Unknown painter, Sultan Muhammad Nur (calligrapher), The Mi'raj or The Night Flight of Muhammad on his Steed Buraq, Folio from a Bustan of Sa`di, ca. 1525–35, ink, gold, colors on paper, 7 1/2“ x 5”.


AT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, in a gallery devoted to Persian and Central Asian art of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, is a small painting on paper from Uzbekistan that depicts the Mi’raj, or the ascent of the Prophet Muhammad to heaven. The prophet, wearing a blue tunic and a turban, his eyes narrow, with a beatific smile, sits astride al-Buraq, a steed with a human face. The angel Gabriel guides Muhammad from Jerusalem, in whose mosque a Qu’ran sits in a ring of fire, up to a paradise of golden clouds. Sensitive, intricate, alive with spiritual conviction, the miniature has been a touchstone for me since the Met’s Islamic wing reopened in 2011. It reminds me not only of the complexity and diversity of the world of Islam, but also of how utterly my country failed to reckon with that world’s realities in the years after 9/11, and instead joined a bogus Manichean showdown to justify an illegal war and an indecent power grab. Even depictions of the prophet, the ultimate us-versus-them schism, have a long and multifarious history that few seem willing to engage.

I’ve come back to that painting, from the mid-sixteenth century, in the days since the heinous murders of the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Several of the victims were artists, and two in particular, Jean Cabut (pen name “Cabu”) and Georges Wolinski, were iconic figures of French popular culture. Universal condemnation of their murders, though, has not stopped them from being misread, deprecated, or totally exploited in the English-language press. Soi-disant liberals, all too eager to throw themselves back into the shameful embrace of the warmongering right, have held up the drawings of Cabu and others as grist for clash-of-civilizations delusions. (Manuel Valls, the young, Blairist prime minster, declared last week that France was “at war with terrorism,” thirteen years after we started that lunatic errand.) Their opponents, notably young leftists with justified anxiety about the lives of Muslims and people of color in France and elsewhere, have traduced them—all too willing to relativize the deaths of their fellow writers and artists in the name of allegedly greater sympathies.

Might not art historians and art critics have a role to play in putting things to rights? It’s a testament to how badly things are going that even the murder of artists is not enough to get the art world to stand together, but Charlie Hebdo and its contributors deserve better. We who are all too happy to celebrate the obscenity of a Georges Bataille or Paul McCarthy have bridled at the images by Cabu and his slain colleagues. And we have been all too resigned to these artists’ subsumption into a martial rhetoric they would have despised—and mercilessly lampooned.

Left: Cover of Hara-Kiri (n°94, November 16, 1970). Right: Cover of Charlie Hebdo (n°1, November 23, 1970).


They have, after all, been fighting the establishment since the 1960s, at the newspaper’s predecessor Hara-Kiri: “a dumb, mean newspaper,” as its slogan read, which was shut by the French government after brutally mocking the death of Charles de Gaulle. Charlie Hebdo is a child of May ’68, and its irreverence, its anticlericalism, its sex jokes, and its cheapness have a deep political structure. Its intentional bad taste can be best summed up with the word gouaille: a rough Gallic impertinence, knowledgeable but dirty. One early issue of Charlie Hebdo led with a NASA astronaut holding up the heads of decapitated Vietnamese, captioned “Long live America.” “RACISTS HAVE SMALL DICKS,” screamed the cover of an issue in 1973. The cover of the Christmas number of 1975 called on readers to “Gun down the soldiers / Strangle the priests / Steamroll the cops / Burn the banks.”

The most enduring image from the early days of Charlie Hebdo came in 1971, when abortion was still illegal in France. That April, Simone de Beauvoir led a group of 343 notable women who declared they had terminated a pregnancy. Charlie Hebdo’s next issue featured a cover by Cabu depicting Michel Debré, the former prime minister and implacable opponent of abortion rights. “Who knocked up these 343 sluts?” asked the headline, to which an exhausted, jowly Debré responds, “I did it for France.” De Beauvoir’s text, which was key to the legalization of abortion in 1975, is still known today as the “manifesto of the 343 sluts”—Jeanne Moreau was particularly proud of that epithet—in caustic reclamation of women’s sexual independence against the church and the government.

