The Charlie Hebdo massacre - Morally Objectionable Jokes?

We know perfectly well that we do not have the right to say everything, that we cannot speak of everything in any given circumstance, and finally, that not everybody can speak about anything they chose.
— Michel Foucault

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Fig. 1. Cabu. "C'est Dur D'être Aimé Par Des Cons." Charlie Hebdo 8 Jan. 2006: 1. Print.


On January 7th 2015, at 11:30 am, Cherif and Saïd Kouachi forced their way into the editorial room of Charlie Hebdo. Around the large rectangular table sat, were seated from left to right the iconic cartoonists of the magazine: Charb, Riss, Fabrice Nicolino, Bernard Maris, Philippe Lançon, Honoré, Coco, Tignous, Cabu, Elsa Cayat, Wolinski, Sigolène, Vinson and Laurent Léger. Saïd Kouachi screamed "Allahou akbar". He shot everyone.

Immediately, the reasons for this massacre seemed obvious to the media, the French people and the government. Charlie Hebdo has always been a controversial satirical magazine. Created in 1970, in a context profoundly marked by the May 1968 events, Charlie Hebdo became known as a dissenting far-left newspaper, constantly eager to denounce all kinds of powers, and to tease every form of extremism. Religions, political leaders, sects, cultures, Religions, political leaders, sects, culture, Islamists, the radical right, environmental activists; no one could escape the derisive humor of Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists, and their sharpened pencil strokes.

In February of 2006, Charlie Hebdo published an edition titled "Mahomet débordé par les intégristes" or "Muhammad is overwhelmed by fundamentalists." The front page of this edition was a cartoon of a crying Muhammad saying "C'est dur d'être aimé par des cons" (see Fig. 1.), in English: "it's hard being loved by jerks." The publication was provoked by the murder of Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch producer, which was perpetuated by an extreme Muslim. Van Gogh was killed because he produced a short-film criticizing the treatment of women in Islam. It was to express solidarity with Theo Van Gogh that Charlie Hebdo published the February 2006 issue. This cartoon, it should be emphasized, constitutes blasphemy under Islamic law, as the Prophet Muhammad shall not be represented under any living form according to the Hadiths, the collections of quote by Muhammad (Al-Bukhârî, 87).

With this edition, the cartoonists reached an irreversible point. It was clear to most that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were making fun of the terrorists that had murdered Theo Van Gogh, and not of the French Muslim community. In the last ten years, the number of Charlie Hebdo's front pages mocking extreme forms of Islam only accounts for 7% of the magazine's cover cartoons. (see Fig. 2.). However, since February 2006, Charlie Hebdo has been considered an anti-Muslim magazine, not only by extreme Muslims, but also by an increasing number of ordinary French Muslims. Charb and Riss, the two main cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo became the targets of particular threats by various extremist Islamist groups. After the February 2006 publication, the American-Yemeni imam Anwar al-Awlaqi, involved in Al-Qaeda, issued Charb and Riss a fatwa, namely a legal opinion in the Islamic faith, calling for the caricaturists' murder.


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Fig. 2. Mignot, Jean-François. "Non, Charlie Hebdo N'est Pas Obsédé Par L'Islam." Le Monde (2015): 1-3. 14 Feb. 2015. Web. 25 Nov. 2015.


Regardless, no one could have expected the January 2015 shooting. Not only did this massacre shock the entirety of French society, but it also reactivated two old heated debates that have shaped French political landscape since 1789: the definition of secularism and the limits of free speech. According to law, however, the February 2006 Charlie Hebdo cartoon abides by the French legal framework on free speech and secularism. It does not "disturb the public order established by law" (France Constitution. Art 10). Furthermore, blasphemy has been legal in France since the July 29th 1889 law (Lois contre le racisme et l'incitation à la haine). Therefore, what is at stake is not the legality of the Charlie Hebdo February 2006 cartoon, but rather its morality. Namely, the question here asks to determine whether or not this cartoon, absolutely legal in terms of free speech and secularism, is "morally objectionable".

