PARIS — The deadly controversy over a French satirical newspaper’s decision to publish images of the prophet Muhammad entered a volatile new phase Tuesday, with Islamic authorities condemning the newest cartoon and the paper’s surviving staff offering a passionate defense of work completed in the shadow of a massacre.
Nearly a week after several of Charlie Hebdo’s top editors, writers and cartoonists were executed in their office, an emotional Renald Luzier — who was only spared because he was late for work last Wednesday — described his depiction of Muhammad as “nicer than the terrorists’ Muhammad.”
Luzier’s rendering shows the prophet shedding a tear and holding one of the country’s now-
ubiquitous “Je Suis Charlie” signs beneath a headline reading “All Is Forgiven.”
But even before the image hit French newsstands Wednesday, on the cover of an edition expected to sell as many
as 3 million copies, Islamic authorities warned of a potentially violent backlash.
Dar al-Ifta, Egypt’s highest authority for religious edicts, issued a statement calling the cartoon “unjustifiably provocative to the feelings of a billion and a half Muslims worldwide who love and respect the Prophet.”
The statement called on the French government to condemn the newspaper’s “racist act which works to incite sectarianism.”
Among extremist sympathizers online, calls for violence had already begun Tuesday, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors radical Web postings. One Twitter user wrote: “They want a car bomb this time.”
The latest controversy occurred as French officials said last week’s terrorist attacks involved a wider network of logistical and financial support for the three known assailants than was previously thought. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s office, several police officers and a kosher grocery store left 17 people dead in the worst terrorist action on French soil in more than half a century. The three assailants were all killed in shootouts with police, and 10,000 French troops have been dispatched to protect Jewish synagogues, schools and other sensitive sites.
French police officials said Tuesday that the attackers’ sophisticated equipment, including military-grade assault weapons and body armor, suggested they may have had financial backing from overseas and likely received assistance from others in France who are still on the loose.
“We think that they could not have done what they did with just the three of them,” said Christophe Crépin, a French police union representative.
French authorities showed no sign of backing down in the face of militants’ demands, with the national Parliament voting overwhelmingly to support continued airstrikes in Iraq against the extremist group Islamic State. Before the vote, the prime minister delivered a rousing call to arms and a defense of freedom of expression.
“France is at war with terrorism, jihadism and radical Islamism,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told members of the National Assembly, who responded with a standing ovation. “France is not at war with a religion. France is not at war with Islam and Muslims.”
Hours earlier, French President François Hollande led a somber ceremony at the grand and historic police headquarters in Paris to pay tribute to the three officers killed in last week’s attacks. Simultaneously, mourners in Israel laid to rest the four Jewish hostages who were killed in the assault at a kosher grocery store in eastern Paris.
Hollande said the country was reacting to the attacks in a way that was both “firm” and “calm,” and he urged vigilance. “The threat is not over yet,” he said.
The three dead officers included Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim who shared Algerian heritage with his killers. He was shot dead in the street several blocks from the offices of Charlie Hebdo while responding to the attack.
Another of the three slain officers had been assigned to watch over the newspaper, whose provocative images and content on Islam drew repeated threats and prompted a firebombing in late 2011. Although the irreverent style of the newsweekly sometimes shocked readers, it also was regarded as a symbol of France’s traditions of wide-open social commentary and free expression.
The paper’s staff had been acutely aware of the threat they faced but continued to publish material intended to chide and provoke, with an attitude of equalopportunity blasphemy toward all faiths and authority figures.
Before the attacks, the weekly had a normal press run of about 65,000. On Wednesday, it is expected to rise to 3 million — only about a million fewer than the number of people who took to the streets Sunday across France in a historic display of solidarity against terrorism.
The online edition will be translated into three languages: English, Spanish and Arabic, said the editor in chief, Gerard Biard. Additional print versions will be published in Italian and Turkish.
In the first extended public comments from the satirical publication’s staffers since the attacks, Biard and Luzier spoke to more than 100 journalists Tuesday at a news conference in the offices of the left-wing newspaper Libération, where Charlie survivors have been working day and night under extraordinary security to finish this week’s edition.
“There will be a future, there is no doubt about that,” Biard told reporters. “We don’t know what it will look like yet, but there will be a magazine, there will be no interruption.”
Among the dead were the paper’s top editor and several of the country’s most renowned cartoonists. As he sat down to speak, the leather-jacketed
Luzier clasped hands with his colleagues, his breathing grew heavy and his eyes welled with tears.
But as one would expect for a humor magazine, there were also moments of levity. Amid a worldwide show of support, Biard chose to single out for thanks former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who has become a subscriber.
Although this week’s cover illustration is relatively mild by the standards of previous Charlie Hebdo cartoons — including one showing Muhammad naked on all fours — there is plenty in the image to cause outrage. Many Muslims consider illustrations of the prophet to be blasphemous.
“It’s very Charlie. It’s fierce. It’s funny. It’s irreverent. A lot of people will be shocked,” said Johan Hufnagel, Libération’s deputy editor. “They know what they’re doing at Charlie. They’re showing they have no fear.”
Indeed, Luzier did not hold back Tuesday in needling the very terrorists who would likely have killed him last Wednesday had he not slept late.
“I thought for a long time that explaining the complexity of the world through drawing would protect me from the stupidity of the world,” said Luzier, who goes by the pen name Luz. “It’s apparently not the case.”
And yet, he also managed to empathize with his would-be attackers. The staff members of Charlie Hebdo, he noted, were bound by the fact that they “liked to draw little characters when we were kids.”
“The terrorists were also kids once, and they also liked to draw,” he said in a voice that was clear, confident and tinged by a profound sadness. “But at some point, they must have lost their sense of humor.”
Virgile Demoustier, Cléophée Demoustier and Anthony Faiola in Paris, Brian Murphy in Washington and Heba Habib in Cairo contributed to this report.