Charlie Hebdo 2015

Acceptance Speech Gérard Biard

Let me start by saying a few words about Charlie Hebdo: Before 07 January 2015 we were a small political-satire magazine that normally attracted little attention outside France’s borders unless the Prophet Mohammed and his self-appointed representatives were weighing in on the current debate. Our main concern was to find enough money to allow us to continue to publish and stand up to those who accused us of being dangerous provocateurs or even malicious racists. This even though Charlie Hebdo has from the beginning always fought against every form of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and sexism.
In the space of a few minutes, in the aftermath of a terrible attack, we then became a global symbol, the epitome of free expression and the freedom of conscience. We were heroes. And let me tell you something: That is not our job. No one at Charlie Hebdo ever sought to be a hero. It’s not the role of a magazine, and particularly not of a satirical magazine, to be a symbol. The beliefs and values we advocate are universal values, and as such, belong to all citizens of the world. Therefore, all citizens of this world should make them their own, and stand up for them.
Since the publication of the Mohammed cartoons, the talk has constantly been of religion and respect for religious feelings. This is a great mistake. What’s at issue here is not religion. It is far more a matter of politics. Let’s take an example: In July 2013, when the Egyptian army fired on Mohammed Mursi’s supporters, Riss drew a title page that showed a member of Muslim Brotherhood trying to protect himself behind a copy of the Koran, and getting hit by a bullet. The accompanying text said: “The Quran is crap, it doesn’t even stop bullets.” (“Le Coran, c’est de la merde, ça n’arrête pas les balles”). Is this drawing blasphemous? No. Is it an insult to every believer? No. In France, it may not be very polite, but it is very common to say that something is “crap” (“c’est de la merde”). People say it all the time, for many reasons, and mean by this that something isn’t working or is very bad. In principle, we also have the right to say that the Quran is very bad. The Quran is a book, and we have the right to say that a book is very bad, even if it has a “holy” stamp on its cover. We have the right to say this about the Quran, the Bible, the Torah, the Mahabharata, and so on…
And this is even truer in the case in question. Because here, the Quran is above all a political program. The slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood is very clear on this point. It reads: “Islam is the solution, the Quran is our constitution.” No ambiguity is possible here: The Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt as well as in Tunisia, sees the Quran not as a religious work, not as a guide to personal conscience, but rather as an instrument of political and societal control. The same is true for the kings and emirs of the Gulf region and the mullahs in Iran. It’s their Little Red Book. And if you were to say, Mao’s Little Red Book is crap (“le Petit livre rouge est de la merde”), that too is not an insult to or discrimination against all Chinese people.
In a democracy, no political program is ever “sacred”, and all programs can be – indeed must be – criticized, discussed, and even mocked. Not even sharp criticism is forbidden. I assume it’s the same with you as it is with us in France, that political parties can’t be stopped from saying that their rival party’s platform is crap (“c’est de la merde”), and no one will be shocked. If one declares the Quran to be the basis for a state, if it becomes the primary means of regulating a society, then it will be treated just like all other political platforms. The same applies for the Bible when it’s quoted by fanatic supporters of the Tea Party, and even for the Torah, insofar as it serves as the backbone of Israel’s religious parties. Certainly you have right to say that this or that is the revealed truth, but you also have the right to say that that’s nonsense (“c’est n’importe quoi”). This has nothing to do with racism. And nothing to do with blasphemy, either. No matter what “holy scriptures” people want to protect from offensive commentary and insults, these texts shouldn’t be placed in the centre of politics, because they lose their sacred character there. Everything there is open to challenge, and anything there will sooner or later be challenged. That is the foundation of democracy. When it comes to religious discourse, this foundation is protected by secularism. It is this secularism to which we at Charlie Hebdo attribute so much value. Allow me a few words of explanation here, to help you better understand the nature of secularism. In order to ensure religious freedom, the Anglo-Saxon model, which may be more familiar to you, forbids the state from intruding into religious affairs. In France, precisely the inverse is true: Religion must not intrude in state affairs. The basic principles of the 1905 French law on the separation of church and state can be found in its first two sentences. “The Republic assures the freedom of conscience” – this implicitly includes the freedom to believe, but also the freedom not to believe – and “the Republic does not grant recognition to, and does not finance nor subsidize any organized religion.” There is no state religion in France. The state is atheistic and religion is a private matter, having nothing to do with citizenship. This is of fundamental importance.
