Socialism, satire and Charlie Hebdo

Issue: 147

Mark Brown

The murderous attack on the Paris offices of the “satirical” magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015—in which 12 people (nine journalists, two police officers and a caretaker) were killed—has, obviously and correctly, been condemned by every decent person on the left. Socialists defer to no one in our revulsion at the murders.

However, many on the left, including supporters of this journal, have long advocated a political argument against the magazine’s repeated mocking of Islam and Muslims through its portrayals of the prophet Muhammad. These portrayals offended Muslims because they breached Islam’s prohibition on depictions of the prophet. More than that, however, in depicting the prophet naked and as a huge-nosed, bearded Arab caricature, they were gratuitously Islamophobic and racist. The best elements on the left argued that the cartoons contributed to a rise in Islamophobia against the 4.7 million Muslims in France and Muslims elsewhere.

In the hours and days after the attack it became clear that revulsion at the shootings was being shaped into a very distinct narrative. This narrative was constructed by the French state, via the French political elite and mainstream media, and was immediately signed up to by most Western politicians and media. It was an argument that should have been resisted by everyone on the left, and which we should continue to oppose now.

The position of French president François Hollande and the French state went like this:

  • The attack on Charlie Hebdo was not a response, however ­misguided, to Islamophobia or Western imperialism in the Muslim world, but an assault on “democratic values” and “freedom of expression”.
  • The Charlie Hebdo murders, and associated shootings in the two days that followed, amount to the worst atrocities on French soil since the Second World War.1
  • The “satire” published by Charlie Hebdo represents the values of the French Republic, namely, in the words of Hollande, “impertinence and independence”, “freedom of expression”, and pluralism and democracy”. Consequently, the murdered journalists should be considered “heroes”.2
  • Everyone in France, and throughout the world, should adopt the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) in solidarity with the victims of the shootings. Any criticism of the editorial policy of Charlie Hebdo is tantamount to support for those who planned and carried out the attack.

There was, in this argument, a strong and sinister echo of George W Bush’s insistence, following the attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”.3 There was also a glaring irony that, in the name of “freedom of expression”, only one view, and a state sponsored view at that, seemed to be acceptable in France. Hollande, the leader of a party of the supposed centre-left, was not only defending, but actually celebrating Islamophobic and racist cartoons.

If the argument of the French state, by way of the president and the mass media, was vulgar in some respects, it was cynically sophisticated in others. The slogan “Je suis Charlie” may have been the creation of surviving Charlie Hebdo staff and loved ones of those who had been murdered, but it was quickly seized upon by the forces of the state. Hollande threw the powers of the French Republic behind a series of “unity rallies” across France on 11 January, in which an estimated 3 million people (including 1.6 million in Paris) took part. The president also committed the state to publishing 5 million copies (reportedly rising to 7 million) of the following edition of Charlie Hebdo; an edition which led with yet another depiction of the prophet Muhammad.

The slogan “Je suis Charlie” was, and still is, sufficiently ambiguous to allow many different political tendencies to exist under its umbrella. For some it was not necessarily an endorsement of the Islamophobic cartoons, but simply an expression of solidarity with the murdered journalists and their loved ones. Others signed up to the slogan on the basis of defence of “French republican” values such as “freedom of expression” and “secularism”. Yet others, including Hollande, the leadership of his Socialist Party and much of the French right, glorified the cartoons. For them “Je suis Charlie” did, indeed, mean associating themselves with the imagery, including the Islamophobic and racist imagery, of a magazine which describes itself, beneath its masthead, as a “journal irresponsable” (“irresponsible newspaper”).

With “Je suis Charlie” meaning so many things to so many people, it should come as no surprise that the unity demonstrations were extremely diverse in political terms. Right wing French nationalists, Islamophobes and racists were there, no doubt. However, so were people who wanted to make a clear distinction between the attackers and the vast majority of France’s Muslims and to express their solidarity with the Muslim population. “Je suis contre l’islamophobie” (“I am against Islamophobia”) and similar slogans were seen on the marches, alongside expressions of solidarity with France’s Jewish community, following the murder of four hostages in a kosher supermarket in Paris on 9 January.