Cover of Charlie Hebdo (n°21, April 12, 1971). Illustration by Jean Cabut (“Cabu”).


Il est interdit d’interdire. It’s necessary to consider the history, and more importantly the spirit, of Charlie Hebdo when coming to terms with its more recent images, especially the cartoons lampooning Islam. Charlie Hebdo has always been a profoundly anticlerical newspaper, and its ruthless mockery of the Catholic church has taken on renewed life in the wake of the Manif pour tous, a new revanchist Catholic movement aligned with the hard-right, distressingly popular Front National party. But Islam specifically came into the paper’s sights in 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad and set off a global crisis. The Danish paper is right wing; Charlie Hebdo didn’t care, and ran all twelve of the cartoons anyway, with a cover by Cabu in which Muhammad wailed, “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.” This was a trap. The Danish cartoons were extremely racist—the prophet with a bomb in his turban, that sort of thing. But Charlie Hebdo, eternal provocateurs, placed a higher premium on free expression than on the sensitivities of anti-racists or true believers, and so they went for it.

Free expression is not enough to explain why a newspaper with a decades-long commitment to fighting racism printed racist cartoons. To understand why they’d do this, you also need to appreciate France’s centuries-long tradition of anticlerical satire (bouffer du curé) on the one hand, and on the other the bedrock principle of laïcité that undergirds the French state and Charlie Hebdo’s political struggle. Laïcité, shakily translated as “secularism” and established during the Third Republic, is a militant separation of church and state that sits at the heart of French citizenship, and it is today a fraught enterprise. Unlike in the United States, where “freedom of religion” permits all sorts of exceptions—say, the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance—laïcité entails the total expulsion of all religion by the state: notably the wearing of the veil and yarmulke by schoolchildren, banned in 2004.

We are now on the central ground of international politics in the twenty-first century, the terrain of globalization and postcolonialism and religion and difference, and Charlie Hebdo’s in-your-face, up-your-ass images have a different tenor. In 2011, following the victory of an Islamist party in the Tunisian elections, the paper put a grinning Muhammad on the cover and retitled itself Sharia Hebdo; even before the issue hit the streets, its offices were firebombed. The next year, further cartoons of the prophet led the French foreign ministry to close twenty of its embassies. Nearly everyone has missed the joke in one of those: when the nude, coquettish Muhammad says, “And my ass, do you like my ass?”, he’s quoting Brigitte Bardot, the actress-turned-Islamophobic washout who calls French Muslims “invaders.” These were crude and gratuitous, just as cartoons of a crucified Jesus sunbathing in Saint-Tropez are crude and gratuitous, but their antagonism now functioned very differently. Suddenly it was the rightwing press defending Charlie Hebdo, among them the creepy Figaro editorialist Ivan Rioufol—who, on the radio last week, had the gall to demand that a Muslim panelist “dissociate” herself from the terrorists.

How did anti-racist, anti-military, anti-church artists end up, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, producing images that antagonized some of France’s most vulnerable citizens? It certainly isn’t because of any change in Charlie Hebdo’s political line—the paper angrily protested Israel’s incursions in Gaza, and ran a weekly column campaigning for the rights of undocumented immigrants. Nor can this be put down to a lack of diversity on staff: Mustapha Ourrad, murdered last week, was Charlie Hebdo’s longtime copy editor, and anyone watching French television these past few days will have seen the numerous tearful interviews with Zineb el Rhazoui, one of the surviving editorial members who got this week’s issue out on time. It was because of unresolved, perhaps unresolvable conflicts between the ideal of laïcité and the segregated reality of French life, and the unfeasibility in such a situation of what the French call second degré humor, which we might translate imperfectly as “ironic” or “tongue-in-cheek.”

