On 5 January, Stéphane Charbonnier, 47, editor of Charlie Hebdo, finished writing a short book: Lettre aux escrocs de l'islamophobie qui font le jeu des racistes (Letter to the Islamophobia Frauds Who Play into the Hands of Racists).
Two days later he was dead, writes John Lichfield, murdered by the Kouachi brothers when they attacked the offices of the satirical magazine in eastern Paris. The Kouachis asked for him by name when they burst into his offices to "avenge the Prophet". They shot him before turning their automatic weapons on other members of the magazine staff, a police bodyguard and visitors.
A total of 12 people were killed in an attack which shocked the Western world. Five other people were killed in the next three days by Amédy Coulibaly, an associate of Chérif and Said Kouachi. All three gunmen were killed in police sieges on Friday 10 January.
Stéphane Charbonnier was a cartoonist and writer. He was a supporter of the French Communist Party. And while, under his editorship, Charlie Hebdo aggressively poked fun at Catholicism and Judaism as well as radical Islam, his book – published in France last week – is a passionate rejection of the allegations that, under his editorship, Charlie Hebdo was "racist" or "Islamophobic".
In the book, Charb, as he was always known, defends his publication of cartoons mocking radical Islam and caricaturing (but never mocking) the Prophet Mohamed. He argues – from a left-wing, anti-racist, militantly secular viewpoint – that the word "Islamophobia" is a trap, set by an unholy alliance of Muslim radicals and the unthinking, liberal Western media. The real issue, he says, is racism and Charlie Hebdo was never racist...
Really, the word "Islamophobia" is badly chosen if it's supposed to described the hatred which some lame-brains have for Muslims. And it is not only badly chosen, it is dangerous. From a purely etymological viewpoint, Islamophobia ought to mean "fear of Islam" – yet the inventors, promoters and users of this word deploy it to denounce hatred of Muslims. But isn't it odd that "Muslimophobia", or just "racism", isn't used instead of "Islamophobia".
Why has this word taken over? From ignorance, from idleness… but also because those who campaign against Islamophobia don't do so to defend Muslims as individuals. They do so to defend the religion of the prophet Mohamed.
Racism has been present in every country since the scapegoat was invented. There will probably always be racists. The answer is not to make police raids on the minds of our fellow citizens, searching for the least spark of racism. The answer is to stop racists from formulating their nauseating opinions publicly, from demanding the "right" to be racist, from expressing their hatred.
In France, racist language was set free by Sarkozy and his debate on national identity. When the most senior authority in the state speaks to the cretins and swine and says, "Let it all hang out, guys", what do you think the cretins and swine do? They start saying in public what previously they had only roared at the end of drunken family meals.
Racist language – which pressure groups, politicians and intellectuals had managed to corral in the space between the mouth of the xenophobe and his kitchen door – has escaped into the street. It flows through the media and sullies the networks of social media.
So, yes, we are in the middle of an explosion of racist behaviour – yet the word "racism" is used only timidly, and is on the way to being supplanted by "Islamophobia". And the campaigners for multiculturalism, who try to foist the notion of "Islamophobia" on the judicial and political authorities, have only one aim in mind: to force the victims of racism into identifying themselves as Muslims.
The fact that racists are also Islamophobic is, I'm afraid, irrelevant. They are, first and foremost, racists. By attacking Islam, they are targeting foreigners or people of foreign origin. But by focusing only on their Islamophobia, we are minimising the danger of racism. The anti-racist campaigners of old are in danger of becoming overspecialised niche retailers in a minority form of discrimination.
To combat racism is to combat all forms of racism. To combat Islamophobia is to combat – what exactly? Is it a means of suppressing all criticism of the religion? Or is it a way of resisting hatred of Muslims because they are of foreign origin? While we are arguing over whether it is racist to say that the Koran is nonsense, the racists are laughing up their sleeves. If, tomorrow, all the Muslims in France converted to Catholicism – or gave up religion completely – the racists would not blink an eye. Foreigners, or French people of foreign origin, would still be the source of all evil.
