It must have been one of the last cartoons he drew before he was murdered. The editor of Charlie Hebdo – Stephane Charbonnier who signed his work Charb – sent it to me as a sort of personal message welcoming me as a new subscriber to his magazine. The subscription was, as it happened, a Christmas present from my granddaughter Maisie Dubosarsky who lives and works in Paris but was home for Christmas, and from her boy friend Simon Fieschi, the web-master of Charlie Hebdo. I had met him in Sydney last year. It was, they said in a jocular note, an ‘abonnement au journal le plus mal élevé de France’ – a ‘subscription to the rudest journal in France. En plus, le patron est communiste! Joyeux Noël.’ The Charlie Hebdo office had slipped the note inside the first issue to arrive at my address early in January. It came with Charb’s personalized cartoon. It depicted his standard self-portrait, although on this occasion he had impaled himself with a hammer and sickle. In the balloon above the self-portrait are the words ‘Don’t be afraid, Peter’, a variation in English of Charlie Hebdo’s war-cry: Même pas peur!
I am not sure what it all means. It may be mocking my conservatism. Or his own radicalism (what he calls his ‘left-wing pluralism.’) Or it may mean nothing at all, just a jeu d’esprit. In any case I was glad to have a subscription to Charlie Hebdo. I am not one of its traditional or typical readers. Je ne suis pas un Charlie but I liked its irreverence. I found some of its cartoons hilarious and some repulsive. There was no doubting its fearlessness. When the editors of most newspapers in the world, including Australia, timidly refused to republish the notorious ‘Danish cartoons’ mocking Islam in 2005, Charlie Hebdo republished them all. (‘Better to die standing than live on your knees’, as Charb puts it.)
Almost every issue continued to ridicule Islam — or Christianity or any religion, sometimes in repellent ways. Perhaps its most infamous covers have blasphemed Christ, nuns and priests, but its preferred target is Islam. One cover showed Mohammed exclaiming; ‘It’s tough being loved by jerks.’ In another issue, supposedly ‘guest-edited’ by the Prophet and renamed Charia (Sharia) Hebdo the cover showed a grinning Mohammed announcing; ‘100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter.’ Yet another cover, with the line ‘Love is stronger than hate’, showed a Charlie Hebdo artist, pencil on ear, sloppily kissing a Muslim (Mohammed?).
In retaliation, Islamist fanatics bombed the office of Charlie Hebdo and issued death threats to staff and contributors. But the journal refused to submit to terrorism or to modify its policies, not least its blasphemy. If it has an underlying creed it is anarchism. In my youth I dabbled in this creed myself (and wrote a book Obscenity Blasphemy Sedition in this spirit.) My episode did not last long, but the memory of it helps me to understand my granddaughter and her Parisian friends. I know how good her values are, and those of her family and his.
The first issue of my subscription arrived at my home in the afternoon of 7 January. The cover is Luz’s full-page lampoon of a dog bonking the French President François Hollande. The headline is: ‘Hollande’s popularity is climbing among Labradors.’ (See what I mean!) I doubt that this cover particularly upset the Islamists. But when I woke next morning I heard the news that gunmen, shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’, had murdered ten staff members of Charlie Hebdo, including Charb, and wounded eleven, four seriously, including Simon. (They also killed two police guards.) Bullets had punctured Simon’s lung and bruised his spine. He was one of the first to be shot. (A colleague beside him was shot dead.) His doctors placed him in an induced coma in a breathing machine. My shattered granddaughter Maisie, in tears, booked a flight back to Paris. When she finally reached the hospital, Simon was still in a coma. The doctors said it would be some days before he came out of it. But his appearance, in the terrible circumstances, was better than could be expected. Maisie collapsed at last into sleep. Next day she began a daily vigil in a nearby cafe with Simon’s family waiting for news.
Meanwhile as the police hunted down the murderers, the surviving members of Charlie Hebdo began preparing the next issue. (They included Luz – Renard Luzier – who had slept in on the morning of the murders and missed the shooting.) They expect to sell a million copies. Thousands of Australians joined hundreds of thousands around the world to support Charlie Hebdo’s journalists, cartoonists and managers. They were not anarchists or apostles of obscenity, blasphemy and sedition. They were proclaiming that free people will not capitulate to terrorists and murderers. Tony Abbott put it well. There will be more atrocities, he said, but we must never retreat into self-censorship to appease terrorists. We live by law, and by openness to all faiths and cultures within the law including those that may offend us. There is no end to debate, no permanent balance to be struck between the conflicting demands of freedom and civil society. As Dr Samuel Johnson summed it up over 200 years ago in his Life of Milton: ‘The danger of unbounded liberty and the danger of bounding it, have produced a problem in the science of government which human understanding seems hitherto unable to solve.’ But in a robust liberal democracy we continue to test the boundaries and modify the balance. In that sense we can all proclaim: Je suis Charlie.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10