Laïcité, which in the years after the Algerian war was largely embraced by North African immigrants in metropolitan France, has now become a cudgel by which immigrant- and Muslim-hating leaders dress up their exclusionary politics in the name of “equality.” (Those interested in the growing phenomenon of sectarian laïcité, and how xenophobia can disguise itself in the garb of tolerance, should read Edwy Plenel’s Pour les musulmans [For Muslims], an important broadside published last year.) In this, they have help from the jihadists: The monstrousness of al-Qaeda and ISIS is regularly trotted out by the French far right as the reason to, say, ban halal meat. And the laïcité of Charlie Hebdo’s images, whose mockery of religion is theoretically part of a battle for equality, is very hard to distinguish from the sectarian laïcité of the Islamophobes. When Cabu and Wolinski mocked the Church, it was clearly in an effort to build a new, freer France. When they mocked the Prophet, they were addressing new controversies with dated techniques: perhaps counterproductive ones.

Jacket cover for Sarkozy m’a expulsé, 2011. Illustration by Stéphane Charbonnier (“Charb”).


Whether second degré humor is possible in such circumstances is not clear. Charlie Hebdo’s ’68-era mockery may have no future in such an unequal society. But if you really want to call out racist cartoons, you would do better to start with Tintin and Astérix. In November 2013, the newspaper’s editor Charb wrote: “The current editorial team is divided among followers of the left, the extreme left, anarchism, and ecology. None of us vote. But all of us cracked open the bubbly when Nicolas Sarkozy lost.” Charb, murdered last week, worked with France’s largest antiracism charities, and many of his images mocked the country’s supposed blindness to race: “I’d love to hire you, but I don’t like the color of your…uh, tie!” To see how Charb, a proud communist with an Arab partner, a man who fought relentlessly for the regularization of France’s sans-papiers, has been transformed in certain English-language reactions into an immigrant-bashing white supremacist is to see just how easily second degré humor slips into out-of-context literalism. Remember too that Charlie Hebdo recently published a book, Sarkozy Deported Me, collecting 140 testimonies of undocumented immigrants who had come to France and who faced tragic, sometimes fatal hostility.

There is a dreadfully racist and Islamophobic press in France. This includes not just the usual assortment of nativist websites and radio stations, but also mass-market magazines such as Valeurs actuelles, which warns of a “secret invasion” of France by Muslim immigrants, or the even sicker Minute, an extremist magazine that celebrated Slobodan Milosević for “protecting us from an Islamist invasion.” One of the best-selling books of last year was by Éric Zemmour, a journalist who encourages the “deportation” of Muslims (the vast majority of whom are French citizens; deported to where?). It’s bad—but Charlie Hebdo is not at all in this vein. Its principal antagonist is not Islam, and absolutely not Muslims; it’s the Front National, the extreme right party that has surged in popularity over the past two years and that the paper attacks week after week. Hasty English-language reactions to last week’s crime have insinuated that Charlie Hebdo was somehow obsessed with Islam, or even took pleasure in antagonizing Muslims. On the contrary, the Prophet Muhammad appeared on only one cover in 2014 (and in an anti-ISIS cartoon, no less), while the Front National was flayed ten times. Cabu, in particular, was for decades an implacable opponent of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s first leader, who sued him three times. His daughter Marine Le Pen, who has a better-than-zero chance of ending up as president of France one day, has not had it easier. During her (successful) campaign to detoxify the FN brand, the artist Riss drew her taking a razor to her pubic hair, which was in the form of a Hitler moustache. When 366 African migrants died off the coast of Lampedusa, Charlie Hebdo unflinchingly called the disaster “the platform of the Front National.”

