PARIS: The massacre Wednesday (Jan 7) at French weekly Charlie Hebdo took place after years of confrontation between the satirical publication and Islamists infuriated by what they see as its attacks on their religion.
Its offices were fire-bombed in November 2011 when it published caricatures of the Muslim prophet Mohammed but there were no casualties in that attack.
Its latest issue’s front page highlighted yet another polemic about Islam, with a focus on controversial French author Michel Houellebecq and his latest book, “Soumission” (“Submission”), which imagines a France in 2022 under Muslim rule.
The weekly publication, which seeks to provoke, amuse and inform mostly through irreverent cartoons, was under police protection when Wednesday’s assault happened because of the constant threat it was working under. Two policemen were among those killed.
The weekly started in 1970, taking inspiration for its name from the American comic book character Charlie Brown and with the aim of mocking celebrities, political leaders and religions. It never changed course, even as the threats piled up.
In 2006, Charlie Hebdo became a major target for Islamists when it reprinted 12 cartoons of Mohammed published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in a statement for freedom of expression. The cartoons, including one which showed a bomb in place of a turban, prompted violent protests in Muslim countries.
“There have been constant threats since the Mohammed caricatures were published,” Richard Malka, Charlie Hebdo’s lawyer, told RTL radio after the deadly attack. “We’ve lived under the threats for eight years. There was protection. But there is nothing that could be done against savages who come with Kalashnikovs.”
Malka, clearly shaken, said it was “madness” to be targeted with violence “simply for making cartoons”. “The newspaper only defended freedom of expression, freedom quite simply… and today journalists, cartoonists – simple cartoonists – paid a heavy price for that.”
In 2008, France’s courts acquitted Charlie Hebdo of a charge of “insulting Muslims” with the Mohammed cartoons, saying the images were “clearly” aimed at extremist Islamists and not the entire Muslim community.
The 2011 cartoon – for which Charlie Hebdo changed its masthead to “Sharia Hebdo” – depicted Mohammed laughing. The day that edition came out, the paper’s offices were set alight by what the government claimed were “fundamentalist Muslims”.
The 47-year-old editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, also one of its cartoonists, was among those killed. He had been assigned police bodyguards for the past three years. The newspaper lost three other cartoonists in the attack.
The newspaper’s website was also hacked several times. In 2011, its home screen was replaced with a photo of Mecca with the message “No God but Allah”. In 2012, more caricatures printed by Charlie Hebdo sparked fierce criticism in many Muslim countries, forcing the French government to react. Charlie Hebdo sells 30,000 copies in an average week, and recently appealed for donations to stay afloat.