The Irreverent Charlie Hebdo: Ever Defiant, Forever Under Attack

January 7th was the 8th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, which left 12 dead and 11 wounded. The motivation for the attack was linked to the many crude depictions of Muhammad that have appeared in Charlie Hebdo. This biting news journal employs exaggeration, humor, and critique to lambast acts of greed, ineptitude, hypocrisy, and treachery committed by the world’s political and religious leaders. To commemorate the horrific anniversary, the ever-irreverent hebdomidaire launched a drawing contest in early December. This time, the targeted subject was Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader.

French media, in general, has closely followed the protests and brutal acts of repression that have rocked Iran since the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman beaten by Iran’s morality police for improperly wearing the mandatory hijab. Charlie’s management team decided it was time for Iran’s theocratic dictator to come under fire. The winning submissions appeared in a special January 4th issue. Within hours, Charlie Hebdo’s website and data center had been hacked by Iranian state actors. The cyber attack prompted the magazine to shut down for a week.

Charlie Hebdo contest submission
Submission from Italy

Brutality Worthy of Contempt

According to the Norwegian watchdog, Iran Human Rights (IHR), Iran executed more than 500 people in 2022. This figure does not include the estimated 450 protestors who were killed in the streets by Iranian security forces between September and early December. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2021 annual report on human rights in Iran, “Islamic law allows for the execution of juvenile offenders starting at age 9 for girls and age 13 for boys”. Among the offenses warranting the death penalty is moharebeh, or “waging war against God”.

Such was the case for 23-year-old Majid-Reza Rahnavard who in December was publicly hung from a crane in the northeastern city of Mashhad, the site of many protests. Rahnavard was executed 3 weeks after his arrest. His trial was held behind closed doors and he was not allowed access to a lawyer. Eyewitnesses claim he appeared to have been beaten.

Throughout 2022, Charlie Hebdo covered the escalating tensions between an increasingly outraged citizenry and the ever-more-brutal crackdown of the Iranian government. When it came time to choose the subject for December’s drawing competition, I suspect there was little debate.

Abolish the Morality Police
Iran Abolition of the Morality Police
“Finally free!” By Coco

The call for submissions featured a cartoon by Corine “Coco” Rey, the courageous editorial cartoonist who was present during the 2015 attacks.

A Long Tradition of Political Satire

Political satire and demeaning caricatures are nothing new in France. According to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the first such illustrations were engraved in wood at the end of the 14th century. Even French kings tolerated a certain level of mockery, highering comical jesters, known as bouffons, to entertain their courts. The introduction of the printing press in the 15th century accelerated the speed at which injustice could be lampooned. Protestant reformers used caricature to criticize the Pope, while authors such as Moliere and La Fontaine became wildly popular for their scathing depictions of the rich and powerful.

Use for the Pope's briefing 1791
Use for the Pope’s briefing in which he condemns the civil constitution, 1791

Indeed, France is proud of its satirical patrimony. Satire fueled the rallying cries of the French revolution. In the 19th century, as a less restrained press began to prosper, numerous illustrated periodicals emerged. Many were hungry for provocative content that sometimes landed illustrators and publishers in prison. During the world wars of the 20th century, political satire was outlawed unless it lambasted the enemy. However, since the 1950s, editorial and illustrative mockery have largely gone unchecked.

Daumier's depiction of King Louis-Philippe
Honoré Daumier’s depiction of King Louis-Philippe as a 3-faced pear.

Cries of Islamophobia

Since its inception, Charlie Hebdo has had no shortage of detractors who claim that the periodical goes too far—that too often its illustrations are racist and elements of the editorial content border on hate speech. Mockery is clearly a touchy and tricky business. In 2014, Charlie’s cover featured a group of headscarf-wearing, pregnant Nigerian women shouting “Don’t touch our welfare!”. The cartoon’s caption read “Boko Haram Sex Slaves are Mad”.

Charlie Hebdo 2014 Cover

How, some people asked, could it possibly be funny to mock women ravaged by the barbaric grasp of Boko Haram, the Islamist militant organization that kidnapped hundreds of school girls? Such concerns misinterpret Charlie‘s intentions. The cover is actually mocking France’s political far right, which exploits people’s fear of strangers by characterizing African immigrants as lazy and unwanted residents who are overwhelming France’s welfare rolls.

