Who could have ever imagined that, after all the speculations about what will be filed under the luxury label in 2015, the first days of January would have dramatically revealed us that the most important "luxury" is that of being creative, independent and free to say, write and draw whatever you want?
Yesterday's attack by two masked and hooded gunmen (brothers Cherif Kouachi and Said Kouachi, with a third armed man driving a car, are the suspected attackers at the time of writing) at the Parisian offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that left 12 people dead (10 from the magazine staff – including editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), and cartoonists Jean Cabut (Cabu), Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac (Tignous) - and two policemen) and many more injured, genuinely proved that freedom of expression is still a luxury.
The attack was carried out in retaliation for the cartoons published by the magazine and deemed offensive to Islam. Yet Charlie Hebdo opted to go down the irreverently critical path (as any satirist should and would do...) since it started in 1969 as Hara-Kiri Hebdo. Closed in 1981 and reopened in 1992 as Charlie Hebdo, the magazine was criticised for republishing in 2006 controversial cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad by Danish artist Kurt Westergaard, that had originally appeared on the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
A special issue of the magazine (renamed for the occasion Charia Hebdo) published in November 2011, and "guest-edited" by the prophet Muhammad, featuring on the cover a picture of Muhammad himself stating "100 lashes if you don't die laughing!" (and on the back the prophet wearing a red nose and the slogan: "Yes, Islam is compatible with humor"), raised many protests and the magazine offices were fire-bombed a couple of days after the cover was circulated on the social media. At the time, the magazine site was also hacked and the company hosting it took it offline after receiving death threats from Islamic groups.
Yet Charlie Hebdo went on publishing cartoons of the prophet naked in 2012 (one inspired by Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 film Contempt, with the prophet repeating Brigitte Bardot's line "Do you like my bottom?") that sparked more hate and condemnation in the Muslim world, with the French government preventively closing embassies, consulates, cultural centres and international schools due to fears they could be targeted by attacks.
Shortly before yesterday's attack, Charlie Hebdo sent via Twitter its New Year wishes to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State (Isis), tweeting a cartoon by artist Philippe Honoré (Honoré; also killed in the attack), while its current cover focuses on Michel Houellebecq's provocative new novel Soumission (Submission), in which the author envisages a Muslim president getting the power in France in 2022.
Now, you don't need a degree in journalism to be able to differentiate between political correctness and satire. While we could call Charlie Hebdo's irreverent (the magazine was often summoned up in court accused of defamation and hate incitement while editor Stéphane Charbonnier received death threats and lived under police protection for a while), we must still remember it is a satirical magazine and satire has no boundaries (we should also consider Charlie Hebdo as part of the French satirical tradition, which is completely different for historical and artistic reasons to that of other European countries such as Great Britain).
Besides, though its response to attacks from Muslims has put the focus on Charlie Hebdo's attitude to Islam in particular, the magazine has actually criticised and lampooned in its history politicians, religious figures (from all the main religions...), celebrities, media personalities, and several assorted contemporary issues including drugs, feminism and nuclear energy.
If the jester was allowed in the Middle Ages to make jokes about the King, satirical cartoonists should be able in our times to do their jobs without being afraid of being shot dead for doing it. And while it is possible to discuss the decision of publishing something, it isn't possible to use such a decision to justify violence or a violent reaction.
Following the attacks, the best contributions came from cartoonists, but many fashion designers expressed their solidarity to Charlie Hebdo.
Jean Charles de Castelbajac posted on his Twitter and Facebook pages an illustration of a masked gunman challenged by a figure in a striped shirt hoisting a pencil and dedicated it to the brave artists from the Charlie Hebdo staff.
Business retailers are instead currently considering how this attack will impact on sales and the fashion industry is wondering if there will be consequences on major events like the fashion weeks.
But the main impact this terrible attack should have is not that of triggering more fear and terror, but to make us think. We should all learn a few lessons from satire and satire publications as they represent one of the very few places where controversial opinions can still be expressed in a clever way and where freeedom of expression is still possible.
Journalism is indeed a vast label that reunites under it different writers and disciplines, from news to politics, from crime to science, technology and entertainment just to mention a few ones. There are still forms of censorships in journalism all over the world. Even in the superficial and flamboyant world of fashion journalism, writers can't tell the truth about a fashion show and can't criticise a collection/a designer if they're working for a major publication, otherwise the magazine will lose money as advertisers will turn against it (consequences for the writer vary: your articles may be scrapped, you may be banned from the magazine, fired or, if you're a freelancer, you'll be simply ignored from the moment you wrote the article on). Fashion journalism would be healthier if it would be ruled by objectivity rather than money and imagine how wonderfully entertaning it would be a satirical magazine entirely dedicated to the fashion industry.
A gun is a terrible weapon, but so are a pen, a pencil and a keyboard. The most terrible weapons of all is ridicule, though. It is easy to instantly kill with a weapon and erase a human life, but it is extremely difficult to get rid of the wounds that satire can cause. Yet while satire hurts and prompts people to think, it doesn't kill.
In November 2011 after Charlie Hebdo's offices were fire-bombed, French publication Liberation housed its journalists, while simultaneously running an issue celebrating the right to offend whoever it wanted. A few days later, Charlie Hebdo published a front page depicting one of the magazine's cartoonists kissing a bearded Muslim man in front of the debris left by the bombing with the headline "L'Amour plus fort que la haine" (Love is stronger than hate). Almost four years later, this still seems to be the best way to defeat not just terrorism, but the fear and horror that it generates.
So yesterday we learnt in a terribly dramatic way a lesson about freedom of expression in 2015: now we know that it certainly shouldn't be a luxury, but an obvious right in a free and democratic society. The members of the Charlie Hebdo staff stood for such a right and paid a high price for doing so. It's up to us now to make sure that freedom of expression doesn't become an almost unachievable luxury, but remains a basic human need.
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