When two gunmen stormed the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris a year ago this week, they were purportedly shouting the name "Charb" as they mowed down eight staffers. Among them, the object of the call, Editor in Chief and political cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier (aka Charb), was silenced. He was 47.
The week after the attack the Charlie Hebdo staff released its next edition of the magazine under the mantra "All Is Forgiven."
A year later and somewhat miraculously, Charb has now risen — this time not through his vitriolic and courageous caricatures of all stripes of fundamentalism but in a deeply aware and original manifesto discovered on his computer, completed only two days before his death. "Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression" is a short volume with a thought-provoking foreword by the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik.
Charb's "Open Letter" is alive with blistering rationale, all the more piercing in the context of the cost he and his staff paid to the fundamentally irrational. His treatise is fascinating too in the context of the freedom of expression debate that has ensued here in the U.S.
Shortly after the 2015 massacre in Paris, PEN America, the East Coast center for PEN International, which champions freedom of expression, bestowed its prestigious courage award to the surviving Charlie Hebdo staff for courage in its refusal to cower to the radical and murderous effort to curtail speech. This announcement was met by a petition from 35 prominent American writers, including Joyce Carol Oates and Junot Díaz (a list that quickly grew to more than 200), incensed by the choice, essentially on the basis that PEN is "valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world."
With an almost eerie prescience, the roots of this kind of outrage are deftly explored by Charbonnier in his "Open Letter."
Confident that "Islamophobia" is a kind of noxious myth, Charb regards it as a dangerous moniker that makes Islam itself the caricature. He rails that it's time to put an end to the "revolting paternalism of the white, middle class, 'leftist' intellectuals" in their castigation of his depiction of the symbols of Islam. He characterizes what he perceives to be the voice of this arrogant, knee-jerk stance as follows:
"I'm educated; obviously I get that Charlie Hebdo is a humor newspaper because, first I'm very intelligent, and second, it's my culture. But you — well, you haven't quite mastered nuanced thinking yet, so I'll express my solidarity by fulminating against Islamophobic cartoons and pretending not to understand them. I will lower myself to your level to show you that I like you."
In stark contrast to the PEN petitioners, Charbonnier asserts that protecting the sensibilities of the Muslim community is not more important than the freedom to criticize its religious ideology. He asks: "What twisted theory makes humor less compatible with Islam than with any other religion?" Grim reality, we might argue. Yet he maintains that religion is by definition political and regards the "radical and bearded" Islam "shoved down our throats by mainstream media" as caricature itself. And these portrayals, unlike the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, are rarely presented as caricature. By implication, he contends, they are dishonest and insidious.
Charbonnier declares that to present a caricature of a jihadist "looking ridiculous" is not an insult to Islam; it's just that the extremists and the religion are so conflated in our minds. In the same way, poking fun at Jewish religious extremists is not equivalent to sending up the Jewish people as a whole. "It's not that complicated," he says. "No more complicated than distinguishing between jihadist and Muslim, Muslim and immigrant, Muslim and Arab, Arab and North African, and so on."
Not complicated for him, perhaps, nor for those who killed him. Yet for those seeking a middle ground (wanting to tread lightly, avoiding provocation) and also for the deeply religious (not wanting to feel provoked), the dynamic between incendiary political satire and its objects continues to be a minefield. Arguably, it is more fraught than Charb was willing to recognize.
Recently, I was among writers representing more than 60 countries converging on Quebec City for the PEN International Congress — poets, essayists, editors and novelists from all over the world. In a panel discussion on the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, distinguished psychologist and author Andrew Solomon, president of PEN America, eloquently explored his group's adventure with its courage award to Charlie Hebdo's survivors. In the context of PEN's "freedom to write" mandate, he hearkened back to the AIDS cry from the '80s: "Silence equals death." And surely free expression should not equal death, not now or ever.
But beyond that the waters get choppy. While Solomon stood solidly behind the choice of the PEN America award, he admitted that the more he was forced to address Charlie Hebdo's contribution as a whole, the more he appreciated the muddy complexities. In the absence of hate speech, he was clear that the freedom to speak, mock, even offend should be staunchly defended; acts of creative expression may offend, but acts of violence are attacks on civil society.
As Horace Walpole observed long ago, "the world is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel." Charbonnier's rapier-pointed cartoons created a world in which we were forced to think and feel. In his manifesto he exhorts us, dares us: "to laugh at those you consider your enemies, laugh your heart out," but surely he wants more than that. His drawings married the sparks of the political, creative and emotional, shedding light on all he found absurd.
For those who accuse Charlie Hebdo of being pointlessly provocative, Charb's "Open Letter" is a window into the scope of the intellect underpinning the satire. With singular clarity, irreverence and conscience, he warns against the vagaries of racism, self-censorship and fear, examines its roots and our naiveties. He could not have known how haunting it would now feel for us to read his plea that we understand that humor isn't dangerous — it's those without it who are. His murderers could not laugh back.
Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression
Little, Brown: 96 pp., $16
Francis' first novel, "The Great Inland Sea," was published in seven languages. His second, "Stray Dog Winter," won the American Library Assn. Prize for Literature and is being made into a feature film. His third, "Wedding Bush Road," is coming from Counterpoint Press in the fall. He is vice president of PEN Center USA.