As Charlie Hebdo is a left-leaning, secular publication, its ruthless humor has long been criticized by the far right and the Catholic church. Over the years, the magazine has mocked virus victims, dying drug addicts, world leaders, neo-Nazis, popes, bishops, Jewish leaders, and other religious, political, and entertainment figures. Its treatment of Islamic extremism, however, has resulted in countless death threats and, tragically, the brutal massacre of January 2015.

It’s hard to ignore critics who point out that Charlie‘s portrayals of Muslims have been undeniably hostile. Accusations of Islamophobia are bolstered by the magazine’s persistent depictions of Muslims as violent and irrational. Detractors argue that such images reinforce negative stereotypes of Muslims that are commonly held in western countries. However, the magazine firmly denies such allegations, stating categorically that they are not mocking Muslims. Their scorn is laser-focused on Islamic extremism.

An Ear to the Ground

The controversial journal seems to be keenly aware of public opinion. In 2020, as the trial of their 2015 attackers was getting underway, they engaged Ifop, a French institute that runs opinion polls, to gauge the nation’s support of their blasphemous caricatures. Ifop’s poll was given to 1000 French people chosen at random, as well as 500 French Muslims. 59% of respondents in the first group were supportive of Charlie‘s methods (up from 38% in 2006). Not surprisingly, 69% of Muslim respondents were opposed.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the poll revealed an emerging trend. 47% of young people under the age of 25 were also against Charlie‘s harsh portrayals.

In January, Ifop again took to the streets, asking French people if they embraced the spirit of Je suis Charlie, a rallying cry for freedom of expression that arose in the wake of the 2015 attack. This time, 46% of respondents under the age of 35 said they stood behind the slogan, less than half. By comparison, 63% of people 35 and older remain supportive.

Je suis Charlie poster

No Sign of Backing Down

The official position of Charlie Hebdo remains one of defiance. It sees the younger generation’s high regard for individual expression as being unjustifiably elevated above the practice of ridiculing religious extremism and abuse. The recent cyber attack only serves to fuel Charlie‘s propensity to double down.

Earlier this month, Microsoft’s Digital Threat Analysis Center issued a report confirming that Iranian state actors were behind the attack. A group calling themselves the Holy Souls managed to obtain the personal data records of more than 200,000 Charlie Hebdo subscribers and is offering to sell this information for 20 bitcoin, roughly $460,000. During the 2020 US presidential election, the same group allegedly conducted a cyber campaign “to intimidate and influence American voters, and otherwise undermine voter confidence and sow discord”.

Caricature of Iran's Supreme Leader
Submission from The Netherlands

I close with the words of Charlie Hebdo’s Director of Publishing, Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau.

L’autodérision n’a jamais été le fort des tyrans, qui plus est religieux… Une attaque informatique ne fait pas de morts, mais elle donne le ton. Le régime des mollahs se sentirait à ce point en danger qu’il estimerait vital pour son existence de pirater le site d’un journal français. C’est à la fois un honneur mais surtout la preuve que leur pouvoir se sent bien fragile.

Self-deprecation has never been a strong suit of tyrants; even less so among those that are religious… A cyberattack doesn’t kill anyone, but it sets the tone. The regime of mullahs felt itself in so much danger that it viewed pirating a French newspaper’s website as vital to its existence. This is both an honor but also proof that they perceive their power as fragile.

Ce que l’Iran a créé en 1979, c’est une illusion, celle d’une société entièrement dirigée par la religion. La peur et la répression ont pu faire croire que cette utopie religieuse avait réussi. Mais, dans les faits, derrière les voiles et les exécutions publiques, bouillonnaient des revendications et des pulsions de vie qui ne pourraient plus être étouffées indéfiniment. Qu’est-ce que les mollahs comprennent au désir, à l’envie et à la fougue ? Pas grand-chose, probablement. Leur obsession et leur seule jouissance sont de contrôler les autres, et pour cela ils doivent intimider, dissuader et réprimer. Ils sont incapables d’aider leurs semblables à s’épanouir puisque eux-mêmes ne le sont pas. Quand on s’est mis soi-même dans une telle impasse, la seule issue est de faire payer aux autres ses propres frustrations. Les mollahs répriment les pulsions de la jeunesse iranienne parce qu’ils n’ont jamais assumé les leurs.