A secular state does not necessarily have to be democratic, but there can be no democracy without secularism. Only secularism enables this political system to be practised to the fullest. To be sure, this system is not perfect. However, it has an inestimable advantage over all other systems: it actually knows that it’s in need of improvement. For this reason, democracy provides the only framework in which a society can hope for further development. Among other things, democracy recognizes the principle that every law can be challenged, and that none are unassailable. By contrast, divine law declares itself to be unalterable, carved in eternal stone, which means it cannot be criticized or questioned. It is therefore incompatible with democracy. All the more since God, once allowed to take a place on the political stage, turns out to be an absolute tyrant. Every dictator dies sometime, and every junta is ultimately deposed. However, deposing God is very difficult. Whoever believes in him will continue doing so no matter what happens. Therefore, it is unacceptable for him to step outside over the threshold of his churches, mosques, synagogues, ashrams, pagodas and other temples.
A dictator, an executioner, doesn’t necessarily need religion to trample democracy underfoot or to commit mass crimes. However, no state that has founded its authority on religious dogma has escaped the totalitarian temptation. The Vatican is no democracy, and for some time we’ve also been able to observe how Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now president of Turkey, no longer strives to appear “moderate”. As soon as someone wants to subject a society to a law that draws its legitimacy from a “supreme being”, any hope of democracy and equality is illusory, and every form of terror and oppression is possible. Religion has always been the best pretext for a state to purge itself of its “unclean”, the ecumenical term for opponents.
For democracy to function, the word of God, and even the existence of any such mysterious supreme being of any kind must absolutely be kept away from the public debate. This is precisely what secularism allows, as under its terms, no citizen is defined by his or her religion.
Let me talk now about blasphemy. We must do more than simply demand and defend the right to blasphemy. We must reaffirm its universality, and emphasize that it is necessary for the exercise of freedom. Moreover, it is indispensable for believers. There is no belief in God without blasphemy. At a fundamental level, only believers blaspheme God, because in order for you to be able to insult something or someone, or even make fun of it, you have to be convinced that it exists, that it is real. Atheists don’t blaspheme God. They say “goddamn it” (“bordel de dieu”) as easily as “bollocks” (“bordel de merde”) without thinking twice. And when they draw, paint, or film deities in embarrassing situations, then they’re doing nothing more than what they would also do with a picture of king, a president or a minister. Blasphemy is nothing more than the expression of a challenge to power.
Therefore, it is absurd („il est idiot”) to suggest that it could be perceived as an insult to all believers. First of all, because they themselves often make use of blasphemy. And secondly, because one only feels offended when the insult or mockery is aimed at something personal or intimate.
However, blasphemy is not aimed at the personal God of every believer, but rather at God’s public persona, the embodiment of the dogma intended to be imposed on all. On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why blasphemy sends the religious authorities into a rage. In many countries, they have even declared it to be a crime punishable with the death penalty. Blasphemy causes a small part of the divine power to falter – the power whose eternal guardians they want to be, and which they have declared to be absolute. The crime of blasphemy makes clear the deeply totalitarian essence of religious power. North Korea has its labour camps, religions have the crime of blasphemy. In both cases, the individual under threat of punishment is called upon to identify body and soul with power and its representatives, and to feel offended when this power is mocked or challenged. In a democracy, the right to blasphemy must be protected and inviolable, like all other forms of peaceful challenges to power. It is one of the many forms of the freedoms of expression and thought. It is a universal principle.
Let us now come to the idea of “respect”. This is constantly cited, and yet is basically nothing other than contempt for the Muslims who are the first victims of totalitarian Islamism and its butchers around the world.Let’s take a look at what this respect is based on: it is based on the principle that Muslims are supposedly not like other people. This principle states that the Muslim “essence” possesses psychological and intellectual characteristics that differ from those of “Homo Vulgus”: it can endure whippings and stonings better, but it has problems tolerating alcohol. It is also supposed to be pathologically sensitive to others making fun of the Prophet, and can tolerate no opposition. This is deemed to be genetic. Or better said, God has created it thus. In the name of “respect”, special laws for the “[Muslim] community” are now being demanded in the democratic countries. We are supposed to need laws for Muslims, school curricula for Muslims, hospitals for Muslims, swimming pools for Muslims, we’re only missing demands for special buses for Muslims and streets for Muslims. In short, if you were to believe those calling for “respect”, Muslims would like to demand a condition of apartheid. And they would even be happy to be on the wrong side.