The Charlie Hebdo Cartoons: Morally Objectionable Jokes?

According to Robin Tapley, "a morally objectionable joke can be identified when a person in a dominant social position publicly and intentionally targets some person or group in a subordinate social position in a way that degrades or dehumanizes that person or group" (Tapley 171). What does this definition imply? For the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to be morally objectionable, they must come from a dominant social position vis-a-vis the terrorists they mocked. Yet what does it mean to be in a dominant social position? Pierre Bourdieu investigated this question. He showed that social domination in the modern French society relies on one's capacity to "impose a system of thought as legitimate to the population [through] various forms of coercion" (Bourdieu 405). Precisely, terrorism is the use of both physical and symbolic coercion in order to create a climate of insecurity that allows terrorists to impose their system of thoughts. In this perspective, it is the terrorists that exert social domination over the Charlie Hebdo caricaturists. Furthermore, Tapley's definition states that a morally objectionable joke "intentionally targets some person" (Tapley 171). Charlie's Hebdo February 2006 edition did not target the terrorists that committed the murder of Theo Van Gogh, but extremists in general. That is the reason why the caption of their caricature was "Muhammad is overwhelmed by fundamentalists" (see Fig. 1). The plural form of the word "fundamentalists" implies that what is at stake is extreme Islam in general, and not a given group of terrorists. Lastly, according to Tapley, for a joke to be morally objectionable, it has to "degrade or dehumanize" its subject, which is to "fail the community standards test" (Tapley 187). Tapley defines a "community standards test" as the "fundamental values held by this [community]". In the case of the French media, free speech and freedom of conscience constitute these key values, both from a moral and an ethical standpoint, as discussed above. By caricaturing Muhammad, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists thus enshrined their response to terrorism within the framework of their "community standards test". To that extent, from Tapley's perspective, the February 2006 cartoon did not degrade nor dehumanize the Muslim terrorists it mocked.

The jokes of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists cannot be described as morally objectionable as defined by Tapley. Moreover, by mocking extremism in the public space, the Charlie Hebdo caricaturists helps society to build a pacific path, through humor, to fight terrorism. To that extent, their cartoons can be considered to have a positive impact on society, as the French philosopher Bernard-Henry Lévy explains it:

They are some caricatures that stigmatize. Whereas [...] those of Charlie Hebdo emancipate. [...] Criticism of certain interpretations of the Koran, like criticism of Jewish and Christian Holy Scriptures, is an expression of secularism and freedom. [It] is not racism. It is how we can democratically respond to terrorism (Levy 1)

Levy's argument highlights that the jokes made by Charlie Hebdo are necessarily not "stigmatiz[ing]" (Levy 1) nor "racis[t]" (Levy 1), but that they can be seen as an efficient way to counter the rise of extremism through the expression of "secularism and freedom" (Levy 1).


A Part of Responsibility of the Charlie Hebdo Cartoonists?

Yet, if the situation is as described above, how can we explain events like the following discussion, that took place between some High School students and their History teacher after the Charlie attacks, in a school in the suburbs of Paris:

- "How did you react to this attack sir?" a first student asked,

- "I must admit that it had been very difficult for me", the teacher answered,

- "[laughs] Oh really? Not for us" the first student said,

- "Why is that?" the teacher replied,

- "They had it coming", the first student claimed,

- "They wanted it", another student added,

- "They got what they wanted", a third student said,

- "You can't insult people like that", the second student sustained,

- "And especially not our Prophet, no one saw him, no one shook his hand, how can they draw him?" concluded the first student. (Perrotin 1)


This dialogue reveals the process through which some French Muslims felt targeted by the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. These students felt personally "insult[ed]" (Perrotin 1). They experienced the Charlie's drawings as an attack against their Prophet. This means that although the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists did not intentionally target the French Muslim community in their publications, this very community still felt offended by Charlie Hebdo's cartoons. Thus, to determine whether or not Charlie Hebdo's jokes, legal in terms of free speech and secularism, are morally objectionable, two questions need to be tackled.