Hollande was at pains to try to exclude Marine Le Pen and her fascist Front National from the unity events following the 7 January attack. Nevertheless, Le Pen, whose party won a quarter of the national vote in the French local elections in March 2015, found herself able to swim with the tide of Islamophobia being promoted by the government and the mass media. The Charlie Hebdo murders were caused, she said, by multiculturalism, immigration and the failure of Muslims in France to accept “French values”. She called for raids on mosques, an end to the free movement of people within the EU and a referendum on the restoration of the death penalty.

The one section of society who, almost without exception, could not identify with the “Je suis Charlie” slogan were French Muslims, who constitute some 7.5 percent of the country’s population. Although they were overwhelmingly horrified by the shootings at Charlie Hebdo, how could Muslims take part in what was, from the president’s speeches, to the TV news and the front pages of many newspapers, an endorsement of a magazine that had repeatedly ridiculed them and insulted one of the core principles of their faith? How, for example, could the family of Ahmed Merabet, the 40 year old Muslim policeman who died in a gun battle with the Charlie Hebdo attackers, march under the “Je suis Charlie” banner? In fact, on 11 January, they held their own alternative vigil under the slogan “Je suis Ahmed”.

As if the official state endorsement of Charlie Hebdo’s Islamophobia was not bad enough, Hollande allowed the 11 January march to become a platform for Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. This was despite his recent mass murder of more than 2,200 Palestinians in the 2014 assault on Gaza. Netanyahu peddled the right wing Zionist myth that France’s Jews are in mortal danger from the country’s Muslim population and advocated mass migration of French Jews to Israel. Meanwhile, too little emphasis was placed on the case of Lassana Bathily, the 24 year old Muslim shop worker from Mali who risked his life to save Jewish people during the kosher supermarket hostage crisis of 9 January.4

In such an atmosphere, it came as no surprise that French Muslims suffered an Islamophobic backlash. The French National Observatory Against Islamophobia reported that there was a wave of hate crimes against France’s Muslims in the 48 hours following the Charlie Hebdo atrocity.5 This included attacks on 16 places of worship, including fire bombings, gunshots, a grenade attack (thankfully, the weapon did not explode) and the throwing of pigs’ heads into mosques.6

The French left, Charlie and the struggle against oppression

Charlie Hebdo had a history of publishing various Islamophobic cartoons before the attack. On 7 January itself the French state rushed, not only to express solidarity with the magazine, but also to endorse its editorial position. In such circumstances it would be reasonable to expect the socialist left to condemn the attacks, of course, but also to take an unequivocal and resolute stand against Islamophobia. Sadly, it did not do so. As Alex Callincos noted in Socialist Worker in the week after the shootings, rather than prioritise an anti-Islamophobic response, France’s far-left New Anti-capitalist Party parroted the right’s talk of Islamist “barbarism” and, even “fascism”.7

Here is not the place to survey the French left’s historic failures where Islamophobia is concerned in detail. It should be noted, however, that its weak response to the Charlie Hebdo attack was not an aberration. France’s Muslim population has faced a number of attacks from the French state since 2004 which have been brought in under the guise of upholding the “secular principles” of the French Republic. The primary target of these measures has been Muslim women who wear the hijab (headscarf). They have been refused the right to wear the hijab in public sector jobs delivering public services (such as in teaching and many civil service positions). Rather than denouncing these as Islamophobic attacks by the state, most of the French left have sided with the state over its claims to be upholding “secularist principles” and even defending the rights of women.

It should hardly need to be said that the secularism of the French revolutionary state in the late 18th century, aimed at curbing the power of the monarchist Catholic church, is a far cry from the secularism of the French state today. In the more than two centuries since the 1789 Revolution the French state has become a reactionary, bourgeois, imperialist state. Indeed, from the Middle East to West and North Africa, French imperialism was engaged in the brutal subjugation of many predominantly Muslim populations.