What Iran created in 1979 was the illusion of a society guided entirely by religion. Fear and repression may have made people believe that this religious utopia had succeeded. But in reality, behind the veils and the public executions, demands and appetites have been simmering that cannot be smothered indefinitely. What do the mullahs understand about desire, yearning, or passion? Probably not much. Their obsession, and their only joy, is controlling others, which they can only achieve through intimidation, dissuasion, and repression. They are incapable of helping their fellow citizens flourish because they themselves are stunted. When you’ve placed yourself in such an impasse, the only way out is to make others pay for your frustrations. The mullahs are repressing young Iranians’ urges and ambitions because they have never accepted their own.

Ce qui se passe en Iran n’est pas seulement une révolution démocra­tique, c’est une révolte des désirs et du plaisir. Les condamnés à mort, pendus à Téhéran, ne sont pas des femmes ou des hommes dans la force de l’âge, qui ont déjà vécu intensément leur vie. Ce sont des jeunes, à l’aube de leur existence, remplis d’espoirs et de désirs. Les passions tristes des mollahs ne supportent pas d’être défiées par les passions heureuses de la jeunesse iranienne.

Iran is undergoing not only a democratic revolution but a revolt in favor of desire and pleasure. Those condemned to death and hung in Tehran are not women and men in the middle of life, who have already lived intensely. They are young people on the cusp of adulthood, full of hopes and desires. The sorry passions of the mullahs can not tolerate being defied by the exuberant desires of Iranian youth.

What do you think? Are Riss’ words too harsh? Do Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures go too far? Do you see yourself in the Je suis Charlie camp, decidedly outside of it, or somewhere in between? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Terrorist cartoon
Continue Making Them Tremble
“Guys, guys, there’s a pencil threatening me… what do I do?

Other resources

  • Maddin-Art, La caricature, une longue tradition française
  • FranceInfo, Procès en appel des attentats de janvier 2015
  • Charlie Hebdo, « Esprit Charlie », es-tu toujours là ?
  • Charlie Hebdo, Mullah Attacks
  • France24, Eight years after deadly attacks, Charlie Hebdo back in the headlines for angering Tehran
  • Radio France, Pour son “numéro spécial 7 janvier”, Charlie Hebdo publie 35 caricatures du Guide suprême iranien
  • Charlie Hebdo, International contest #MullahsGetOut : Every participant won a place in hell

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. Bravo! Charlie Hebdo and its staff are true heroes of free expression. The fact that they target the powerful and the supposedly sacrosanct is why they’re they epitome of what the free press should be.

    The various terrorist attacks on the magazine’s offices, and the recent hacking attack, show that they’re being effective, and that the Islamist totalitarians fear the power of satire directed against them. It’s a commonplace but true saying — when you’re getting flak, that means you’re over the correct target. Pompous, self-important authoritarians hate mockery and ridicule perhaps more than anything else. It deflates their precious pretensions, and they have no natural defense in kind against it. So they respond with violence and suppression.

    that too often its illustrations are racist and elements of the editorial content border on hate speech

    The epithet “racist” is so ridiculously overused nowadays that it automatically casts suspicion on the person shouting it, rather than on the target. It’s especially ridiculous to describe attacks on Islam as “racist”. Islam is a belief system, not a race, and Muslims, like Christians, can be of any race. As for “hate speech”, that is included under free speech, whatever the quavering pearl-clutchers may prefer to believe. It’s expression of opinion. And who could possibly be more worthy of hate than the murderous tyrants of the Iranian theocracy, or the terrorists who insist on enforcing their taboos everywhere on Earth by threats of murder and even actual murder?

    Not surprisingly, 69% of Muslim respondents were opposed

    What’s actually interesting about this is that 31% of Muslims did not choose to put themselves on record as “opposed”. This shows that they too recognize the distinction between Islamic extremism and Muslims more generally (remember, most Islamist terrorism happens within the Middle East, and the vast majority of people killed by Islamists have been Muslims). It also shows how most Muslims in France, and the West in general, are assimilating to the mainstream culture and absorbing its values, generation by generation, as almost all immigrant groups tend to do.

