Shortly before black-masked gunmen stormed the east Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, an image went out from the satirical newspaper’s Twitter account. Poking fun at Abu Bakr al-
Baghdadi, the leader of the militant Islamic State organization, the caricature depicted him speaking into a microphone, offering New Year’s greetings and wishes of good health.
The spoof captured the spirit of an irreverent — sometimes crass — French institution that on Wednesday became the site of a national tragedy. The gunmen struck at 11:30 a.m., a strategic time when the weekly paper that had made Islam one of its many targets was holding a key editorial meeting.
Within a few violent moments, some of the most provocative voices in French journalism were extinguished — including the paper’s chief editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, and some of France’s top cartoonists, including Jean Cabut, Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac. A paper that for the past several years had bitterly defended its right to lampoon Islam, just as it would any other juicy target, found itself paying the highest price.
“It’s as if Matt Groening of ‘The Simpsons’ had been assassinated, somebody everybody knows, who makes quips at society,” said Laurence Grove, author of “Comics in French: The European Bande Dessinée in Context.” “Okay, they are a little bit more rude and daring than Matt Groening would be, but it’s at that level of everyday knowledge in France. Everybody knows Charlie Hebdo. Everybody laughs at it, or is disgusted by it or disapproves, but everybody knows it.”
The successor of a satirical newspaper founded in the 1960s, Charlie Hebdo held few things sacred. And that’s why French of a certain stripe held it dear. You name it, and Charlie Hebdo lampooned it. The birth of Jesus Christ. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Jewish rabbis. The outlandish antics of the far right.
It seemed to thrive in hot water, purveying a particular brand of French humor for street sweepers and intellectuals alike. In a previous incarnation, when the publication was named Hara-Kiri Hebdo, a cartoon spoofing the 1970 death of Charles de Gaulle earned it a ban by the French government. Its publishers found a loophole by renaming it Charlie Hebdo, an homage to Charlie Brown cartoons as well as a sly reference to the de Gaulle comic that had once incurred the wrath of the French elite.
But without doubt, its most polemical publications revolved around Islam.
In 2006, Charlie Hebdo was one of several European publicationsto reprint cartoons of the prophet Muhammad from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-
Posten, including one showing the prophet with a bomb fuse under his turban. In 2007, several French Muslim organizations sued Charlie Hebdo for insulting their religion but lost in court.
Emboldened, the newspaper did not hold back. In an infamous 2011 cover, it jokingly renamed itself Charia Hebdo, a crude play on “sharia,” or strict Islamic law. Muhammad was depicted on the cover, saying, “100 lashes if you are not dying of laughter.”
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,” Charbonnier, also a cartoonist who was known by the pen name “Charb,” 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 temporary close 20 embassies across the Muslim world.
At the time, 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,” then-press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
But Charbonnier was always defiant, calling it an issue of democracy, freedom of speech and, in short, the right to laugh.
“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.
Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.