First, were the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists aware that by mocking extreme Muslims, the entire French Muslim community felt insulted? And second, why does the French Muslim community take the criticism of extreme Islam personally?


Were the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists aware?

After the publication of the February 2006 edition, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists kept publishing drawings ridiculing extreme Islam. However, during the weeks that followed the publication of the February 2006 caricature a significant number of French associations representing the French Muslim community, such as The Union of Islamic Organizations of France, The Grand Mosque of Paris and the Muslim World League, sued Charlie Hebdo for "public insults against a group of people because of their religion" (Lois contre le racisme et l'incitation à la haine). The Paris Court of Justice ruled that:

Taken as such, [the cartoons] are likely to offend the Muslims [....] [however], in the context and the circumstances of its publication in the Charlie Hebdo magazine, these cartoons do not present any deliberate intention to offend directly the Muslim community and thus the permissible limits of free speech have not been exceeded. (TGI of Paris)

The Paris Court of Justice decided to put a particular emphasis on the question of context. Its verdict established a strict distinction between mocking extreme Islam in the context of terrorist attacks, and ridiculing extreme Islam in general, which the Charlie Hebdo caricaturists continued to do after February 2006. Not only did they continue to do so, but they also neglected to take into account the reactions of the French Muslim community in the aftermath of the February 2006 publication. Reactions that precluded any ambiguity: this community did feel targeted by the Charlie Hebdo cartoon representing Muhammad.

After this event, it was not possible for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to argue in good faith that they were not hurting French Muslims. It goes without saying, however, that they had no intention to do so. Their jokes "affect[ed] [...] a community feeling in the listeners" (Tapley 176), which for Tapley, is one of the criteria of a morally objectionable joke. In Tapley's terminology, the "listeners" of a given joke are the audience of this joke. Since the audience of the Charlie Hebdo's cartoon is the entire French society, as they express themselves in the public sphere, the French Muslim community form an integral part of the Charlie Hebdo's listeners. The Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists cannot ignore this fact, nor can they ignore the harm their jokes brought to French Muslims. The Charlie Hebdo's caricatures therefore become morally objectionable according to Tapley's paradigm. Yet, why do the French Muslims feel targeted when extreme Islam is mocked?


French Muslims and Extreme Islam

It is the "national context of degradation of Muslims that one has to take into account when trying to understand the reactions to the caricatures of the Prophet" (Hannoum 21) explains Abdelmajid Hannoum, an eminent French specialist of the France's colonial history. Eric Zemmour, a political French journalist of Algerian origin, adds that this context is rooted in the "colonial history of France, and more specifically, in the colonization of Algeria " (Zemmour 10:17). Indeed, between 1830 and 1862 Algeria was an integral part of the French territory. Algeria was a French department, just like Normandy or Burgundy. Yet, only the French settlers were considered as French citizens. The Arabs and the Muslims were the "others" (Zemmour 11:24); they were neither entitled the right to vote nor to go to school. They were not even second zone citizens: they were not citizens at all.

Following the independence of Algeria in 1962, many foreign colonized people moved to France. However, these individuals faced considerable problems of integration. This issue was the "direct result of French separating settlers and Arabs in Algeria" (Duhamel 17:21). Indeed, France created a genuine dichotomy in Algeria between the citizens and the non-citizens. This dichotomy has been exported to France in the aftermaths of the independence of Algeria through the immigration of dozens of Algerians to mainland France. This resulted in the establishment and growth of profound social inequalities, summarized by Didier Fassin as follows: "[Muslims] belong to the lower segments of society. They often live in housing estates and other disadvantaged neighborhoods. In other words, the discrimination of which they are the victims is simultaneously social, racial and religious" (Fassin 7). Moreover, 9/11 triggered confusion in the public sphere regarding the distinctions between Islam and radical Islam. This is the reason why "in recent years, [...] the religious dimension of discrimination has progressively surfaced in public discourses as well as in actual policies. Stigmatizing Muslims and blaming Islam has become common practice among intellectuals and politicians" (Fassin 7). This is the "national context of degradation of Muslims" (Hannoum 21) pointed to. Within this context, one can better grasp why the French Muslim community felt offended by Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon in February 2006. Indeed, "the caricatures were one more affront in a long list [....] [this] satire [...] only added insult to injury, targeting an already stigmatized and discriminated group, constantly exposed to Islamophobia as well as racism and xenophobia" (Fassin 7). Although the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were mocking extreme Islam, "the sense of ostracism [...] experienced by French Muslims" (Fassin 7) led the entire French Muslims community to feel that they were also targeted by Charlie Hebdo.

