Charlie Hebdo - a New Symbol of Freedom
Nothing is too inappropriate for Charlie Hebdo
A once small-time political satire magazine, selling only thousands of issues a month in France, is now one of the new symbols of freedom of speech and expression internationally. On January 7, 2015 two Islamic extremists walked into its headquarters in Paris and killed 12 staff members. The gunmen did so in retaliation for the magazine’s depictions of the prophet Muhammad. After the shooting, the slogan Je suis Charlie ("I am Charlie") began circulating to support freedom of expression. The killings sent shockwaves worldwide and there were responses from around the world expressing solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.
The exhibit of magazine covers from Charlie Hebdo “Journal (Ir) responsible” currently at Dox Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague is so sensitive that there are two armed policemen outside the centre, with semi-automatic machine guns. There are two separate metal detectors, and no pictures or even jackets are allowed inside the exhibit. This high-grade security speaks to the magnitude and sensitivity of the topic.
In the exhibit room, there are two rows of panels, displaying covers dating back 46 years, since the publication’s founding in 1969, to the present. Throughout this time, Charlie Hebdo has built a reputation of “leaving everything on the table,” publishing cartoons depicting drug use, sex, and sensitive political topics. Nothing is too inappropriate for Charlie Hebdo, while many of the cartoons are also incredibly amusing.
But Charlie Hebdo has had a very fragile history with Muslim extremism. In 2011, extremists firebombed Hebdo’s headquarters. The attack was in response to a cartoon the magazine published after the Ennahda Islamic party’s victory in Tunisia. The cartoon depicts an Arab man wearing a white robe and white turban. However, the hat has a crease in the middle, separating the hat into two sandbag looking objects. The man’s oversized and curved nose, along with the hat, makes the man’s face look like a penis. The cartoon reads: “100 Lashes If You Don’t Die Laughing.” This type of humor is Hebdo’s nature.
Although the magazine has its most complicated history with Muslim extremists, they do not only satire Islam; in fact, most of the covers satire the Pope or the Roman Catholic clergy. Another controversial cartoon was published during an Israeli operation in the West Bank in 2007. The cover depicts an Israeli soldier in traditional IDF uniform. He is holding a rifle with the Israeli state flag drawn on the barrel, shooting an unarmed Arab running for his life. The Israeli soldier was drawn to look murderous and evil, while the Arab has an innocent and scared look on his face. The cartoon reads, “Take that, Goliath.” The magazine never has shied away from sensitive topics, and vows to continue to create cartoons even after the shooting.
Clearly there is a reason behind the positioning and ordering of the cartoons. The exhibit has been setup to show the long history leading up to the horrific killing of twelve of Charle Hebdo’s cartoonists. But rather than showing the main cartoon that led to the tragedy, up front, the exhibit takes you through the long history of the magazine, including cartoons that have nothing to do with extremism. The exhibit shows Hebdo’s true colors, making sure to not leave out any of its most crude and inappropriate cartoons. Yet that is the point of the magazine - the fact that we have the liberty to question the governments in which we live, to poke fun at politicians and religious figures for stupidity, to show the weaknesses and issues in society-- that is freedom. That is Charlie Hebdo.
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