    Sourisseau’s observations are right on target. Tyrants, as I noted above, are indeed pompous, humorless, and fragile, desperate to silence and intimidate anyone who mocks them. Of course “a society guided entirely by religion” can only ever be an illusion, sustained by force and threats, because it is in conflict with human nature which is untidy and complex and not geared to existing in submission to any kind of rigid ideology. The uprising is “a revolt in favor of desire and pleasure” because life without those things is not worth living. The regime will ultimately fail because it seeks to entomb a vigorous and culturally-rich nation in a kind of living death.

    Continuer à les faire trembler, indeed.

    • “And who could possibly be more worthy of hate than the murderous tyrants of the Iranian theocracy, or the terrorists who insist on enforcing their taboos everywhere on Earth by threats of murder and even actual murder?” Very well stated Infidel.

      Yes, 31% of French Muslims saying that they are behind Charlie Hebdo is impressive because their portrayals of Muslims have not been positive. That said, however, they don’t portray anyone in a positive light. That’s not their mission.

  2. great post – it can’t be easy for them to be that brave, so our support is all the more important

  3. Their courage and steadfastness to their mission are even more admirable considering what they’ve gone through. It’s clear the hacking is a tribute to their effectiveness. I’m concerned, though, about the polling that found relatively low levels of support among young people. I always take heart that the younger generation, often showing movement away from the divisiveness and prejudices of their elders, will do better than we have. Yet satire and humor are essential for revealing abuses of power. If they shy away from such forms, they may reduce their effectiveness.

    Well done, Carol!

    • I seem to recall seeing surveys indicating a similar retreat from full-bore freedom of speech among young people in the US. It seems that education in many Western countries, due to the infiltration of woketardia, is failing to transmit the values of a free society. Instead young people are being taught an ethos of walking-on-eggshells, “sensitivity”, and cringeing deference to the whinings of any sniveler who declares himself offended — especially if the latter belongs to some officially-recognized “oppressed” group. To minds thus poisoned, Charlie Hebdo would obviously be anathema. One can only hope that this mentality will erode as young people leave academia and make their way in the real world — and be grateful that, in the US at least, the First Amendment does much to shield free expression from the vagaries of public opinion.

    • I agree Annie. I wonder if those young people will hold the same opinion 10-15 years from now. I have to say that my own kids are pretty uncomfortable with mockery. I admire their sensitivity but as Infidel points out, some people and subcultures simply don’t merit respect. In my opinion, Tehran’s theocratic regime is one of them.

      • Hi, Infidel and Carol. I hope you don’t mind that I respond to both of you at once. As much as I’d like to be a free speech absolutist, I am not one. I find the association between the levels of hate speech today and the growing incidence of actual violence too dangerous for a society that purports to be civil. I had a visceral reaction to the Boko Haram cartoon, but I also felt it crossed the line from satirizing the hatred leading to horrific acts to actually being an illustration of it–a ready weapon for those who would perform them.

        As I did not experience any of the purported educational excesses that you, Infidel, decry as a possible reason for young people being less supportive of satire, I wonder if it’s in some way associated with their being more open to diversity and less judgmental in general due to their life experiences–rather than with anything they’ve been taught. (And though I think we’ve seen an urgent need for teaching plain old civics, I don’t see anything being taught that endangers the values of a free society.) Carol, I’m most interested in your observations about your young adult children, whose sensitivity you admire. What about parody–such as “The Onion”? I just reread their Supreme Court brief–in defense of parody–which they actually submitted to the Supreme Court. If you haven’t read it, it’s great fun.

        • I don’t want to overstate my kids sensitivity. They do appreciate mockery but perhaps a kinder, gentler version. Intellectually, I think they understand the thinking behind almost any instantiation of political satire. But they don’t seek out the harsh condemnations. They’d never subscribe, for example, to a publication like Charlie Hebdo.