Does the idea that caricatures of extreme Islam are morally objectale mean that they must be stopped? The answer is undoubtedly no. This would be a defeat for the French democracy. It would be tantamount to giving up free speech. It would be a defeat for the entire society. So how can the caricatures of extreme Islam be reconciled with the social harm experienced by French Muslims through these caricatures?

The Emergency of Reconciliation

According to Tapley, the difference between a "morally objectionable joke" and a "merely offensive joke" is a "function of kind" (188). Contrary to a "merely offensive joke" (188), a morally objectionable creates or reinforces a "social disparity" (180). How can the Charlie Hebdo's cartoons become merely offensive jokes, namely jokes that are "offensi[ve] [...] but that has no link to social harm?" (186).

Tapley defines the origin of a morally objectionable joke as "a situation where the teller of a joke has a voice, and the target does not" (Tapley 182). Clearly, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists do have "a voice" (Tapley 182) within the French public sphere, as their works have been published on a weekly basis since 1970. Their importance among the French media is considerable. Whereas as "the majority of the French Muslims belong to disadvantaged social classes, they are under-represented in the media" (Soonckindt 3). This situation leads to a biased use of free speech that "is being used to veil an attack on another important value, namely equality. [...] Free speech  [thus] causes substantial social harm, and free speech is being abused" (Tapley 185).

Through humour, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists reinforced a situation of exclusion and contributed to "set up an "us vs. them" scenario: [that distinguished] those who are inside the community created by the joke, and those who are outside" (Tapley 177). Yet through humour, they also have the power to change this scenario.


Do We Still Have the Right to Say Everything?

Yes, we do have the right to say everything, and, sometimes that means that we must say everything. Or, more precisely, it means that we must talk about everybody. Instead of focusing on the representation of extreme Islam, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, like the other French medias, must work on representing the entire French Muslim community, its diversity, its complexity, and its place among the French society. Otherwise, although the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are "just joking," (Tapley 182) certain racist beliefs will continue to be " transmitted, and to some degree absorbed" (Tapley 181).

In the name of free speech, jokes like those of Charlie Hebdo must continue. Yet, for these jokes not to result in "exclusionary practices against [Muslims]" (Fassin 5), Muslims must be equally represented within the French media. And it is notably Charlie Hebdo's responsibility to do so. The Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists in particular, and the French media in general, have the privilege to have a voice, a powerful voice. Yet for this privilege not to become an unequal use of free speech, it must be used to represent everyone.


© Rosalie Calvet, October 2015


Works Cited

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France. Constitution. Art 10

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Levy, Bernard-Henry. "In Praise of Blasphemy." The Huffington Post. N.p., 30 Apr. 2015. Web. 25 Nov. 2015. <>.

Perrotin, David. "« Charlie, Ils L’ont Bien Cherché »." Rue89. N.p., 20 Jan. 2015. Web. 25 Nov. 2015.

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Société Des Habous Et Des Lieux Saints De L’Islam Et Autre C/Ph. Val. Tribunal De Grande Instance De Paris. 22 Mar. 2007. Print.

Soonckindt-Chauchard, Sabrina. "Les Médias, Vecteurs D'une Image Négative Et Stéréotypée Des Musulmans: Mythe Ou Réalité?" Memoire Online. Ecole De Journalisme Et De Communication De Toulouse, Jan. 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.

Zemmour, Eric, and Alain Duhamel. "Raconter La France." Interview by Alain Finkielfraut. Audio blog post. France Culture. Radio France, 10 Jan. 2015. Web. 27 Nov. 201