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Charlie Hebdo republishes cartoons that led to deadly 2015 attack

The decision by the French satirical magazine to recirculate cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad and Islam coincides with the start of a long-awaited trial for the attack that killed 11 of its staff

By Norimitsu Onishi
Published: Sep 2, 2020

Charlie Hebdo republishes cartoons that led to deadly 2015 attackA member of the photographer’s family watches the official twitter account of the french satirical newspaper 'Charlie Hebdo' as it reprints controversial Muhammad caricatures on September 01, 2020 in Paris, France. On September 02, 2020, a Paris court will open the trial of 13 men and a woman accused of providing the assailants with material and logistical support in the run-up to the attack of Charlie Hebdo's former offices on January 07, 2015
Image: Marc Piasecki/Getty Images

PARIS — The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has republished the same cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad and Islam that prompted a deadly attack on the magazine in 2015, an act that will be seen by some as a commitment to free speech and by others as reckless provocation.

The publication coincides with the start Wednesday of the long-awaited terrorism trial of people accused as accomplices in the attack — potentially cathartic for a nation that was deeply scarred by that act of brutality. The magazine posted the cartoons online Tuesday, and they will appear in print Wednesday.

The trial and the reappearance of cartoons that are seen by many as offensive come as France is seeing protests against racism and calls for reflection on the treatment of minorities in its society, past and present.

The growing sensitivity to race, ethnicity and religion has clashed with France’s traditionally forceful commitment to freedom of expression and secularism. Many traditionalists have expressed concern that the country is yielding to American-style identity politics, long widely rejected in France.

Charlie Hebdo’s editors wrote in the new issue that it was “unacceptable to start the trial" without showing the “pieces of evidence” to readers and citizens. Not republishing the caricatures would have amounted to “political or journalistic cowardice," they added. “Do we want to live in a country that claims to be a great democracy, free and modern, which, at the same time, does not affirm its most profound convictions?"

President Emmanuel Macron recently found himself trying to navigate the shifting lines of cultural sensitivity. Last year, he faced widespread criticism for giving a long, exclusive interview to Valeurs Actuelles, a right-wing magazine, and defended himself by saying that he had to speak to all French people. But over the weekend, he joined other political leaders in condemning the same magazine for depicting a Black lawmaker as an enslaved African.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was the first of a string of major Islamist attacks on Paris.

On Jan. 7, 2015, two French-born brothers of Algerian descent, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo. They killed 11 people inside with automatic gunfire, including the top editor and some of its leading cartoonists, then killed a police officer on the street as they made their getaway. Several people were wounded.

The brothers identified themselves as belonging to al-Qaida and left the magazine stating that they were “avenging the Prophet," according to survivors of the attack. Two days later, a friend of theirs, Amedy Coulibaly, took hostages and killed four people at a kosher supermarket in Paris.

The worst of the assaults came 10 months later, when a group of Islamic State gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 people and injured more than 400 at multiple sites across the capital region.

Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers were killed in standoffs with the police, so after nearly six years, the trial of suspected accomplices, which is scheduled to last two months, will mark the most complete airing of an incident that became a national trauma.

The defendants, including some who are not in custody and will be tried in absentia, are charged with aiding the three main attackers, including some who provided weapons and financing.

Charlie Hebdo, which has a long history of skewering diverse subjects across the political spectrum, had also long been accused by detractors of recklessly publishing material considered racist and anti-Muslim.

But after the massacre, huge rallies were held in support of the magazine in Paris and elsewhere. “Je suis Charlie," or “I am Charlie," became a slogan used even by people who disdained the magazine, a way to express support not only for the victims but also for free speech and a free press.

On Tuesday, Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, the main organization representing French Muslims, said that attention should not be paid to the republished cartoons.

“The freedom to caricature is guaranteed for everyone," Moussaoui told Agence France-Presse, adding, “Nothing can justify violence."

Moussaoui said that people should instead focus on the trial “which must remind us of the victims of terrorism."

“This terrorism that has struck in the name of our religion is our enemy," he added.

Most of the drawings in this week’s edition were originally published by a Danish newspaper in 2005 and included one lampooning Muhammad carrying a bomb in his turban. Many Muslims consider mockery of Islam and any depiction of the prophet to be blasphemy, and the drawings set off deadly riots in Muslim countries and resulted in boycotts of Danish products.

As a show of solidarity with the Danish publication and in the name of freedom of speech, Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons the following year as part of a “special edition." Its cover represented Prophet Muhammad saying, “It’s hard being loved by idiots." That cover’s artist, Cabu, was killed in the 2015 attack.

In 2007, the Grand Mosque of Paris and the association that is now the French Council of the Muslim Faith sued Charlie Hebdo’s editor for publishing three cartoons that they said had incited hatred against Muslims. The court ruled in favor of the editor, Philippe Val, saying the cartoons were covered by free speech.

Val, who left the magazine years before the 2015 attack, told the French radio station RMC on Tuesday that he supported the decision by the current editors to republish the cartoons.

“Not only should Charlie republish them," he said, “but all newspapers should republish them.”

One poll published Monday indicated that the 2015 attacks had strengthened the French commitment to free speech.

According to IFOP, a polling firm, and the Jean Jaurès Foundation, a French think tank, 59% of respondents said that the magazine was “right” to publish the caricatures in the name of free speech — up from 38% in 2006.

“It shows that the French are finally ruling in favor of the newspaper for having dared to publish these cartoons,” said François Kraus, a political analyst who oversaw the study.

Charlie Hebdo last published a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on its front page for the issue following the January 2015 massacre. It showed him carrying a sign saying, “I am Charlie," with the headline “All is Forgiven."

The magazine’s editors wrote that they had often been asked to publish other cartoons of Muhammad since then.

“We always refused to do it, not because it is forbidden — the law allows us to do it — but because we needed a good reason to do it, a reason that makes sense and brings something to the debate,” they wrote.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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