I Have Become Charlie too
The Lost Battle for Censorship in Today’s World
Growing up in France, I remember as a kid stumbling upon a few issues of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper, in some abandoned cabinets or forgotten in the bathroom by my parents. I could not resist taking a peek, laughing over the witty jokes and play on words, but also blushing over the graphic vulgarity of some the situations illustrated. This is grown up humor, I thought, not getting all of the political criticism at stake, and too young to be interested in it anyway.
That is more or less all I knew about Charlie Hebdo. I admit it, I probably never bought their paper on my own (for the francophiles, I was always more of Canard Enchainé enthusiast). Needless (and shameless) to say that satirical cartoons have always been my favorite part about newspaper, like a child who prefers books with pictures. The concept of being able to convey an argument in a small image, full of witty and humorous connotations, with an artistic and recognizable style, seemed fascinating to me. Cartoonists had to have the talent of the journalists, comedians, writers and illustrators all at once. That represented a lot of merit. Having tried to draw cartoons myself, I was very aware of the creative challenge, always wondering “how are they able to come up with that?”. They had to have a true gift. They were artists with purposes, artists whose ambition was to change your mind.
I do remember in one of my geopolitics classes in 2005, having a lecture dedicated to the Jyllands-Posten controversy (a Danish newspaper which depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammed, that had been considered blasphemous by the aniconism traditions of Islam). With all respect to those traditions, the debate seemed absurd to us at the time, thinking that the question should not be raised in a secular country with freedom of expression. I also could not stop thinking about the democratization of information through internet and its impact on new generations. I remember our teacher trying to push us in our thinking, trying to understand what could be the answer to such polemic.
I would never have imagined that, almost ten years later, the topic would be relevant again. Now that we have access to numerous publishing platforms, this debate seems more nonsensical than ever. However, we need to value freedom of expression more than ever.
As I woke up today, on January 7th 2015, I saw the news via the plethora of posts with the social media hashtag #jesuischarlie (#Iamcharlie) in my feed: twelve people had been murdered, victims of a terrorist attack that turned a meeting room into a slaughterhouse. I was overwhelmed with feelings of chaos. Just a bad dream, I thought.
An institution has collapsed. Someone executed a cold blooded massacre and snuffed out human lives.
These victims were people who had passionately dedicated decades of their lives to a form of journalism, to the communication of ideas, to the celebration of thinking and questioning the crazy world we live in.
My country’s liberty has been attacked. Journalistic expression is now threatened. France’s freedom is one of the very strong and cherished values of the Republic: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. It finds its origins, as you may know, in the French Revolution. And there was a time, not so long ago on the scale of history, where that freedom did not exist. Freedom is the motto of our culture.
First I wanted to wonder how can such thing happen nowadays. But I quickly realized that now, more than ever, this type of bloody operation is possible. Religious extremism is not new, but access to weapons and indoctrination are sprouting like bacteria all over the internet. I also remind myself that France, as a multicultural country, located at the juncture of continents, at the crossroads of the cultural divergences, has now been under an identity crisis for a little while. Political discrepancies have been growing, an extreme right party has been rising, and political leaders have been acting uncertain about how to tackle religious diversity. Adding to that, there have been a few hundred cases of young French leaving their home for the jihad in Syria.
I believe these issues are symptomatic of Europe as a whole more than France individually, or maybe even any cosmopolitan country, where different civilizations are more likely to clash, as Huntington would say.
In this very short period of time, I saw a global media explosion of indignation. On all major social networks, I saw people compassionately sharing their grief. I saw hundreds of artists answering with their own creativity to the sad events. I saw my co-workers, my San Franciscan neighbors, my friends sharing their support. I saw John Kerry tweeting (in French!) that Charlie Hebdo is not dead because freedom of expression is indestructible.
On this very gloomy wednesday, I saw portraits of the victims. I want to think of their families and friends and hope they can rest in piece. I want to read their work and get to know them better. I want to appreciate it more, now fully aware of the risk they were taking. In 2012 Charlie Hebdo had been subjected to criticism for other islamic related publishing “I’d prefer to die standing, than live on my knees” had said Charb, one of the assassinated cartoonists, “I am cutting no one’s throat with my pencils”. I saw these words today turned into illustrations, but they now sound more tragic than satirical.
I want to think about the other victims, the manipulated ones, the brainwashed. I want to understand their despair and think about how it can be fixed. I also want to think about the muslims, who might suffer more prejudice after these events. By acting this way, the terrorists have hurt Islam. They might have hoped that the French nation would be overwhelmed with angst and revenge, and would foster hatred among all muslims in France. They wanted to widen the gap between the communities and provoke more violence, but let’s not fall into that trap.
They cannot win. We refuse to make the amalgam between terrorism and Islam, because that would go against our liberty to judge.
On this dark wednesday night, I saw hundreds of thousands of people flooding Place de la Republique. The answer is unanimous. London, Berlin, Rome, even in Nice my hometown:
WE ARE NOT AFRAID.
I saw the country be more united than I have seen in a long time. I saw the whole world standing against obscurantism. I saw courage and tolerance, and it gave me hope on this roller coaster wednesday.
Charb, Cabu, Honoré, Wolinksi and the others, I regret not reading more of your cartoons when they were fresh, and I wish I could see in your next tweets what kind of satire you would make of this.