Or consider the cover of Charlie Hebdo on October 22, 2014 (FIAC week!), drawn by Riss, who was wounded in the attack. It depicts four child hostages of the Nigerian insurgent group Boko Haram, all of them pregnant. The headline reads, “The anger of Boko Haram’s sex slaves,” and the hostages shout, “Hands off our benefits.” This vulgarity and obscenity, we should say, is barely anyone’s kind of humor. Charlie Hebdo was only selling 30,000 copies a week and had severe funding problems. But to anyone with a basic command of the French political scene, the joke is clear: It is a simultaneous attack on both Boko Haram and French politicians, especially on the far right. The week before the cover ran, Hollande’s health minister had announced new cuts to family welfare programs, to which Marine Le Pen responded, “I’d prefer that we stop giving welfare benefits to foreigners instead of lowering them for French people…. When you have three, four, five, six kids, and you receive what adds up to serious money—that encourages immigration.” The image explicitly utilizes Le Pen’s racism and xenophobia for its own purposes. It deploys a proudly tasteless and obviously absurd premise (for after all, Nigerians don’t get French tax credits) to skewer the true oppressors of poor women, in Africa and in Europe.

Left: Cover of Charlie Hebdo (n°984, April, 2011). Right: Cover of Charlie Hebdo (n°1145, May, 2014).


This second degré style has been there from the very beginning, from the days of Hara-Kiri, and we have learned this week that it translates very badly. But to blame Cabu and Charb for the national failings they have been trying to diagnose and oppose—and to do so while their corpses are still warm—is perverse. The novelist Teju Cole, in just one of the “yes, but” reactions of the past week, drew a regrettable comparison between Charlie Hebdo and neo-Nazis in a web piece for the New Yorker. But a better analogy might be Christoph Schlingensief, the late German theater director recently exhibited at MoMA PS1: another leftwing, pro-immigrant provocateur whose favorite method was the amplification of his opponents’ lies and absurdities. His action Foreigners Out–Please Love Austria, 2000, staged a version of Big Brother in Vienna’s central square; the contestants were asylum seekers, and Austrians could vote on who should be deported and who should get a passport. Too many spectators took it literally; one tried to burn the set down.

An art historical gaze upon the images of Charlie Hebdo would, first of all, reckon with the forms and the iconography of its cartoons within the context they arose—and only then wrestle with the images’ virality, slipperiness, and out-of-context force. I am not arguing in favor of every one of their cartoons. What I am arguing for is a more honest appraisal of the etiology of this monstrous crime, an acknowledgment of the particular French tradition of laïcité, and a recognition that these images’ recent worldwide propagation complicates our ability to read them. Images take on new meanings, new lives, as they move along global and digital networks; second degré irony recedes into premier degré literalism, with painful and, we now know, deadly effects. What is the responsibility of the creators for their images’ transformations along the chain? How do we think these images in the plenitude of their networked trajectories? Could some of the more offensive images be both racist and opposed to the racist policies advanced by Le Pen and her cohort—not easily fixed in an imperialist rebus?

Le Pen was not welcome last Sunday, at the largest demonstration in the history of France: four million people, in Paris and in the regions, refusing the minimizations and the amalgamations of the past few days. Ariane Mnouchkine and her Théâtre du Soleil showed up with a giant puppet Marianne, bloodied but still standing. While jingoists put “Je suis Charlie” on their Islamophobic websites in the name of so-called liberty, the marchers’ “Je suis Charlie” and its corollaries—I am a Muslim, I am a Jew, I am a cop, I am French—evinced that last and highest of revolutionary values: fraternity, the unambiguous and undifferentiated love for one another that both the jihadists and our own warmongers fear. And on Wednesday Charlie Hebdo hit the newsstands, in a print run of five million, with the Prophet in tears. Its headline should guide all of us as we work our way through this era of accusation and retribution: tout est pardonné. All is forgiven.

Jason Farago

Press run of Charlie Hebdo (n°1178, January 14, 2014). Illustration by Renald Luzier (“Luz”).