-06 Charlie Hebdo, one year on

When he notified those of us who are subscribed by e-mail, the Author included the comments:

The anniversary is tomorrow, but today’s Wednesday so here’s a comic. I do like the Charlie Hebdo cover, which has rubbed all the right people up the wrong way.

That’s the thing about religious satire – it automatically delivers offence in the right dose: the amount of offence you take is exactly the amount you deserve.

That second sentence about religious satire delivering exactly the amount of offence you deserve is genius and right on the money, in more ways than one. Before the attack by the Kouachi brothers last year, Charlie Hebdo was struggling to carry on. The attempt of the brothers to destroy the magazine in Allah’s name has ensured its survival. That’s the kind of irony I can really appreciate.

The final comments of Riss to L’Obs are pertinent here too:

“Comment faire le journal après tout ça ? C’est tout ce qu’on a vécu depuis 23 ans qui nous en donne la rage”, affirme-t-il.

Ce ne sont pas deux petits cons encagoulés qui vont foutre en l’air le travail de nos vies. Ce n’est pas eux qui verront crever Charlie. C’est Charlie qui les verra crever.

(My translation) “How to do the magazine after that? That’s all we’d lived for, for 23 years, and it made us furious,” he said.

“These two masked idiots will  not screw up our life’s work.  They will not see the death of Charlie. It’s Charlie that will see them die.”

Those who have the courage to speak out against religious indoctrination, like Charlie Hebdo, are, as Riss says, the ones who will see the end of religion. Religion is not an idea that can stand close scrutiny – that is why so many try to shut down criticism of it and destroy those who do the criticizing. That only exposes religion’s weak underbelly and ensures enlightenment ideals like equality and humanism will spread faster.

Update: 8 January 2016

I like this cartoon from Evolving Perspectives, known to Why Evolution is True commenters as Pliny the Inbetween:

Charlie Hebdo Evol Persp

Here’s ink in your eye!