In 2012, a cartoon appeared in the pages of Charlie Hebdo depicting the prophet Muhammad naked and crouching. It was a shot across the bow, a message that the weekly newspaper would not be intimidated into softening its critiques of extremists. Just a year earlier, the satirical paper’s headquarters were destroyed in a firebomb attack.
Charlie Hebdo, irreverent, crass and a foe to just about every religion, has been the target of Islamist rage for the better part of a decade.
Depictions of the prophet are strictly prohibited in the Islamic faith. In 2007, two French Muslim groups sued the newspaper for its decision to publish about a dozen Danish cartoons of Muhammad. The case was rejected in French courts, which determined that the “cartoons were covered by freedom of expression laws and were not an attack on Islam, but fundamentalists,” the BBC reported at the time.
Perhaps emboldened by its legal victory, the newspaper has since published a steady stream of provocative cartoons. For instance, there’s the infamous 2011 cover, when the weekly paper hit the newsstands as the temporarily renamed Charia Hebdo, a crude play on the word “sharia.”
“100 lashes if you are not dying of laughter,” Muhammad was depicted saying on the cover. Inside, there was more: Muhammad was depicted again, with a red clown nose.
Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters was firebombed the next day. The attack destroyed the offices but injured no one.
“This is the first time we have been physically attacked, but we won’t let it get to us,” Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, the newspaper’s editor in chief and cartoonist, pledged after the attack.
After the bombing, the paper moved to a nondescript location in an office building in Paris, initially guarded by riot police.
In September 2012, Charlie Hebdo chose its next moment, after a low-budget American anti-Islam film sparked riots in the Middle East.
The images of a disrobed Muhammad in the paper came amid an already tense international environment. The French police called Charbonnier and asked the newspaper to reconsider publishing the cartoons. When the editor declined to do so, law enforcement once again stationed riot police outside Charlie Hebdo’s offices, and the government moved to close the French Embassy and a French school in Tunisia.
The White House criticized the decision to publish the cartoons. “We don’t question the right of something like this to be published, we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it,” Jay Carney told reporters at the time.
“The accusation that we are pouring oil on the flames in the current situation really gets on my nerves,” Charbonnier told the German magazine Der Spiegel in 2012. “After the publication of this absurd and grotesque film about Muhammad in the U.S., other newspapers have responded to the protests with cover stories. We are doing the same thing, but with drawings.
“And a drawing has never killed anyone,” he added.
Over the years, Muslim anger at the weekly publication has burned slowly in the background. Charlie Hebdo continued to depict Muhammad and critique Islam in its editorial pages, resisting calls to stop the practice.
With Wednesday’s brazen attack on the paper, that anger roared tragically to life.
A media forum supporting the Islamic State militant organization praised the attack.
“Congratulations to France and its people for harvesting what their hands have sown,” the media channel said. “Do those malicious artists think we are a nation that remains silent to those who mock our Messenger, Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him?”
Just hours before the attack, the paper sent out a tweet of a cartoon depicting Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with the message: “Meilleurs vœux, au fait.” (Best wishes, by the way.)
[This post has been updated.]