Who is Charlie, and what does he stand for?

On January 7, 2015, two brothers in Paris held assault rifles and contemplated a newspaper office. They were dressed in black and wore masks. Their names were Chérif and Saïd Kouachi. They attacked at around 11.30 am.

On that day, they killed 11 people and injured 11 more. As members of the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, they followed their orders to gun down the cartoonists, police officers and a maintenance worker. They were later gunned down themselves, after a massive hunt following the attack.

Charlie Hebdo, the newspaper that was attacked, is a satirical paper that uses a controversial brand of humor. Their humor is particularly bounded in the context of French culture, and is something most people around the world find difficult to grasp. Florence Cestac, a cartoonist and a comedic author, said she could not see how others could connect to that vein of humor, noting that ‘mental flexibility’ was required.

Does this explain the outrage of many communities? After the attack, people came out onto the streets to show solidarity saying, “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie). Others came out saying “Je suis Ahmed” (I am Ahmed) in honor of Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim officer who was shot mercilessly as he lay crippled on the sidewalk. In the wake of all these people claiming to be Charlie, it is important to ask: Who is Charlie?

The Charlie Hebdo staff say it’s about having and understanding humor. Humor is what they revolve around, and after the fire-bombing of their office in 2011, Charb, the chief editor, called the terrorists “humorless assholes”. They have made humor a matter of survival, something devoid of sentimental melodrama. They understand that most people who say “Je suis Charlie” don’t know much about Charlie Hebdo, and neither do those who stand against it. They acknowledge the irony of nations that do not have free speech themselves (Britain, Egypt, Turkey, etc.) coming together and posturing in supporting free speech and Charlie Hebdo.

Although they have been often called to court for their provocative drawings, particularly for their depictions of the Prophet (which is forbidden in some sects of Islam) they were acquitted because the court decided that the drawings mocked fundamentalism rather than Islam itself. And if we actually analyse the drawings, this certainly seems to be the case. The caricature of Muhammad (PBUH) crying and saying “it is hard to be loved by jerks” is lifting the actual religion into sanctity and pointing out the folly of fundamentalists. The caricature of him as a terrorist, which depicts Muhammad (PBUH) coming down to Earth and being beheaded by terrorists, again mocks the terrorists. The staff have never said anything against Islam.

Charb has said that terrorists do not know their own religion, uttering a sentiment a lot of law-abiding Muslim citizens have worked hard to get across. However, that does not change the fact that the depiction of the Prophet himself is taken as an insult by the majority of Muslims. Do nudes of the Prophet cross the line? Although, at this point, we must ask whether or not an atheist should conform to Muslim rules. What IS the line between free speech and hate speech?

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, 12 people were arrested and sentenced to several months in prison for being ‘apologists for terrorism’. They were arrested for publicly condoning the attack. Among them was a comedian who made a provocative joke about it and a man who had been drunk during the offence. Is this not a barrier to free speech?

This is because France makes a distinction between active and reactive incitement. Active incitement is when the speaker orders or calls for violence. Reactive incitement is when the speaker’s (cartoonist’s, in this situation) words incites violence by reaction. The latter is legal and the former illegal. It is hoped that jail-time will make these dissatisfied people more repentant. Maítre Eolas, a Paris barrister and legal blogger, disagrees. He says, “Not only is this repression absurd and useless, but it is dangerous.” The Charlie Hebdo case has opened debates on free speech and the shaky line between acceptability and unacceptability. It also raised questions about media and terrorism.

The President of France describes the Charlie Hebdo shooting as being “of the most extreme barbarity”. Yes, it is undeniably barbarous, and the international media has set out to cover it from all angles. It is safe to say that most people have heard of it. Around the same time, from 3 January to 7 January 2014, a terrorist group called Boko Haram attacked Baga, a city in Nigeria. 2000 civilians were killed. Have you heard of that? Civilian deaths caused by terrorism are highest in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, with Iraq taking the lead by a far margin. An estimated 110,000 civilian deaths have been recorded in Iraq from 2003 to 2006, and most of them are not due to terrorist attacks.

Now, numbers do not equate to value when it comes to human lives. The Charlie Hebdo attack is still brutal, inhumane and deserves condemnation. But when a leader calls it “extreme barbarity” while 2000 deaths are completely ignored, when the international media gives severely inadequate coverage, when nobody protests in solidarity with the relatives of 2000 people, one wonders if all our leaders are ignorant or just dishonest. Many commentators have criticized international media for the lack of coverage, and how this undermines the depiction of the true face of terrorism.

The Charlie Hebdo shooting raises complex questions – the fairness in media, the limitations of free speech – that every community needs to consider.


By Nafisa Choudhury


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the editorial team at IGNITE.

Image Source: Pennlive


"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." (George Orwell, in Animal Farm, 1945)


  • March 5, 2015

    Mohamed Elsayed

    First and foremost, I have to say that this is a beautifully written article!
    You have covered all the points that needed a proper explanation accurately and concisely.

    But I have to say that depicting the prophet at all is an insult to Muslims (Which you have already said), and clearly Charlie Hebdo have stepped over a dangerous line. Not that I agree at all with the horrible murders because if the prophet himself was here I highly doubt he (PBUH) would’ve even bothered.
    But what Charlie Hebdo did was the equivalent of going on TV showing a picture of someone’s Mother being Beheaded and when asked why they would do such a thing they would resort back to the good ol’ argument of “freedom of speech”, frankly if someone did that to me I would give him a fine sucker punch right in the lower jaw.
    But I digress, my whole point is that non of the sides were right, not the French government, not Charlie Hebdo , not the media, and definitely not the “extremists” which I think you would agree with.

    Just wanted to share my point of view! 🙂

  • March 6, 2015


    Thank you for your point of view 🙂 I understand what you meant by how insulting Muhammad (PBUH) would be equivalent to seeing image of one’s mother beheaded, but obscene jokes about mothers have also been around without people getting killed over it. Plus, on analysis, my opinion is that Charlie Hebdo cartoons are aimed against fundamentalists; it is not poisonous, spiteful humour. However, I can see the logic of your view too and I guess the world eventually has to democratically decide what it can allow under the banner of “free speech”.

    Also, I’m glad you liked the article 🙂