          Humorists like Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, and John Oliver are more suited to their sensibilities. They avoid the mainstream media but all three are very committed to creating a better world. Far more than I ever was.

          Keep in mind, that they’d no doubt take issue with aspects of my over-simplified characterization of their beliefs. For one thing, they are each individuals with varied perspectives and approaches to the world. But, that’s generally how I see it.

          • Like your kids, I’m a great fan of John Stewart, Trevor Noah, and John Oliver. I appreciate your caveat about oversimplifying their views or lumping them all together.

        • Even the most vicious and obscene case of “hate speech” is not even one-hundredth as dangerous as efforts of government — or of “woke” bullies — to regulate speech. If you want an example of what a rejection of free-speech absolutism looks like, it’s right in front of you — Ron DeSantis’s Florida. People who support some “reasonable” and “moderate” regulation of free expression always assume that the decisions about what speech is unacceptable would be made by people with basically the same world-view as themselves. That’s a deadly error. Once the principle is established that certain views are unacceptable and don’t deserve full-bore free-speech protection, that means that somebody has to be empowered to decide which views are unacceptable. Nobody can be trusted with such power, and in practice all it takes is one bad election and someone like DeSantis or Trump is making those decisions for the whole country.

          I too found the Boko Haram sex-slave cartoon repulsive. If they were trying to make some point against the far right, they completely missed the mark. But I would go all-out to defend their right to publish it, because I know how many people would find my own views on various issues repulsive. Charlie Hebdo’s freedom is my freedom.

          the association between the levels of hate speech today and the growing incidence of actual violence

          Pretty much all the violence is coming from the pro-censorship side, from the “offended” people — the Islamists who attacked Charlie Hebdo, the cancel-culture bullies getting people fired and ostracized for expressing opinions, the trans thugs terrorizing and beating up feminists all over Europe.

          I did not experience any of the purported educational excesses that you, Infidel, decry

          That’s because it started long after people your and my age had already passed through the educational system. If you don’t take a special interest in following the subject, it’s hard to imagine how bad it is in some schools. But it’s a tried-and-proven form of indoctrination in certain other countries….. Trust us. It’s only about limiting “hate speech”. It’s only going to be used against those bad people over there with unacceptable opinions. Not against you. Not unless someday we decide your opinions are unacceptable. Trust us.

          No thanks. I’ll remain a free-speech absolutist. I stand with Charlie Hebdo even when they’re wrong, even when they’re hateful — for the sake of my own rights.

          • I’m sure you’re more comfortable with your position than I am with mine. I’m well aware of the dangers of government intrusion. (I also would defend Charlie’s use of that odious cartoon, though I’d probably write them a letter.) I think the “falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” exception holds up, for the most part.

            One of the problems today is that people who are clearly autocratic—such as Musk and DeSantis—wield the issue as a weapon against their “woke” opponents. (I’d love to see that word gone.) “My free speech is sacrosanct; you don’t get that” they seem to be saying.

  4. Moi? Je suis Charlie. Forever. I may not like some of their sketches, I don’t care. It is a matter of pride to be form a country where such “satire” can be published. As for the “younguns”, there seems to be a swing towards more “puritanism”? Maybe. I don’t know. The wheel will turn around.
    And as for Iran, what is happening there is a shame. The West is just “letting it happen”. Too busy elsewhere I imagine. It is also sad for the iranian people. One the world’s oldest civilization. Their women – and men too – are brave…

    • Regarding Charlie and Iran, I couldn’t agree with you more Brieuc . And, of course it goes without saying that I think there is much about France to be proud of.

      With respect to young people, I think there are pluses and minuses to most attitudes. In the case of my kids, they seem to have grown up in a time when there was far less bullying in school than when I was young. The kids seemed to be uniformly nicer to one another. However, it does perhaps make them more vulnerable to bad actors who will exploit any opening for dominance they come across.

      • And yet, Charlie is under critic… Fear is still rampant…
        Bullying? I’m glad it is down… (Since I didn’t go to school until Senior High I was spared that…LOL)
        But yes, they might be more vulnerable to the many bad guys who will roam the Earth until Judgement Day…

  5. I am Charlie … definitely !
    Many thanks, Carol, and a super great ans super sweet day to you.

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