On January 7, 2015, two gunmen stormed the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. They took the lives of twelve men and women, but they called for one man by name: "Charb." Known by his pen name, Stéphane Charbonnier was editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo, an outspoken critic of religious fundamentalism, and a renowned political cartoonist in his own right. But in a twist of fate befitting Charb's defiant nature, it was soon revealed that he had finished a book just two days before his murder on the very issues at the heart of the attacks: blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the necessary courage of satirists. Open Letter by Stéphane Charbonnier (Little, Brown and Company, 2016) is an essential book about race, religion, the voice of ethnic minorities and majorities in a pluralistic society, and above all, the right to free expression and the surprising challenges being leveled at it in our fraught and dangerous time.
Journalists Promoting Islamophobia
The term “Islamophobia” could never have achieved such wild popularity without the—mostly idiotic—complicity of the media. Why were they so eager to co-opt Islamophobia? First out of laziness, then for the novelty of it, and lastly out of commercial interest. Their contribution to popularizing the term “Islamophobia” has never been motivated by the least impulse to combat racism. On the contrary.
To put it simply, any scandal containing the word “Islam” in its headline sells copy. Ever since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the media have placed a fascinating and frightening character at center stage: the Islamist terrorist. Any terrorist can scare the hell out of us, but if you make him Islamist to boot, we all shit ourselves. Fear sells well. Scary Islam sells well. And scary Islam has become the only Islam there is in the eyes of the public at large.
Because the Islam that the media shovel down consumers’ throats is by necessity radical and bearded. When the mainstream media present a report on Islam it is very often a caricature, yet it provokes little open protest from the pressure groups that track Islamophobia. So long as they’re invited to put in their two cents on the rise of Islamophobia, everybody’s happy.
On the other hand, when a cartoon of so-called radical Islam is presented as a genuine and deliberate caricature, the Islamophobia-busters lose their cool. If you want to thrive in the media ecosystem, it’s far safer to take on a little newspaper like Charlie Hebdo than to attack major television channels and news-magazines.
Nowadays, when a journalist asks a Muslim to comment on “the rise of Islamophobia,” what he’s really asking for is commentary on something the media themselves have created. In other words, the reporter helps to amplify the problem and then claims to be surprised that the problem exists and endures. The Muslim leader whom the prime-time anchor has called on to express his opinion of this notorious “rise of Islamophobia” should spit in his eye. He is face-to-face with the guy whose very job is to peddle fear of Islam.
The Muhammad Cartoons
Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of Muhammad long before the scandal of the Danish cartoons. Note that, before the so-called Muhammad cartoons affair, the artists of Charlie Hebdo were known as and considered themselves to be journalistic illustrators. Ever since, they have generally been described as cartoonists.
Without denying the utility of cartoons in reporting current events, satiric caricature is but one element of drawing. There’s no shame in it at all, but this one detail highlights the extent to which the cartoons of Muhammad have colored the general public’s view of the work done by the artists of Charlie Hebdo ever since.
As I said, the Muslim prophet had been depicted in Charlie Hebdo long before the aforementioned scandal. No pressure group or reporter had expressed dismay of any kind over these drawings. A few individuals had conveyed their disapproval by letter, nothing more. No demonstrations, no death threats, no attacks. It was only after the denunciation and exploitation of the Danish cartoons by a group of Muslim extremists that caricaturing the prophet of the faithful suddenly became the trigger of media and Islamic hysteria. Media first, Islamic later. In 2006, when Charlie Hebdo reaffirmed an artist’s right to caricature religious terrorism by republishing the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, the media turned their cameras on our satirical paper. Charlie Hebdo became yet another potential target for the wrath of God’s wingnuts. The publication of the cartoons generated a tsunami of publicity, not because they were especially shocking, but because they could only be shocking, given how they were exploited to provoke outrage abroad
The cartoon showing Muhammad wearing a turban in the form of a bomb is the best known among them. While not everyone interpreted it in the same way, it was at least open to interpretation by all, since it did not include text. Its detractors decided to read it as an insult to all Muslims.
To give the prophet of the faithful a bomb for a hat was to suggest that all his followers were terrorists. Another interpretation was possible, but it did not interest the media as much since it was not inflammatory, and therefore didn’t sell copy. Showing Muhammad in a bomb-hat could have been a way of condemning the exploitation of religion by terrorists. The cartoon was saying, “This is what terrorists have done to Islam. This is how the terrorists who claim to follow the prophet see him.”
It was because the media had decided that the reissue of the Muhammad cartoons could only unleash the fury of Muslims that it unleashed the ire of a few Muslim organizations. For some, their anger was just for show. Once they found themselves hemmed in by microphones and cameras, with reporters demanding their views on the blasphemous nature of the cartoons, the spokespersons of these pressure groups had no choice but to react. They had to prove to the most riled-up believers that they were true defenders of the faith.
The most radical Muslims compensate for their low numbers with intense, militant activism. Everyone falls for it, Muslim organizations and journalists alike. Because they have the biggest mouths, they become Islam—the real Islam. The truth is that there are few Muslims who observe all their religious obligations. And among those, the majority are not involved in religious groups, moderate or otherwise. That’s totally understandable. They don’t need someone telling them how they ought to believe.
Islam may very well be the second most practiced religion in France, but that doesn’t mean that all immigrants or children of immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries are Muslims themselves. I recall that in 2010, according to a report issued by the National Institute of Demographic Studies and the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, 2.1 million persons in France called themselves Muslims, while 11.5 million called themselves Catholics and 125,000 called themselves Jews. These figures have never been cited by minority activists, who continue to claim—depending on their mood, which way the wind blows, or their own interests—that there are six, eight, ten, or even thirteen million Muslims in France!
Thankfully, faith is not transmitted genetically, as minority pressure groups and the far right would like to have us believe. But if your parents are Muslims, or assumed to be so on the basis of their origins, you will be considered a Muslim by the pressure groups and the reactionaries. Reporters, who need to inflate the “alarming” figures, are only too happy for a few minority-group leaders in search of notoriety and power to serve up those numbers on a platter.
Ever since the Muhammad cartoons affair and the notorious trial that followed, Charlie Hebdo has been under almost continuous media surveillance. Only dare to publish a cover representing the prophet or even someone who might be mistaken for him, and they’re off! The drawing in question is described as “yet another provocation from Charlie Hebdo.” And when the TV says it’s a provocation, there’s always some group of morons out there ready to consider themselves provoked. If the press calls it a scandal, someone out there will be scandalized.
Who are these Islamophobes? They’re the ones who claim that Muslims are stupid enough to get bent out of shape over some ridiculous drawing. A drawing that was widely viewable only because it was broadcast on every channel. Islamophobia is a market not only for those who make a profession of condemning it, but also for the press that promotes it.
Excerpted from the book Open Letter by Stéphane Charbonnier. Copyright © 2015 by Les Échappés, translation copyright © 2016 by Little, Brown and Company. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.