Take Mouloud and Gérard. Both are Muslims. Mouloud is of North African origin. Gérard is of European origin. Both go after the same flat. Which has the best chance? The one with an Arab face or the one with a "Frenchy" face? The flat would not be refused to the Muslim. It would be refused to the Arab. Or take the example of Mouloud and Abdelkader. Both are Muslims. Both are foreign. Both have better sun tans than Gérard. Mouloud doesn't have a bean, Abdelkader is a millionaire. Which one would be refused the lease on the flat? The Muslim or the millionaire?
To be scared of Islam is, doubtless, cretinous, absurd and lots of other things but it is not a crime. You can, equally, express your fear of Christianity or Judaism without interrupting the slumbers of an investigating magistrate or setting the judicial machinery rumbling. Believers are often scared of one another's religions. They have been told that their own is the best in the world – no, not the best, the only one. But by proclaiming that their own sacred texts are the truth, they are implying that all the others are fibs. It's easy to imagine that a believer could be scared by the idea that most people might convert to a false religion. Or, more likely, that the competition might pinch all the customers.
However, a sacred text only becomes dangerous when a fanatical reader decides to apply his bed-time reading literally. You have to be really naïve to take at face value the founding texts of all the great religions. You have to be psychopathic to try to do what they say in your own home. In short, the problem is neither the Koran nor the Bible (both of them being boring novels, incoherent and badly written). The problem is the believer who reads the Koran or the Bible like an instruction leaflet for a set of Ikea shelves: "If I don't cut the throat of the infidel, God will banish me from Club Med when I am dead."
Take any cookbook and declare it to be the Truth. The result? A bloodbath. Your neighbour makes gluten-free pancakes because he has an allergy? The sacred Book doesn't mention it. Burn your neighbour, he is a blasphemer! He puts too much butter on the bottom of his cake tin? Kill him!
It would never enter the minds of communists to call anti-communists "communismophobes" or to demand that they are prosecuted for anti-communist racism. However much you twist reality, you will never get the world to say that there is a "communist" race. Equally, there is no "Islamic" race. In France today, communism is a minority viewpoint which is mocked, sometimes violently, by the faithful defenders of the all-conquering pro-market liberal mode. Now, unlike God, it is hard to deny that Marx or Lenin or (the former French Communist Party leader) Georges Marchais ever existed. But it is not a blasphemy, nor racist, nor communismophobic to dispute the validity of their writings or their sayings.
Equally, in secular France, all religions are just a collection of texts, traditions and customs which anyone is entitled to criticise. To put a clown's nose on the face of Marx is no more outrageous or scandalous than to put the same conk on the face of Mohamed.
A non-believer, however hard he may try, cannot blaspheme. God is only sacred to those who believe in God. To insult God, you have to believe that God exists. The strategy of the multiculturalists disguised as anti-racists is to muddle blasphemy and Islamophobia, Islamophobia and racism. Still, the word "Islamophobia" would not have enjoyed its glittering success without the complicity – often the stupid complicity – of the mainstream media. Why have they grabbed hold of it so quickly? From laziness, from love of the new and for commercial gain. They have no anti-racist motives in popularising the word "Islamophobia". On the contrary.
To put it simply, any shock-horror story with the word "Islam" in its headline is a good seller. And ever since 9/11, the media have loved to shove on the stage that fascinating and terrifying character, the Islamist terrorist. Why? Because fear sells. The fear of Islam sells. And the Islam which scares people is the only Islam which the mass public sees.
Often, what the mass media present as news about Islam is just a caricature. But then, there are few protests from the organisations dedicated to hunting down Islamophobia. On the other hand, if radical Islam is actually caricatured – and openly caricatured – the Islamophobe-hunters shriek with anger. To get your name into the media, it is less risky to attack a little player like Charlie Hebdo than to criticise the big TV channels or news magazines.
Charlie Hebdo published caricatures of Mohamed long before the scandal of the Danish cartoons (in 2006) and, ever since then, its illustrators have been described as caricaturists. But please note that the illustrators of Charlie Hebdo had previously been described – and described themselves – as "journalistic illustrators". Caricature is one way of commenting on the news but there are other ways of illustrating events. There is nothing shameful about caricature but the obsession with this word show how the mass public was led to view the work of Charlie Hebdo.
As I said, Charlie Hebdo drew the Muslim prophet long before the scandal of the Danish cartoons. No organisation or journalist expressed their horror. A few individuals sent complaining letters. That's all. No demonstration, no death threats, no terrorist attacks. It was only after the denunciation and exploitation of the Danish cartoons by a group of Muslim extremists that caricaturing the Prophet began to detonate hysterical crises in the media and among Muslims (though the media came first).
