Millions buy Charlie Hebdo ‘survivors' issue’
A new edition of the magazine that was attacked last week has smashed sales records. The journalists’ defiance of terror is uplifting — but not everybody is comfortable with their work.
If the aim of the terrorists who murdered ten Charlie Hebdo journalists last week was to silence the satirical magazine, their attack has backfired in spectacular fashion. Before the killings, the magazine had a modest circulation of 60,000. Yesterday’s ‘survivors’ edition’ sold over a million copies within hours, from news stands all over the world.
In France, long queues formed outside newsagents before they even opened their doors. Copies were flown out to fresh subscribers in distant lands, George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger among them. Others sold on Ebay for £1,500. The print run will stretch to an incredible five million copies — nearly 100 times more than any previous edition.
Many of those who bought the magazine did so in a spirit of defiance against terrorism and support for free speech. And in one way at least, it offers a message of reconciliation: ‘All is forgiven’, the cover proclaims.
Beyond those hopeful words, however, the new Charlie Hebdo is as divisive as any of its predecessors. The cover image shows Muhammad, a tear on his cheek and a ‘Je suis Charlie’ placard in his hands. It is a stubborn continuation of the magazine’s policy of flouting the Muslim ban on depictions of the prophet.
The picture is controversial in other ways too. The artist has given Muhammad the distinguishing features traditionally associated with racial stereotypes of Arabs, including a large hooked nose.
Muslims are far from the only target of Charlie Hebdo’s provocation. Cartoons have included shocking caricatures of avaricious Jews and Africans portrayed as monkeys. One cover even appeared to mock a group of schoolgirls abducted by the terrorist group Boko Haram.
None of this was simply racist polemic: the pictures' messages were complex and diverse, and many were in fact attacks on France’s far-right. But the uncompromising imagery makes many people uncomfortable nevertheless.
There is no question that Charlie Hebdo should be allowed to ply its satirical trade without fear of violence. And in the wake of such a devastating atrocity it is deeply impressive that the surviving writers produced anything at all. But is the magazine itself so admirable?
Fans see its disregard for taboos as a courageous defence of democratic principles. Freedom of speech means nothing if we can’t use it, they say: if we are scared to say something, that in itself is a reason to shout it from the rooftops.
But the magazine also has its critics. Whatever the nuances of its message, they say, Charlie Hebdo uses language and imagery that has long been used to persecute marginalised groups. Just because you have a right to say something, it doesn’t mean you should.
- Is there ever a good reason to publish pictures that contain racist stereotypes?
- One of the most famous sayings about journalism is that ‘it should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. Do you agree? Does Charlie Hebdo pass this test?
- In groups, imagine you are the editorial team of a magazine. Have a meeting in which you debate whether to reproduce a potentially offensive front cover.
- Draw a cartoon (or write a sketch) of your own in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Some People Say...
“Je ne suis pas Charlie.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- If it’s okay for Charlie Hebdo to draw Muhammad, can I do it too?
- Not without a very good reason, if at all. These particular cartoonists may or may not have been justified in their decision to break the taboo, but either way they were acting in very specific circumstances and conveying a complex, nuanced message. In other circumstances, using offensive imagery is simply offensive.
- Sticks and stones...
- May break your bones, yes. But words can also cause a lot of harm. They can hurt in a literal sense by provoking people to commit violent acts, or hurt people emotionally in ways that may matter just as much. Or they can perpetuate stereotypes that cause people suffering every day. Everybody has a right to offend; but it’s sensible and sensitive to use that right with care.
- The aim of the terrorists
- It is possible that the attackers had other objectives too. If they intended to raise the profile of Al-Qaeda or provoke an extreme emotional response then they may have achieved their goals.
- Depictions of the prophet
- The Koran, Islam’s holy book, does not explicitly forbid images of Muhammad. But other old and important Islamic texts argue that depicting the prophet turns him into a false idol.
- Racial stereotypes
- Exaggerating physical features common among a particular ethnicity to make them look ridiculous is an old tactic of racist polemic. Many people find it offensive even if the message is benign.
- Boko Haram
- A group of Islamist militants which controls parts of Nigeria. Last year they kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in an attack on female education and announced that they would be sold into slavery.
- The nationalist Front National party is very popular in France and has a chance of winning the next election. Charlie Hebdo have regularly attacked its leader and supporters — indeed, this was part of the purpose of the notorious Boko Haram cartoon.