Magazine Attacked in Paris Has History of Bold Satire

Charlie Hebdo, the French magazine where shootings today killed at least 12 people, has a long history of bold satire skewering politicians, pop stars and religious fundamentalists of all stripes.

In 2011 it published a special edition called “Charia Hebdo” featuring Muhammad as a “guest editor.” The cover depicted the prophet threatening readers with “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter.” Shortly thereafter, Charlie Hebdo’s Paris offices were firebombed in an overnight attack that caused no injuries.

Just before today’s attack, the magazine’s official Twitter and Facebook accounts published a cartoon of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi offering wishes of good health for the New Year. The current cover is on “Submission,” a book released today about a future in which an Islamic France is led by a Muslim president who bans women from the workplace.

In recent weeks, the magazine has had two police officers stationed outside its doors because of terrorist threats, Rocco Contento of the SGP police union told BFM Television.

A Charlie Hebdo journalist who was out of the country said the attackers appeared to know that the staff would be in their weekly Wednesday meeting when they entered the building. The top editor, Gerard Biard, was in London today, the journalist said.

“This is carnage -- over cartoons,” the journalist said through tears, asking not to be identified due to safety concerns. “For heaven’s sake. They’re only cartoons.”

Although the attackers killed almost a third of the magazine’s staff, the journalist vowed to continue publication.

“I hope it won’t be the end of Charlie Hebdo,” the journalist said. “I hope it won’t be the end of freedom.”

Founded in its current incarnation in 1992, Charlie Hebdo offers a weekly mix of irreverent caricatures, topical interviews, and opinionated essays. Its cartoon covers have included former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn dancing in a red tutu and the late singer Michael Jackson shown as a skeleton shortly after his death from a drug overdose.

Before Christmas last year, the cover depicted Charlie’s take on a traditional nativity scene -- a spread-eagled Mary giving birth to the baby Jesus. That image currently decorates the magazine’s Twitter profile. The magazine’s website today changed to black and white block letters saying only “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie.”

Communion Condom

Though little-known outside France, Charlie Hebdo -- the name means simply Charlie Weekly -- is one of the country’s better-selling political magazines, with an average circulation of about 100,000.

In 2006, it reprinted cartoons of Muhammad originally published by a Danish newspaper, which had prompted sometimes-violent protests because Muslim tradition deems depictions of the prophet to be blasphemous. Islamic organizations sued the magazine over the drawings, a case dismissed by a French court in 2008, according to the Charlie Hebdo website.

Today’s assault was similar to an averted plot to attack Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which published the original Muhammad cartoons, said Jytte Klausen, a professor at Brandeis University who wrote a book on the controversy.

“The template for this attack was already in place,” Klausen said. She added, though, that with police protection in place, “Charlie Hebdo wasn’t what you would traditionally call a soft target.”

Politicians in France, which has Europe’s largest Muslim population, have long understood that the magazine might inflame cultural tensions. During the 2006 controversy, then-president Jacques Chirac asked media organizations to avoid “provocation” of Muslims. And in 2012 former prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called for restraint when Charlie Hebdo published more cartoons representing Muhammad.

The same year, Agence France-Presse reported that police had interrogated a man who called for the beheading of Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Stephane Charbonnier, known as Charb. He was killed in today’s assault, the Paris prosecutor’s office said, along with three other well-known cartoonists: Cabu, or Jean Cabut; Tignous, or Bernard Verlhac; and Georges Wolinski.

“We are crushed,” said Jean-Pierre Schamber, 77, a regular reader who has lived for 25 years in the Paris neighborhood where the magazine has its offices. “Even if I haven’t always agreed with Charlie, this is very deep.”

The magazine’s writers and owners have long defended their content as free speech and argued that they satirize all major religions. In 2010, a cover showed Pope Benedict XVI giving holy communion with a condom. A 2012 story on gay marriage depicted a ménage-a-trois featuring the Holy Spirit, Jesus and God.

Charlie Hebdo is owned by a holding company, Les Editions Rotatives, controlled by senior staffers. They helped re-found the magazine 11 years after a previous version, which ran from 1969 to 1981, ran out of money and shut down.

(A previous version of this story was corrected to remove reference to the magazine’s editor.)

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