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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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”.
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.
- 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