It’s well-known that a large majority of Muslims, believers or not, does not accept this dogma that would make them a special “species” in our societies.
We have only to hear their voices – and not be afraid to listen, because too often they are drowned out by the roar of the Islamists and their supporters. One cannot accept solely fundamentalists as partners in dialogue, as the only spokespeople for the Islamic world, and at the same time leave millions of democrats, journalists, writers, artists, intellectuals, and simple citizens of Islamic culture to their fate on the grounds that they have no democratic tradition, and that one should respect the “identity” of every people…
Do these words make me a provocateur? Have we at Charlie Hebdo poured oil on the fire with our cartoons? Have we offended 1.5 billion people across the world? Reasonable people tell us that we are not allowed to offend believers in their faith. We are open to a debate on this. In order that this debate can take place, however, certain believers, or those who claim to be, must first stop literally injuring or killing those who don’t fully and completely share their convictions. They must stop answering the pencil and the pen with the dagger, the Kalashnikov, and the suicide vest.
It’s true that in the Internet era, in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and the globalization of information, you can hear in Mazar-i-Sharif what is being said in Berlin. But must we therefore as journalists, as cartoonists, always have in the back of our minds that our texts and drawings might shock somebody somewhere, there, far away, somewhere else?
Under these conditions it would be very difficult to engage in opinion journalism. In this case we couldn’t write that the death penalty is barbaric and unworthy of a democracy, because that could offend the beliefs of millions of Americans, Japanese, and Indians who are against the abolition of the death penalty in their countries. We couldn’t write that multinational corporations exploit poor countries, because that could insult these companies’ boards of directors. We couldn’t write that high-finance fraud ruins whole countries, because that might wound the dignity of thousands of stockbrokers. We couldn’t write that Putin is a cold-blooded murderer, because that could make his mother sad. If we were obliged to think first about the sensitivities of every single person living on earth before we picked up the pen or drawing pencil, then there wouldn’t be much of a magazine left, aside from the weather report. And in fact that’s exactly the goal.Why else, ever since we’ve been dealing with religious fundamentalism, has it only been democrats and secularists accused of provocation? Never will those who want to stone women or lock them behind the prison of the veil; those who want to throw homosexuals off a cliff or chain the doors of hospitals and clinics that offer voluntary abortions; those who spray theatre-goers with oil or set fires in cinemas, mosques, synagogues, temples and magazines; those who declare that the law of their God is the only valid law; those who kill, torture, imprison, and threaten others who oppose their irrational dictates, even if only with words – never will they be considered by the “reasonable” commentators as provocateurs. Even though they shock millions of people worldwide with their actions. Why, then, should religions be accorded greater respect than the rights and laws of people? A soon as a religion makes the claim that its rules apply to an entire society, it is no longer a religious organisation, but rather a political party – and generally a far-right one. Its symbols are no longer religious, but instead are political symbols. In a democracy, everyone has the right to express his or her opinion on this subject, to criticize it, mock it, and parody it. To depict Mohammed or smear Nutella on Jesus Christ’s face is not a “provocation”, it is the exercise of the right to free expression of political opinion in the context of democratic laws.  The question remains: how should we respond to violence? I don’t know. But I am convinced that it’s no solution to yield to the politics of terror. On the contrary. This is the worst reaction to the totalitarian blackmail we’re dealing with. Because what we’re dealing with here is blackmail. Anyone who’s ever had anything to do with the Mafia knows that as soon as you’ve paid the money demanded, the price goes up and up. If we’re prepared to give up a part of our values and respond to the blackmailer, even to just a fraction of their demands, we let the terrorists and their employers understand that they’re on the right track, that their ideology has a payoff, and that they’ve found the right approach. This is thus not the appropriate way to stop them from continuing to blackmail us with violence and from carrying out new attacks. … Everyone has the right to be afraid of murderers. But nobody has the right to make them believe, however and for whatever reason, that their strategy is working and that they are justified in their killing.