Satirists and cartoonists have always been on the front line of the struggle to establish and defend freedom of expression. And the journalists and media workers of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo maintained that defense across decades of struggle to broaden and deepen the discourse about elite corruption, political extremism and religious intolerance.
They were known for their work, respected for their intellect and honored for their courage. They could be bold and blunt. They could cause offense and anger. They could and did spark sincere debates about the lengths to which satire should go. But they could also be sophisticated and nuanced. "They were leftists and never xenophonic or Islamophobic. Both were champions of immigrants in France,” Turkish journalist Ertuğrul Özkök wrote in an essay on cartoonists Georges Wolinski and Jean Cabut. Wolinski and Cabut were among the most prominent of the eight Charlie Hebdo editors and contributors killed (along with a guest, a building staffer and two police officers) in a Wednesday morning attack by masked gunmen who were quickly linked with extremists who have sought to exploit anger at the magazine’s publication of satires and cartoons that challenged Islamic fundamentalism.
It is important to remember these details, and to understand the core issue raised by the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Yes, this magazine confronted Islamic extremism (as it did all religious extremism), and yes, it had suffered previous attacks for ridiculing those who would do violence in the name of religion. Yes, editor Stéphane Charbonnier had declared after a firebomb gutted the Charlie Hebdo offices three years ago, “There is no question of giving in to Islamists.”
Charbonnier and his colleagues recognized that the cartoons they published might offend Christians, Jews, Muslims and even nonbelievers. “We want to laugh at the extremists—every extremist,” Laurent Léger, a Charlie Hebdo journalist, explained in 2012. “They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept.”