The French far-left’s failure to adopt a consistent Marxist position, whether on the issue of the hijab or the Charlie Hebdo attack, is indicative of fundamental shortcomings on two key revolutionary principles expounded by Lenin. The first, as he argues in The State and Revolution, is that Marxism is predicated on a profound opposition to the bourgeois state. The second is that the revolutionary party must seek always to be a “tribune of the people…able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects”.8 Regardless of the sophistry used to justify its positions, it is clear that much of the French radical left has, in effect, sided with the French state against the oppressed Muslim community at key moments.

There is a bitter irony in this failure. The French radical tradition boasts numerous examples of successful campaigns against oppression, the most famous, perhaps, being the Dreyfus Affair of 1894 to 1906. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French Army, was the subject of an anti-Semitic conspiracy that led to him being wrongly convicted of selling military secrets to Germany. He was imprisoned for almost five years on the aptly named Devil’s Island in French Guiana. His conviction led to a huge campaign for his release, and against anti-Semitism in the French establishment and society more generally.

In the midst of this campaign the great writer Émile Zola wrote his famous open letter to the French president, Félix Faure. The letter was published on the front page of the Paris newspaper L’Aurore under the heading “J’accuse” (I Accuse). In it Zola courageously named the members of the French military establishment who he believed were involved in the conspiracy against Dreyfus. He also denounced “that odious anti-Semitism of which great liberal France, France of the rights of man, will die, unless she is cured of her disease”.9 The letter was published in 1898. Few doubt that its publication made a serious contribution to the freeing of Dreyfus in 1899 and the eventual clearing of his name seven years later.

There are worrying echoes of the “odious anti-Semitism” of Zola’s day in the equally odious Islamophobia that afflicts France today. If only the French left would take the principled stand of Zola, against the state and in defence of the oppressed.

Attacking the oppressed is not satire

The best elements of the international left had criticised the publication of Islamophobic cartoons in Charlie Hebdo from the outset, in 2006, and done the same when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published provocative caricatures of the prophet Muhammad in 2005. The reason was very simple. For socialists, the purpose of satire is, as the American writer Finley Peter Dunne said of journalism more broadly, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. When satire is directed, not against the rich and powerful, but against the oppressed in society, it is no longer satire but bullying.

In an excellent interview with Channel 4 News in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the English writer Will Self argued that the French magazine’s cartoons should not be considered satire: “You always have to ask, with something that purports to be satire, who’s it attacking? Are they people who are in a position of power? And, if it’s attacking people in a position of power, is it giving comfort to people who are powerless and who are assaulted, in some sense, by those powerful people?” The Charlie Hebdo cartoons did not, he argued, meet any of these criteria for satire.10 Indeed, as Self wrote two days after the Paris attack, it wasn’t clear what the cartoons’ supporters were afflicted by and how they were being comforted by the images, “unless their ‘affliction’ is the very fact of a substantial Muslim population in France, and their ‘comfort’ consists in inking-in all these fellow citizens with a terroristic brush”.11

The American writer Norman Finkelstein has been widely criticised for his strong attacks on the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in the wake of the assault on the magazine’s offices. However, although most socialists would want to distance themselves from Finkelstein’s comment that he had “no sympathy” with the journalists who had been killed, his critique included some important points which the left should embrace.

Finkelstein has been ridiculed for comparing the Islamophobia of the French cartoons to the anti-Semitic drawings of the notorious Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer in Germany in the first half of the 20th century. Yet his reasoning is sound. Both sets of cartoons set out, he argued, to attack the oppressed and should be considered “sadism” rather than satire: “When somebody is down and out, desperate, destitute, when you mock them, when you mock a homeless person, that is not satire”.12

