Charlie Hebdo attacks: Liberalism and secularism are meant to let religion flourish

A year after the shocking attack on the satirical magazine's staff, we should accept that France has lost sight of its commitment to equality for all citizens under the law

When, a year ago, I was invited on to BBC One’s This Week to explain why I disliked Charlie Hebdo, Michael Portillo told me to “remain silent”. The former Conservative minister expressed “outrage” at my negativity towards the French magazine. Shrouding it with quasi-religious sanctity, he equated criticism of the publication’s badly drawn, embarrassingly unfunny material with a demonic defence of murderous terrorism.  

As far as numerous Hebdo supporters are concerned, that reverential fantasy remains intact. The apologists have a dogmatic, preacher-like fervour about them as they cast their censorial stones. Their black-and-white argument is that al-Qaeda-affiliated gunmen who killed and maimed in and around the magazine’s offices represent all detractors. There is no subtlety: no acceptance that those of us left devastated by the massacre might also have a critical view of the publication.

In fact, as a Muslim born and brought up in Paris, I have every right to object to the excesses of Charlie Hebdo, while also feeling immense compassion for the victims of an abhorrent crime. Not only are the magazine’s crass, outdated stereotypes unpleasant in themselves (black people portrayed as monkeys and slaves, for example), but they spread racist and religious hatred in a manner that would be admonished instantly in every other sphere of public life.

Hebdo cartoonists and editorialists are part of France’s long tradition of anti-clericalism – they would be the first to admit that they despise religion and Islam in particular. In the words of former staff journalist Olivier Cyran, the magazine’s “obsessive pounding of Muslims” had “powerfully contributed to popularising the idea that Islam is a major ‘problem’ in French society”. 

In recent years Hebdo’s abiding prejudice has become a useful ally to those demonising brown-skinned communities living in neglected suburbs. What better way to torment unwanted Muslims from France’s former colonial empire than to ridicule them as puritanical savages who cannot take a bad joke?

Coco, one of the surviving Hebdo cartoonists, infamously depicted the Prophet Mohamed as a sexually deviant porn star, with his genitals and bare bottom exposed. It is all very well to say that you can simply ignore such obscenities, but her images were distributed online to a Muslim-hating global audience, from gun-toting American patriots to an increasingly jingoistic European electorate. 

The cartoons continue to represent a bigot’s dream – a way to humiliate one of the most revered figures in Islam, along with his billion-and-a-half followers, all in the name of fun.

Coco’s drawings first appeared when politicians such as former president Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen, of the Front National, were doing all they could to stigmatise Muslims who – unfashionable as it may sound – actually find great comfort and hope in their Prophet. In turn, the power brokers suggest that Islam is better associated with “an enemy within” and a terrorist threat.

The Coco-style “jokes” are meanwhile mitigated by pompous claims about how you need “to understand the French”, or at least have an elite education, to “get” them. In fact, this is pure hypocrisy: numerous laws aimed at stopping discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities are simply ignored when it comes to the magazine. 

It is not hyperbolic to compare Hebdo’s nastier material with that produced by the Nazi Der Stürmer magazine in the run-up to the Holocaust. The argument that “only pens” are used by Hebdo to depict Muslims as “bearded cretins who spend their time on porn sites”, as “desert pigs”, and women as “sexual jihadists” as they pray towards Mecca, their alleged “pimp”, could just as easily have been applied to Der Stürmer’s poisonous caricatures of Jews. While any hint of anti-Semitism immediately results in criminal prosecutions in France, Hebdo is given a free pass every single time. There is no need for a blasphemy bill: the legislation has always been in place to rein Hebdo in, but it never is. In this sense, the magazine is the spoilt, snarling brat of a Paris establishment that is otherwise as censorial as it is secretive. 

After Hebdo’s offices were firebombed in 2011, the Socialist administration in Paris poured state funds into one of the worst security operations in history, providing a new “top secret” HQ that was anything but. Hebdo’s address was published in the telephone directory, and indeed in the magazine itself. A 24-hour police patrol car was initially posted outside the building but then – despite ongoing threats – was mysteriously stood down. 

In other words, the authorities conceded that Hebdo was inflaming tensions to the point of violence, yet they wanted it to continue doing so, while not providing sufficient protection. Is this really what a society supposedly founded on tolerance and respect – on Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité – has come to? Is France all about testing the boundaries of extremism – how far one group is prepared to mock and humiliate, and how far another is prepared to react? 

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A commemorative plaque to pay tribute to the victims of 2015's attacks outside the former offices of French weekly satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo (EPA)

Never mind that Hebdo was pitifully amateur, its circulation was plummeting, and it faced bankruptcy (facts that the propagandists now conveniently overlook) – it had to be subsidised at any cost. Instead of controlling hateful expression, the French Republic bankrolled it. 

Now we are back to square one: Hebdo is ensconced in another “top secret” Paris location, and is funded by millions more in state and charitable donations. This money mainly comes from entitled secularists and liberals propagating the fallacious “right to offend” mantra – one that only works if you are offending the “right” kind of people. Thus deceitful arguments for “free-speech” and against “censorship” are cynically used to spread hatred against devout immigrant communities, all in absolute contempt of the law. 

Secularism and liberalism are not meant to subjugate religion. On the contrary, if they are applied properly they create a respectful society in which all expressions of faith can flourish, along with those who are atheists or agnostics. 

What Mr Portillo failed to point out following those vile crimes a year ago was that the producers of This Week refused to broadcast Charlie Hebdo’s work. Thus I was being castigated for attacking a magazine considered too offensive to display. The entire Hebdo myth is built on such hypocritical absurdities – ones that make me object to its vicious excesses even more.