The brand new—and deliberately unmarked-- offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in the 20th arrondissement of Paris were destroyed by arson hours before a special issue, renamed Charia Hebdo, hit the newsstands on November 2nd. All 75,000 copies were sold out by noon (a rerun went on sale two days later, bringing total sales to 200,000). One or more firebombs aimed precisely at the IT department wiped out the satirical magazine’s nerve center. Charlie Hebdo’s Facebook page had been bombarded with threats, insults, and koranic verses since it pre-released the front page with a caricature of guest editor Mohamed promising 100 lashes to anyone who doesn’t die laughing. As the offices went up in flames, the hacked website was plastered with a photo of Mecca packed with pilgrims, and the declaration, in English, “No god but Allah / Mohamed is the Messenger of Allah.”
This shocking attack on press freedom inspired a rush of near-unanimous solidarity in French society. Unambiguously labeling the act an “attentat,” meaning “terrorist attack,” Interior Minister Claude Guéant promised to find and severely punish the perpetrator(s). Various Muslim authorities condemned “all violence,” reiterated their disapproval of caricatures of Mohamed and other insults to Islam, and vowed to defend their religion as law-abiding citizens, in the courts.
Editorial director Charb posed meekly in front of the smoking ruins of his offices, displaying the front page that provoked those devouring flames. Interviewed by Rue89 he said that real Muslims don’t burn newspapers. Elsewhere his colleague, Pelloux, opined: “As far as I know, there is no koranic law against laughter.”
Charlie Hebdo collaborators cannot declare often enough that they have nothing against Islam. In fact, Charia Hebdo was inspired by solidarity with kindred souls, the Facebook-Twitter generation whose Arab Springtime struggle for democracy is now jeopardized by Islamists determined to replace the dictatorship of strongmen with the tyranny of shari’a law. Forty percent of newly liberated Tunisians—including expatriates who voted in France-- chose Nhada!
The Hebdo staff’s dismay at the torching of their offices suggests they may have underestimated the dangers of sentencing shari’a to a thousand satirical lashes. Hassen Chalgoumi--the Franco-Tunisian imam mercilessly targeted by the extreme-extremist-Islamist Sheikh Yassin Brigade--warns Europe against the dangers of political Islam. “Why do the Americans rejoice in the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, why did France play into the hands of al-Qaeda in Libya…?” French participation in the NATO operation in Libya was, surprisingly enough, approved by a broad bipartisan majority in France. The peace marches of 2003 are long forgotten. No voices were raised to deplore the use of force and insist on a political solution. Guttural cries of allahu akhbar (Allah is the greatest), summary executions, the destruction of Sirte, and the savage murder of Mouamar Gaddafi did not visibly disturb the peace of French society.
The term “Islamist” was coined to distinguish “radicals” from a “harmless” mainstream Islam that has every right to prosper in the bosom of our democratic societies. Then the aggregate term “moderate Islamists” was crafted to deny that Turkey is on a slippery backward slope. Quickly resigned to the inevitable domination of the Nhada party in Tunisia, commentators served up another dose of “moderate Islamists.” Now we have “extremist Islamists” throwing firebombs at a French weekly. And moderate Muslims promising to plead their anti-blasphemy case in court.
We saw the same configuration in 2006 when Charlie Hebdo reproduced the Mohamed cartoons published by Denmark’s Jyllands Posten that provoked mayhem and murder worldwide. The weekly was acquitted in a case brought against it by the Grande Mosquée de Paris and the UOIF (French branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) but the judgment specified that the right to publish the “admittedly offensive” turban bomb image in the context of a worldwide controversy should not be construed as license to disregard religious sensitivies.
This time around, French media, including the newspaper of record, le Monde, have amply reproduced and displayed material from Charia Hebdo. Not so the BBC’s Paris correspondent Charles Chazan, who explicitly rolled up the front page to show the banner while hiding the offensive image.
A half dozen publications offered refuge to the homeless editorial staff. They chose the left wing daily Libération where they were welcomed with juvenile excitement and given free reign to do the front page and a double spread in the next day’s paper. This week’s issue of Charlie Hebdo, we are promised, will appear on schedule and, we expect, will respond forcefully to those who think they can silence the free press in France.
Last spring, anti-shari'a authors extensively cited in the Manifesto posted by Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik were accused in some quarters of inspiring his hateful crime. Today, in virtue of solidarity with the endangered freedom-loving democrats of the Arab Spring countries, it is permissible to expose the dangers of shari’a without being labeled Islamophobe. And, says Charlie Hebdo, we can make fun of shari’a with all the vulgarity we exercise on any subject that tickles our minds. Perhaps. But it would be wise to go to those anti-shari’a authors and find out whether there is, in fact, a koranic law against laughter.
Because the day might come when newspaper offices in France will have to be protected by the police like Jewish day schools community centers, and synagogues.