Jeremy Harding · Charlie Hebdo
At the time of writing, ten of Charlie Hebdo’s staff are reported dead following this morning’s attack on the paper’s offices off the Boulevard Richard Lenoir. They include the editor Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (Cabu) and Bernard Verlhac (Tignous). Two police officers are dead and five other people are seriously wounded. Only a narrow provincialism imagines that blasphemy is not a dangerous pastime. But Charlie Hebdo isn’t a cosy backwater: it has always blasphemed in earnest, as a vocational duty with high attendant risks; the signs are pretty clear so far that this terrible attack was carried out as a lesson of some kind.
The paper republished the Danish Jyllens-Posten cartoons in 2006; in 2011 it did a ‘Sharia Hebdo’ edition in the wake of Ennahda’s victory at the polls in Tunisia; its premises, then in the 20th arrondissement, were set on fire and its website was hacked. The following year it went to town on Islamic sensibilities with a suite of incendiary cartoons. On a different tack – Islamism rather than Islam – its last tweet before these murders was a cartoon birthday greeting to the Isis caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Charb was always clear about Islam: it was one of several targets (Catholicism included) but he didn’t expect everyone to be amused and threats were no dissuasion as far as the paper was concerned.
Whatever we think about this view it has its shortcomings, not least a heroic obstinacy that we wouldn’t applaud in other professions. It also refuses to imagine that injury takes many forms and some insults go deeper than we care to know. But how could Charb and his colleagues have thought or behaved any differently? They were not ordinary journalists, who refine the art of circumspection: they were exemplary satirical cartoonists and provocateurs who dealt in the currency of excess. Why endorse one strain of piety and not another?
The air in Europe is already thick with the fumes of the new identity politics and they’re heady. In France – where shock has not yet turned (or been turned) to fury, Muslim minorities will be the next to suffer. It will be the same in other countries. This is so obviously the consequence of today’s events that any killers of any persuasion – far right, or off the map; Islamist or white supremacist – who want to tip us into the cauldron would do well to invoke the Prophet, as these ones did when they burst into Charlie Hebdo’s offices and opened fire. The news is very bad, the stakes are high and France is braced.