Two armed men in balaclavas attacked Charlie Hebdo’s office in Paris and opened fire on the editorial staff, in the end killing five cartoonists, a columnist, a copy editor, a maintenance worker, an economist, a visitor and two police officers.
To make sense of the senseless, we tell ourselves stories. In this case, the story is that the attack on Charlie Hebdo is the latest salvo in an ongoing clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. The story is that the satirical magazine was the last bastion of free thought in an otherwise cowed press—a press that has given in to political correctness and is now too afraid to criticize Islam. The story is that Muslim leaders remain silent about this atrocity. The story is that France has failed to integrate its Muslim citizens, the descendants of immigrants from its former colonies. The story is that France has sent troops to fight in Muslim countries. The story is that there are double standards.
None of these stories will do, at least not for me. I find myself reading them in different guises in the national press, hoping they will satisfy or enlighten me, but something is always missing.
Begin with the clash of civilizations. The morning after the attack, Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote in the pages of The Wall Street Journal that the killings were not the work of “mentally deranged, lone-wolf gunmen” but were instead inspired by a political ideology that can be traced back centuries, to the Koran itself. Yet this tragedy does not reflect a world neatly divided between Muslims and non-Muslims. The victims included not just cartoonists like Charb and Cabu, whose work mocked Islam and orthodoxies of all kinds, but also a copy editor, Mustapha Ourrad, and a police officer, Ahmed Merabet, who had ancestral roots in Muslim North Africa. As for the terrorists, they were born and bred in France, and although they claimed to avenge the Prophet Muhammad, they did not hesitate to kill men who could have been their own brothers, their own flesh and blood. When I think of that morning in Paris, I don’t doubt where my allegiance is. It is with victims, whether they are believers or nonbelievers. It is with writers and artists, whether I like their work or dislike it.
In Europe and America, so the story goes, political correctness has taken hold everywhere and to such an extent that people no longer dare to criticize Islam. In that sea of conformity, we are told, Charlie Hebdo stood out as an equal-opportunity offender. It ran covers that mocked Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, the pope, François Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen. At its best, Charlie Hebdo afflicted radicals and defended free speech. In 2006, after an editor at the daily France Soir was fired for reprinting the twelve Muhammad cartoons that had led to violent protests around the world, Charlie Hebdo republished them. On the cover was one of Cabu’s best cartoons: it showed the prophet crying, with his hands covering his face. The caption read: “C’est dur d’être aimé par des cons…” (“It’s tough to be loved by morons…”). This was the magazine’s bestselling issue, with 400,000 copies sold, compared with the usual run of around 70,000 copies.