The terrorists didn't "win": Charlie Hebdo defended its right to satire — now let the magazine move on

They've been through hell — don't judge the staff for moving away from Muhammad cartoons

By Scott Timberg

Published July 20, 2015 5:42PM (EDT)

      (Reuters/Eric Gaillard)
(Reuters/Eric Gaillard)

The news that the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo will stop publishing images of the Prophet Muhammed will likely unleash a wave of criticism. The magazine's new editor, who survived the January attacks that killed 12 staffers by playing dead, announced that, “We have done our job. We have defended the right to caricature.”

In an interview with German magazine, Stern, the new editor Laurent Sourisseau said they drew the cartoons to “defend the principle that one can draw whatever one wants”. From the Independent:

But he said he did not want the magazine to be seen as “possessed by Islam” and said “ the mistakes you could blame Islam for can be found in other religions”.

The magazine's cartoonist Renald Luzier has also said that he's no longer interested in drawing the prophet, whose image is forbidden in the Muslim faith.

For many on the free-speech front -- those who held up signs saying "I am Charlie" in various languages after the January slaughter -- this will surely be disappointing. To journalists, satirists, and anyone who believes in the sanctity of dissent -- and especially those committed to the especially acute tradition of French social criticism, which makes Mad magazine, National Lampoon, and even '70s "SNL" look like very weak tea -- Charlie Hebdo is a kind of beacon, a martyr.

To these observers, especially those, like Charlie Hebdo, on the political left, the decision will seem like a surrender. The most virulent reaction to the magazine's decision will likely come from the xenophobic far right, who are likely to say that the magazine is "letting the terrorists win," just as we heard endlessly after the September 11 attacks. But even this Michael Moynihan piece in Politico, which is much more reasonable than what I'm expecting from critics, concludes with "I’ll revive the cliché one last time: The terrorists have won."

Here's the thing about Charlie Hebdo, though: While writers such as Peter Carey and Francine Prose made smart if overstated points about the magazine's mockery of Islam in their protest against PEN's free speech award to Charlie Hebdo, assaulting any specific ethnic or religious group was never part of the magazine's mission. It has never been obsessed with any single issue, but rather by a larger sense of itself as stirring things up, undercutting pieties of all kinds. Satire is an important urge in a free society, but this specific aspect has proven to be a terribly costly one for the magazine's staff.

By contrast, hate-mongers like Pam Geller and shrill Islamaphobes like Donald Trump and Dinesh D'Souza will likely go bananas over Charlie Hebdo's decision. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called Geller “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead,” and she is virulent in her hatred.

"The difference between us and these people is that these people are organizing contests, anti-Islamist contests," Charlie Hebdo editor Gerard Biard said in May. "It's an obsession ... We are not obsessed. We are just obsessed by the news, and by how the world is going on. The difference with Pamela Geller, she is obsessed by Islam. She waits every morning and thinks, What can I do today to defy these people?"

The magazine's editors have made things a bit muddy by saying that its decision has nothing to do with the attacks. How could the slaughter of a magazine's staff not shape a call on the same issues that motivated the siege? But a mere six moths after a bloody attack, let's please treat the writers, editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo like human beings who must continue to live and work in the world as it is, not in a class on free speech principles.

Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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Charlie Hebdo Charlie Hebdo Attacks Free Speech Islam Terrorism