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‘It didn’t need to be done’

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‘Charlie Hebdo’ attacks

In the week following the atrocities, a wave of moral hysteria swept France. ‘Je suis Charlie’ became almost obligatory. The Hollande/Valls message was simple: Either you were for the magazine or for the terrorists. Quite a few, now as in 2001, were for neither. These included Henri Roussel, the 80-year-old founder of Hara-Kiri, the title under which Charlie Hebdo was published before it was forced into a name change – it was banned by the French government for insulting the corpse of Charles de Gaulle. In a remarkable essay published in the Nouvel Observateur Roussel made two essential points. The first concerned French foreign policy:

“I don’t much like it when a head of state speaks of the dead as heroes. It usually happens because citizens have been sent to war and not come back, which is rather the case with the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo. The attack is part of a war declared on France, but can also be seen in the light of the wars France has got itself involved in: conflicts where its participation isn’t called for, where worse massacres than that at Charlie Hebdo take place every day, several times a day, where our bombardments pile death on death in the hope of saving potentates who feel threatened and are no better than those who threaten them … If Obama had not held Hollande back, he would have gone after Assad in Syria, just as Sarkozy went after Gaddafi in Libya … with the result we’re familiar with.”

The second was personal. Roussel knew all the victims well and this made him both angry and sorrowful. He denounced Charb for his recklessness:

“He was the boss. Why did he need to drag the whole team into it? In the first attack on Charlie Hebdo in November 2011, the offices were torched after an issue was called ‘Charia Hebdo’. I quote what I said … in the Obs: ‘I think we’re ignorant and imbeciles who have taken a pointless risk. That’s all. We think we’re invulnerable. For years, decades even, we do provocative things and then one day the provocation comes back at us. It didn’t need to be done.’

It didn’t need to be done, but Charb did it again. A year later, in September 2012, after a provocation that put France’s ambassadors in Muslim countries in a state of siege … I asked Charb in the pages of the Obs: ‘To show, with the caption “Muhammed: A Star is Born”, a naked Muhammed praying, seen from behind, balls dangling and prick dripping, in black and white but with a yellow star on his anus – whatever way you look at it, how is this funny?’

I was sick of it. Charb told a journalist from Le Monde: ‘I have no kids, no wife, I prefer to die on my feet than to live on my knees.’ Cavanna, who feared death, wrote when he was Charb’s age: ‘Rather red than dead.’ The reds are no longer red, the dead are still dead. Everyone has seen Charb’s last cartoon: ‘Still no attacks in France?’ And the jihadist in the cartoon, armed like the one who killed Charb, Tignous, Cabu, Honoré and the others, replies: ‘Wait! We’ve got until the end of January for New Year’s greetings …’ Have you seen Wolinski’s last cartoon? It ends: ‘I dream of returning to Cuba to drink rum, smoke a cigar and dance with the beautiful Cuban girls.’

Charb who preferred to die and Wolin who preferred to live. I blame you, Charb. Peace on your soul.”

Roussel’s was a lonely voice and in response to complaints, including one from the publisher of Charlie Hebdo, the editor of Nouvel Observateur replied that after serious discussion it had been agreed that freedom of speech was best preserved by not denying it to those who disagreed with the mainstream narrative. Elsewhere three publishers who refused to display ‘Je suis Charlie’ on their websites were subjected to persistent questioning and bullying. It was reminiscent of the post 9/11 mood in this country (remember Mary Beard?), leave alone the States.

And what of the huge Sunday crowd convened by the president at the place de la République? The photo-op brigade at the front turned into a disaster when Netanyahu, waving triumphantly to onlookers, crashed his way to the front. The dignitaries he was so keen to join weren’t all that impressive: the puppet president of Mali; Angela Merkel, the Mother of Europe (her hands held in a way that suggested a mysterious Masonic signal); Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the Council of Europe. And, hurriedly summoned at the last minute to balance the presence of the Israeli leader, there was Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO leader, holding hands with the king of Jordan (both are Israeli supplicants). Sarkozy, placed in the fourth row, quickly began his own long march to the front, but by the time he got there the cameras had disappeared and the celebs soon followed suit. How many turned up in all? A million was the official figure.

Slowly, a more critical France is beginning to speak up. An opinion poll two days after the big march revealed a divided country: 57 per cent were ‘Je suis Charlie’s, but 42 per cent were opposed to hurting the feelings of minorities. Some of the latter might have been thinking of the blanket publicity for Michel Houellebecq and his new novel,Soumission, on TV and in print in the week preceding the attack on the magazine. Those with longer memories might have recalled Houellebecq’s statement in 2001, which laid the basis for the title of his latest offering: ‘Reading the Quran is a disgusting experience. Ever since Islam’s birth it has been distinguished by its desire to make the world submit to itself. Submission is its very nature.’ Replace the Quran with the Old Testament and Islam with Judaism and you would be locked up in France today, as some have been, including a 16-year-old schoolboy who parodied Charlie Hebdo. A satirical magazine, it appears, cannot be satirised..

In the Muslim world responses were varied. Even as Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, was marching in Paris, 45 Christian churches in his country were being torched and pastors’ homes targeted – the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, was born in Niger and is an influential presence there, if only on video.

David Cameron and other Western leaders insist, as they do after every outrage, that the problem is radicalised Islam and therefore the responsibility lies within the religion. (Why was Catholicism never blamed for the IRA offensives?) The real problem is not a secret: Western intelligence services regularly tell their leaders that the radicalisation of a tiny sliver of young Muslims (more work for the security services in Britain and France than for al-Qaida or ISIS) is a result of US foreign policy over the last decade and a half. Some of these Muslims have been happy to acquire new skills and priorities while fighting in Bosnia and, more recently, Syria.

Last modified on Saturday, 07 February 2015 19:52

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