Many of the world’s Muslims, Finkelstein continued, whether Muslim women in France denied the right to wear the hijab, Pakistanis facing US drone strikes or Palestinians living under brutal Israeli occupation, face various forms of oppression. The perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack were, he said, “two despairing and desperate young men act[ing] out their despair and desperation against this political pornography no different than Der Stürmer”. Charlie Hebdo looked upon the “death and destruction” faced by Muslims around the world and decided “it is somehow noble to degrade, demean, humiliate and insult the [Muslim] people”.13

Muslims in France today may not be as oppressed as Jews in Germany in the time of Der Stürmer, particularly after the Nazis came to power in 1933. However, it is unarguable that they are a vulnerable minority, oppressed by the state and at risk of a possible fascist government, should the Front National come to power. In that context, Finkelstein’s analogy is a legitimate one. His characterisation of cartoons which mock and demean the oppressed as “sadism” rather than satire is an accurate and helpful definition.

The examples of supposed “satire”, particularly cartoons, being used as a means of reinforcing oppression are many and varied. Two examples, from 19th century Britain and 20th century Germany, will suffice in illustrating the point.

In the late 19th century the British state faced increasing unrest in Ireland. Irish nationalist sentiment was on the rise, and some groups took to violent action against members of the British establishment. In 1882, following the assassinations of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke in Phoenix Park in Dublin, British magazine Punch published one of its ­notoriously anti-Irish cartoons. The cartoon, entitled “The Irish Frankenstein”,14 implied that Liberal prime minister William Gladstone’s efforts to come to an ­accommodation with Charles Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party had spawned a Frankenstein’s monster in the shape of “Irish terrorism”. It shows Ireland as a huge, terrifying creature, more beast than man, towering over a top hatted English gentleman who cowers beneath it in terror.

The racist caricatures of the Irish nation and people in Punch could almost have served as a guide for the anti-Semitic cartoons of Der Stürmer in Germany. A typical example of the latter, from 1936, is the cartoon sarcastically entitled “The Decent Jew”.15 It shows a racially stereotyped Jewish man politely asking a gentile if he can share a bench with him. When the gentile allows the Jew to sit down, the Jew pushes him from the bench. The implications—that Jews are untrustworthy, greedy and consumed with a lust for power, and that non-Jewish Germans should treat their Jewish neighbours with the utmost suspicion and hostility at all times—are very clear.

It seems unimaginable today that any reasonable person, let alone anyone on the left, would hold up racist images such as these as examples of satire or defend their publication on the basis of “freedom of expression”. Yet that is what we are being asked to do in respect of Charlie Hebdo. The 7 January shootings, condemnable and rightly condemned though they are, do not erase the fact that the cartoons published by the French magazine set out deliberately and consistently to ridicule Islam and the oppressed Muslims of France, Europe and beyond. They are, contrary to the liberal justifications of them, remarkably similar in both nature and intent to the Punch and Der Stürmer cartoons described above.

Many of those who defend the Charlie Hebdo cartoons do so by comparing the French magazine to the British satirical magazine Private Eye. Charlie Hebdo, they maintain, engages in broad satire, and is equally scurrilous of Christianity as it is of Islam. The first argument is simply wrong. Private Eye, for the most part, dedicates itself to holding those in positions of power to account, and to satirising politicians of all parties. It does not carry cartoons that are gratuitously offensive to oppressed sections of society.

The second argument misses the point completely. The fact that Charlie Hebdo says rude things about the Catholic church does not legitimise its Islamophobic cartoons. When it satirises Catholicism the ramifications for France’s white, Catholic majority are precisely zero. Catholics are not an oppressed group in French society, and the ridicule of Charlie Hebdo brings them no closer to becoming oppressed.

The Islamophobic caricatures, by contrast, contribute to an ­increasingly virulent climate of hatred against Islam. France’s Muslims, most of them the descendants of Arabs and sub-Saharan Africans whose countries were colonised by France, have had a very turbulent and difficult relationship with the French state. Today, in addition to widespread racial and xenophobic hatred and state sanctions, such as the ban on the hijab, they face the resurgence of a fascist party which is openly hostile towards them. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and the state’s glorification and promotion of them, have only added to that sense of marginalisation and oppression.

