Scott Sayare, January 11, 2015
On the day of that issue’s publication [of a particularly vulgar cartoon showing Prophet Muhammad - the blessings and peace of Allah upon him], reporting for The New York Times, I asked Gérard Biard, the top editor at Charlie Hebdo, to explain the choice to publish cartoons that could reasonably be expected to fan the violence. (Biard was away from Paris on the day of the killings last week.)
He responded by noting that Charlie Hebdo, “an atheist paper, a secularist paper, a democratic paper,” had done nothing prohibited under French law, and had made a habit of ridiculing Christians and Jews as well as Muslims. Islam, however, was in need of especially caustic treatment, he argued, insofar as it has prevented its followers from full integration into French society.
“You’re not supposed to use religion for your sense of identity, in any case not in a secular state,” Biard said. “In principle, the Arabs in France are not Muslims,” he contended—that is, Arabs in this secular, assimilationist nation are citizens like any others, and would be well served to renounce whatever attachment they may feel to Islam. “How is it going to help these people to make them believe they’re Muslims?” he asked.
Youssef Boudlal/ Reuters
Biard seemed genuinely concerned about the fate of France’s Arab population. Charlie Hebdo’s staff are “the first to demand that they have rights,” he said, referring to Arab French. But however well-meaning Charlie Hebdo's mockery of religion may be, it has succeeded in further alienating the very population it says it is seeking to advance. Muslims in France and around the world were predictably angry about the magazine’s decision to publish the images of the prophet, having failed to grasp, it seems, that Charlie Hebdo had been seeking to save them from themselves. Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, told the Associated Press, “This is a disgraceful and hateful, useless and stupid provocation.”
Charlie Hebdo preaches a stringent interpretation of laïcité, France’s illiberal official secularism, which has been used, for instance, to justify a ban on Muslim headscarves for schoolgirls and government employees. At its writing into law in 1905, laïcité was meant to ensure the separation of the French state and the Catholic Church. In recent years, however, the term has been invoked to suggest that religious practices and beliefs should be kept strictly private, in the name of le vivre ensemble, as the politicians put it, or “everyone getting along”; not coincidentally, this shifting interpretation has followed the growth of a practicing Muslim population in France. A large part of that Muslim population feels, not without reason, that the invocation of laïcité has become an expedient fig leaf for what is really anti-Muslim bigotry.
In 2012, the French sociologist and political scientist Vincent Geisser told the newspaper Libération that … “Charlie Hebdo is only looking to impose its secular purity by treating everyone else as fanatics.”
“We are a French newspaper,” Biard told me in 2012, engaged in the defense of “French” values. In an interview with the Swiss public broadcaster RTS after last week's attack on his publication, he said: “Laïcité is not just some abstract idea. It is a moral value, and I believe today, one must recognize that laïcité is perhaps the prime moral value of our Republic. Because without it, Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité isn’t possible.”
From a perch of privilege, the former outsiders (Charlie Hebdo’s leaders had once been free-thinking outsiders—the generation of May 1968, engaged in a fight against the Catholic paternalism of the post-war French establishment), who still relished the fight, turned their attention to what they perceived as threats to the values they’d helped instate—attacking the weak, in the end, as they had once attacked the powerful.
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