Remembering back to the dramatic terrorist activity in the Paris of 2015, at least one conclusion of that terrorist news cycle is now at hand: the Charlie Hebdo terrorism trial, which was held this fall 2020 in Paris, from September 2nd to November 10th, has reached its verdict for those implicated, with sentences ranging from four years to life in prison.
In 2015, as if it were just yesterday, Phrontisterion published an essay around a Charlie Hebdo editorial by Riss.
In democratic society the philosophical
problem of religions, any and all religions, is really
quite spectacular and deadly serious. The question was perhaps best considered, and articulated to the Anglo-Saxon world, by John Locke in his 1689 text, A Letter Concerning Toleration; and that question remains clear and relevant at the outset of this new year 2021: what to do with religions in societies with a democratically organized mandate?
In a philosophical nutshell: Religions, which are structurally authoritarian by nature, are antithetical, and therefore philosophical hostile, to democratic societies. In theory at least, democratic societies must seek to replace the authoritarian tendencies of human animal society, with a reasoned egalitarianism. This is the very essence of the secular society. This is also the very nut of the difficulty.
§ March 2015: In response to the tragic events of February 7th at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
The new century is yet in its adolescence, and in a moment of historical Necessity the rallying cry – “Je suis Charlie” – has been heard in the streets of France. The contemporary translation of a still youngish idea, this cry goes to the heart of the democratic ideal: to unite “free hearts, free foreheads” around the notion, barely more than two centuries old, that men will be happier when allowed to live out their lives in freedom, that liberty and equality will yield a greater harvest of human joy and fulfillment than any form of tyranny, whether of religion or of state. To borrow from Abraham Lincoln’s rhythms—we are now engaged in an historical wager, to test whether Men so conceived and so dedicated in Liberty, can long endure.
The following text is Phrontisterion’s translation of Riss’s Editorial from February 25, 2015 (CH #1179), the first edition of Charlie Hebdo to appear on the newsstands after the slaughter of its editorial staff by religious fundamentalists in Paris on February 7th.
“For a long time I thought that the worst thing that could happen to a political cartoonist would be to be poisoned, which is what happened to Daumier and Philipon under the reign of the old fool Louis-Philippe. So when Charb, Luz, or myself, young cartoonists, would propose some sketch to satiric newspapers at the beginning of the 1990s, there was nothing to fear, because the benevolent angel of our craft was hovering just above our heads: the sacrosanct Freedom of Expression.
With just our cartoons we were hoping to laugh and to make others laugh; but after several years, and after drawing all the famous celebrities in laughable situations, a question came to our minds: to caricature, to make drawings—at the end of the day what is the purpose of it? After all, a drawing is just a drawing. Just a little scribbled something that tries to be humorous all the while hoping to get someone to think. To laugh and to make one think: this is what makes an ideal caricature! The pleasure of surprising the reader by taking an unusual point of view, by doing a little side-step that obliges the reader to look at things obliquely, from an angle that is unfamiliar, different from mainstream seeing. The exaggeration and the embellishment, which are the much-criticized stock in trade of the political cartoonists at “Charlie Hebdo,” are nothing more than a means of exploring roads less traveled by.
It is perhaps this that the assassins of January 7th could not tolerate, those who, if truth be told, never really tried to do anything. They just allowed themselves to be coddled by the comforts of a religion that already has all the responses, and that allows one to dispense with thinking and doubting; because doubt is the worst enemy of religion. There can be no more doubting when one has chosen to enter into a newspaper office in order to kill everyone.
The cartoonists and the editors at “Charlie,” on the other hand, spend all their time doubting. About everything, and especially about themselves, their talent, and their inspiration. Which sometimes makes them infuriating. Wolinski wondered after the fire in 2011: “Have we perhaps gone too far?” Only an honest man asks this type of question. Never a killer. Wolinski had the courage to put his his own doubts on display. He chose to make the expression of his vulnerability an art. This is why a cartoonist will never become a killer, and why it is dishonest to make the violence of the assassins comparable to the so-called “provocations” of the cartoonists by proclaiming, “they were asking for it.”
In order to doubt, though, one needs others, all those who do not think like you do. How boring it would be if everyone thought like us! The killers of January 7th must sure have lived in a sad world… an inflexible world where any head that is out of place gets decapitated, where any discordant voice is cut off. So, imagine, for these of little brain, even just the idea of making pint-sized cartoons about the prophet! These miserable wretches threw away the lives of others in order to forget that they had thrown away their own. As Luz wrote on the front cover of “Charlie,” we should almost forgive them just for being what little they were.
Despite the floods of encouragement and support, it is still right for us to wonder who really has the courage to lead in this battle. Because, frankly, who wants to fight against blasphemy, who wants to defy those who are religious, if it is only to end up being protected by the police 24 hours a day? No one. Everyone came out in support of “Charlie”: “Keep it up, guys! We’re with you!” But how many will dare to draw and to publish blasphemous cartoons? Too few. The crowd has come out in support of “Charlie” like the crowd backs the bull in the ring, because who knows, perhaps one day, exhausted by the banderillas, “Charlie” will also die to the rousing applause of the admiring crowd.
And, behold, precisely at the time when “Charlie” is getting ready to make its appearance again, an almost identical assassination attempt occurs in Copenhagen, with fewer mortalities but the same objectives: to silence those who believe in the liberty of expression and to exterminate the Jews. Those who try to find explanations for the killers, not to say excuses, by blaming the cartoonists for “throwing oil on the fire,” what rationalizations will they find in order to lessen the responsibility of these anti-Semitic murderers? Because the Jews who were the victims in the Hyper Cacher or in Copenhagen did not draw any caricatures of Mohammed; and yet they were assassinated. To accept such violence is already exasperating, but then to have to listen to more or less accommodating pseudo-intellectual speeches, is just intolerable.
The attacks in Paris and Copenhagen are, first and foremost, attacks against a modern conception of the relationship between individuals, against diversity in ideas and among men. For centuries religions fought violently against precisely these values; and one had the impression that the modern world had been able to reason with these retrograde religions and their hegemonic intention to control men and minds. The attacks in Paris and Copenhagen suggest that more time and more blood will yet be necessary before all religions finally accept, for good, this non-negotiable framework of democracy.”
(Reprised and reworked from an original essay, entitled A Wager on History, published on Phrontisterion on April 1, 2015)