Charlie Hebdo once published a cartoon of Mohammed with his genitals exposed against the caption: “A star is born!” There was a back story to the illustration: the magazine was satirising an anti-Islam film called “The innocence of Muslims”. Whatever one’s view of the drawing or the magazine, it can fairly be said that one either finds this kind of thing amusing or one does not. My take is the latter. Poking fun at religion is only “irreverent” in the literal sense of the word: there is nothing cutting-edge or taboo-shattering about it any more. At best, the gambit is tired; at worst, puerile. A quick glance at a range of Charlie Hebdo front pages confirms that it was one of the magazine’s routine topics. It prods at faith for laughs like an man raking an exhausted fire for sparks.
But Charlie Hebdo stood out from other publications in a striking way. Many that like to think of themselves as fearless about faith none the less fight very shy of laughing at Islam. In the wake of the controversy over the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, the magazine reprinted some. There were protests. In 2011, it printed an issue “guest-edited by Mohammed”: the journal’s site was hacked and the office of Stéphane Charbonnier, its editor, was firebombed. It pressed on – printing cartoons of Mohammed naked a year later. The French Government closed embassies abroad for fear of reprisals. Ministers and media protested. Chabonnier replied: “I don’t feel as though I’m killing someone with a pen.”
In the wake of today’s horror, the identity of his murders may be unknown, but one point is certain. He was right. Charlie Hebdo‘s digs at Islam may have been unfunny; the judgement is a matter of taste. Chabonnier himself may have been irresponsible, and the cartoons better left unpublished: the judgement is a matter for debate. But neither he nor the magazine he edited was killing anyone, and without free speech there is no free society. The men who butchered Chabonnier and his staff grasped this. Their act was barbarous, but not senseless – at least from the viewpoint of their fanatical logic. And it is being amplified in pictures on the net and on social media, just as they knew it would be.
Many Muslims have fled the east for the west to enjoy the opportunities it offers. These would not exist without the freedoms that have made them possible, of which free speech under the law is one. Most know this, and will thus be horrified by the news from France. Like others, they will grasp that although in one sense there is something disproportionate about the coverage of the massacre (after all, how much space does the media give to other murders by Islamist extremists that happen each day?), in another the appalled reaction is justified. Charlie Hebdo, with all its faults, is a proxy for democracy, with all its own flaws too.
Who is winning? Part of the answer lies in what happens next. Will the magazine close? Like this site, other publications will leap on their soapboxes to praise free speech. But will they publish the offending cartoons? If they did, would they be courageous – champions of freedom – or foolhardy, risking the lives of their staff? Whatever the answer, the terrorists understood something else: that is not just freedom that menaces their hysterical worldview, but laughter – and that the second is a by-product of the first. Just as not all jokes are good, so not all laughter is benign. But in essence, laughter is a blessing – a civilising force. It cuts down to size, pricks bubbles, sheds light, puts life in proportion.
In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a rational believer, Brother William, is pitched against a demented one. The former suspects the latter to be a murderer precisely because he hates laughter – a view for which he gives spurious justifications. At the climax of the book, Brother William says: “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.” Charlie Hebdo may or may be not have been adept at making truth laugh. But its mission to do so should also be all of ours. It is a cause that must not die amidst the blood and loss in Paris today.