So when Charlie Hebdo re-stated the right of a cartoonist to comment on religious terrorism by republishing the Danish cartoons, the media spotlight turned on to our satirical magazine. Charlie Hebdo was declared also to be a potential target of the religious loonies. The media decided that republishing the cartoons would provoke Muslim fury – and therefore provoked the fury of a few Muslim groups. But it was fake anger in some cases. When the microphone was shoved in their faces, the spokesmen had to react. They had to show the more excitable members of their flock that they were true defenders of the faith.
The drawing that showed Mohamed with a turban in the shape of a bomb became the best known. Not everybody interpreted it in the same way, but everyone could read it because there was no caption. Its critics decided that it was an insult to all Muslims: to put a bomb on the Prophet's head was to say that all believers were terrorists. But there was another interpretation that did not interest the mass media. (It was not scandalous and it did not sell newspapers.) To show Mohamed wearing a bomb on his head could be an attack on terrorists for exploiting religion. In this scenario, the drawing said: "Look at what the terrorists are doing to Islam; look how terrorists who claim to be followers of Mohamed see the prophet."
What's more, just because people say Islam is the second most practised religion in France, that doesn't mean all immigrants from Muslim countries are Muslims: remember that in 2010, a study by the INED (Institut national d'études démographiques) showed 2.1 million people in France considered themselves to be practising Muslims, but these figures are never cited by the multiculturalists who continue to speak, according to their mood, about six, eight, 10 or even 13 million Muslims in France! Religion is not transmitted genetically as the multi-culturalists – and the far right – would have us believe.
However, why do the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, who know that their drawings will be exploited by the media, by the retailers of anti-Islamophobia, by far-right Muslims and nationalists, insist on drawing Mohamed and other "sacred" symbols of Islam? Simply because the Charlie Hebdo drawings do not have the vast majority of Muslims as their target. We believe that Muslims are capable of recognising a tongue-in-cheek. By what twisted argument should Islam be less compatible with humour than other religions?
If you argue that you can laugh at everything, except certain aspects of Islam – because Muslims are much more sensitive than the rest of the population – aren't you practising a kind of discrimination? And if so, isn't it time to do away with the disgusting paternalism of the white, bourgeois, left-wing intellectuals who want to fit in with "the poor and the miserable and under-educated"?
They're educated, you see, and obviously understand that Charlie Hebdo is meant to be funny – because, for one thing, they're very intelligent and, for another, they were brought up that way. But out of respect for people who have not yet learned about tongues in cheeks, they condemn from a sense of solidarity these "Islamophobic" cartoons which they pretend not to understand. "I bring myself down to your level to show how much I love you," they say. "And if I have to convert to Islam to be even closer to you, I will do it!" Such ridiculous demagogues are driven by an endless need for approval and an outrageous superiority complex.
People who accuse Charlie Hebdo cartoonists of Islamophobia each time they draw a character with a beard are not just dishonest or hypocritical. They are supporting so-called radical Islam. If you draw an old man committing a paedophile act, you are not casting aspersions on all old men. You are not saying that all old men are paedophiles; or that all paedophiles are old men. Apart from a few imbeciles, no one would accuse a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist of doing any such thing. The drawing shows an old paedophile. That's all.
The front page of the Charlie Hebdo edition devoted to the Danish cartoons is a magnificent illustration of this point. The drawing by Cabu shows a bearded man in a turban holding his head in his hands. He is either angry or he is crying. Perhaps both. The speech bubble says: "It's tough being loved by cretins." The headline above says: "Mohamed overwhelmed by fundamentalists."
Mohamed is complaining about the attitude of his fundamentalist followers. That's clear enough. And yet Charlie Hebdo was violently accused of calling all followers of the Prophet cretins. Charlie Hebdo drawings are not just misunderstood by the ignorant. They are re-drawn by very clever people who want to mutilate their meaning.
Translation by John Lichfield
'Lettre aux escrocs de l'islamophobie qui font le jeu des racistes' by Charb (Euros 13.90) is published by Editions Les Echappés, the book publishing arm of 'Charlie Hebdo'
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