Charlie Hebdo may publish Islamophobic material out of a misguided sense of libertarian secularism, but that does not make the social impact of that material on France’s Muslims any less damaging. The post-attack publication of the magazine as state-financed satire (truly an Orwellian oxymoron) is a clear indication that Charlie Hebdo has inverted Dunne’s maxim and now comforts those in power, while afflicting the oppressed.

Those who doubt the Islamophobic intent behind the publication of the cartoons should consider the words of its late editor, Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier himself. Asked in 2012 about his reasoning for publishing ­representations of the prophet, he replied: “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me… I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Koranic law”.16

Charbonnier’s complete disregard for the discomfort the cartoons were causing Muslims in France did not amuse everyone connected with Charlie Hebdo. Writing in the aftermath of the 7 January attack, the magazine’s founder, Henri Roussel, criticised Charbonnier’s repeated decisions to publish Islamophobic cartoons: “What made him feel the need to drag the team into overdoing it?” Roussel asked, regarding cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo in 2011. “He shouldn’t have done it, but Charb did it again a year later, in September 2012”.17

Since the attack on Charlie Hebdo we have had further proof that the obsession among some people in the West with depicting, usually caricaturing, the prophet Muhammad is driven, not by a belief in “freedom of expression”, but by Islamophobia. On 3 May 2015 two men were killed in a gun battle with police as they tried to gain entry to an exhibition of cartoons submitted to a competition of drawings depicting the prophet near Dallas, Texas. The men are believed to have been Muslims outraged by the competition. The exhibition organisers are notorious Islamophobes, and the keynote speaker at their event was extreme right wing, Islamophobic Dutch politician Geert Wilders.18 This event is a particularly egregious example of the abuse of “freedom of expression” and its use, not to “comfort the afflicted”, but to contribute to a rising tide of Islamophobic oppression in the West.

The myth of absolute “freedom of expression”

The Texas event shows how easily the libertarian obsession with absolute “freedom of expression” plays into the hands of far-right racists and fascists. The notion that one should say something simply because one can is a ludicrous and infantile distortion of the democratic rights achieved in many societies through centuries of struggle. Indeed, many of the societies in which leading politicians have recently been proclaiming their belief in “freedom of expression” have laws forbidding hate speech. In the legal jurisdictions of the UK, for example, the rights of freedom of expression are, in theory at least, balanced with responsibilities not to encourage discrimination or violence against certain sections of society.

In Britain socialists, trade unionists and other anti-fascists have long argued, often with success, that the right of “freedom of expression” should not be extended to fascists. Consequently, for many people across the UK, it is a principle that the rights of people from ethnic minorities, gay people, disabled people, socialists and others to freedom from fascist violence supersede the supposed “rights” of fascists to a democratic platform.

This “no platform” position is often under attack. Most significantly, it is opposed by elements of the British establishment, notably the BBC, which, prior to the British National Party’s recent implosion, seemed obsessed with offering airtime to the fascist organisation. The inclusion of then BNP leader Nick Griffin on the panel of its flagship political discussion programme Question Time in 2009 was a particular low point for the BBC.

However, perhaps the most insidious attacks on the principle of “no platform” come from self-proclaimed liberal libertarians. Often repeating the maxim “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (regularly, but wrongly, attributed to Voltaire),19 many libertarians defend the “democratic rights” of fascists. A similarly wrong-headed libertarianism motivates many of those who defend the Islamophobic cartoons in Charlie Hebdo.

They don’t like real satire: the case of Brass Eye

There is an irony in some liberal libertarians lining up with the establishment, whether in defence of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons or in championing the “freedom of speech” of fascists. While the libertarians maintain that complete freedom of expression is an absolute right, their friends in the establishment are less committed to the supposed “freedoms” they espouse. For example, the right wing Daily Mail, which praised the murdered Charlie Hebdo journalists as people who “stood up for free speech”,20 has also attacked the British tour of the Palestinian play The Siege by The Freedom Theatre of Jenin, attempting to smear it as “pro-terrorist” propaganda.21

Such hypocrisy and double standards are typical of the establishment when it comes to freedom of expression—especially when it comes to real satire. World leaders may have lined up in Paris to support Charlie Hebdo, but they are less supportive when they and their system are being satirised. An example from the UK in the early 21st century shows the limitations of our rulers’ commitment to the freedoms of satirists.

