The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charlie Hebdo republishes Muhammad cartoon ahead of shooting trial

A tribute by French street artist and painter Christian Guémy, known as C215, to Charlie Hebdo staffers who were killed by gunmen five years ago is seen in Paris on Aug. 31. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)
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PARIS — Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper, reprinted caricatures of the prophet Muhammad to mark the start of the trial of suspected accomplices in the January 2015 attacks that left 12 people dead after a weekday staff meeting.

The two men who barged into the newspaper’s Paris offices in January 2015, the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, were killed in police raids at the time. But 14 suspected accomplices are set to stand trial, beginning Wednesday, for their alleged involvement in a spate of attacks that left a lingering scar on the consciousness of a nation and gave rise to a rallying cry of its values.

The suspects are to be tried on multiple charges, including terrorist conspiracy and complicity in murder.

In the aftermath of the January 2015 attacks, which also targeted a kosher supermarket outside Paris, millions of demonstrators marched in the streets of France, chanting “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) in defense of free speech.

Before the attack, the newspaper had occasionally printed ­caricatures of Muhammad, prohibited by the Muslim faith, and had been targeted in other attacks, such as a 2011 firebombing.

Some of the caricatures the newspaper reprinted are the same as those published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-
Posten in 2005, an event that triggered protests, some of them violent, around the world. ­Charlie Hebdo republished those cartoons at the time, and its director said the paper would not back down this time, either.

“Rare are those who, five years later, dare oppose the demands that are still so pressing from religions in general, and some in particular,” wrote Laurent Sourisseau, known informally as “Riss,” in an editorial that accompanied the new edition.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry condemned the decision to republish the images. “Such a deliberate act to offend the sentiments of billions of Muslims cannot be justified as an exercise in press freedom or freedom of expression,” it tweeted.

In the years since the 2015 attack, Charlie Hebdo, an heir to a long tradition of French anticlerical irreverence, has become a national symbol. “Je Suis Charlie” has become something of a universal refrain in France, especially in the wake of terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016 that claimed more than 230 lives.

The French government has couched the trial that opens Wednesday as a plot point in the fight against Islamist terrorism. The Kouachi brothers had declared their allegiance to al-Qaeda and, after the attack, said that they had “avenged the prophet.”

Gérard Darmanin, France’s interior minister, called the trial “historic” and said that the “the fight against Islamist terrorism is a major priority of the government.”

Although the attack that struck Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris has been universally condemned both in France and abroad, some still struggle with the idea of Charlie as their champion.

France is home to one of Europe’s largest Muslim populations, and its official state secularism is frequently invoked against the presence of Islam in public life.

Charlie Hebdo is a regular, and even leading, player in that ongoing culture war. The newspaper bills itself an equal opportunity offender, but French Muslims often say they bear the brunt of its ire.

“We don’t criticize the ‘Muslim community,’ ” Sourisseau told The Washington Post in 2017. “. . . We criticize Islam and the dogma of Islam.”

But critics point to incidents such as the May 2018 cover that singled out a 19-year-old student union leader who wore a headscarf during an interview on national television that had nothing to do with Islam. Charlie Hebdo put the young woman on the cover, wearing her headscarf, with a distorted, monkey-like face.

Philippe Lançon, a former Charlie contributor and a survivor of the 2015 attacks, told The Post that he sometimes finds the paper to be overly fixated on Muslims.

“For me, it’s a bit too much,” he said in a 2018 interview. “From time to time, it would be better to focus elsewhere.”