In 2001 Channel 4 screened a special edition of Chris Morris’s satirical TV show Brass Eye. Entitled “Paedogeddon!” it used comic exaggeration to ridicule the British mass media’s moral panic over paedophilia, including the News of the World’s “name and shame” campaign.22 Perhaps the most significant element of the programme was the series of clips of politicians and celebrities who, thinking they were contributing to an anti-paedophilia campaign, were prepared to repeat arrant nonsense about this sensitive subject to attempt to ingratiate themselves with the public.

Tory MP and notorious homophobic bigot Gerald Howarth told us that “none other than DJ Bob Hoskins Going Mental in a Dustbin” had recorded an anti-paedophilia track. He then played a song with the lyric “Keep away from the guy with the funny eye”, and advised children that, if they played the music in their rooms as they slept, they would wake up “17.8 percent safer”.

Retired professional footballer and TV presenter Gary Lineker informed us that the word “BALTIMORA” was a mobile phone text message code used by paedophiles and that it translated as “I’m running at them now with my trousers down”. Pop star Phil Collins promoted a paedophile awareness campaign called “Nonce Sense”, while wearing a hat with the campaign name on it. Other high profile figures tricked into disseminating similar rubbish on Brass Eye included athlete turned Tory politician Seb Coe, Labour politicians Barbara Follett and Syd Rapson, and TV news reader Nicholas Owen.

Morris’s satire exposed something very important about the moral panic over paedophilia. It showed that the media campaign on the issue was based, not on research, serious investigation or informed opinion, but on frenzied fear-mongering. It came as little surprise that much of the mass media rounded on Morris, accusing him, disingenuously, of making sick jokes about paedophilia. The Daily Mail denounced him as “the most loathed man on TV”. It was more surprising, perhaps, that Tony Blair’s Labour government got in on the act. Two Labour ministers, Beverley Hughes and David Blunkett, condemned the show, but later admitted to not having watched it. Then culture secretary Tessa Jowell criticised Channel 4 for broadcasting the programme a second time, arguing that a large number of complaints from the public should have prevented the repeat broadcast.23

The Brass Eye show has come to be considered a classic work of satire. Indeed, in the light of the paedophile scandals which were exposed in the UK in 2014, its implicit critique of the mass media’s sensationalism and lack of journalistic rigour seems more relevant than ever. The denunciation of the show by the mass media and the government of the day stand in stark contrast with the establishment’s defence of “freedom of expression” where the Islamophobic cartoons of Charlie Hebdo are concerned.


1: An outrageous assertion that completely and deliberately overlooked the massacre on 17 October 1961 of more than 200 unarmed, pro-independence Algerian protesters in Paris by the French police—Einaudi, 2011.

2: French Embassy in the United States, 2015.

3: Washington Post, 2001.

4: Bathily’s French citizenship was expedited and a medal awarded to him by the French state, but only after he had been initially arrested as a suspect as he emerged from the supermarket after the siege.

5: Associated Press, 2015.

6: For more on Islamophobia in France before and after the attack on Charlie Hebdo see Wolfreys, 2015.

7: Callinicos, 2015.

8: Lenin, 1902.

9: Zola, 2014, p23.

11: Self, 2015.

12: Caglayan, 2015.

13: Caglayan, 2015.

16: BBC News, 2015.

17: Glenday, 2015.

18: Bever and Murphy, 2015.

19: The phrase is actually S G Tallentyre’s summary, in 1907, of Voltaire’s attitude towards the French philosopher Helvétius. Go to

20: Bentley, 2015.

21: Craven, 2015.

23: BBC News, 2001.


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