France: "Support the right to make fun of extremists": an interview with Caroline Fourest

We are facing a political threat, a totalitarian Islamist threat that manifests in terrorism. Journalists are defending something which is elementary to our democracy: our freedom to breathe and to laugh.

Karima Bennoune and Caroline Fourest 10 January 2015 - We are facing a political threat, a totalitarian Islamist threat that manifests in terrorism. Journalists are defending something which is elementary to our democracy: our freedom to breathe and to laugh.

Caroline Fourest worked at Charlie Hebdo when it re-published the cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed. Karima Bennoune interviewed her for openDemocracy on the day of the Paris attacks.

Karima Bennoune: What is your political analysis of the attack against the Charlie Hebdo paper where you used to work? How should we understand it?

Caroline Fourest:  Charlie Hebdo has received death threats for more than ten years, since the explosion of the affair of the Mohamed cartoons almost 10 years ago. For Anglophone readers, I should explain that the paper occupies a very particular place on the French political spectrum. It is very leftwing, very anti-racist and very secular all at the same time. It represents something that we cherish in France, this balance to which we are very attached between, on the one hand, the defense of secularism and the struggle against religious fanaticisms in any religion, and on the other, the fight against racism.  This is what is so unacceptable for the jihadists.  In France, this is what they reject the most.

Charlie Hebdo re-published the Danish cartoons in solidarity with the Danish cartoonists who were threatened with death in 2006.  It is a paper in the skeptical tradition and it makes fun of all religions, so it decided to show these drawings that had not been shown elsewhere. They had not been published in the US for fear of attack, or because of the fear of shocking religious sensibilities. Re-publishing these drawings was our way of defending freedom of expression when faced with fanatics.

We published a cartoon that tried to differentiate Mohamed from the fundamentalists and showed how upset he was with the stupidity of their violent response to the Danish drawings.  (Interviewer’s note: The cartoon in question shows the Prophet Mohamed holding his head in his hands, crying, and saying “it is hard to be loved by idiots.”  It is most relevant this week.) Since the time we published those cartoons, we have received death threats at Charlie Hebdo. We faced a court case brought by a Muslim organization which we won.  Charlie continued to draw against all religions. We drew against the Pope.  But there was more of a polemic when we drew Mohamed.  The headquarters of the paper was burned in 2011 in a criminal arson attack. So Charlie Hebdo took refuge in another location where there was a lot of security. They did not even have the name of the newspaper displayed outside. My former colleagues and comrades who were killed on January 7th had been under police protection since 2006.  Their lives were never the same since this affair. They knew they were hated by the fanatics.

Karima Bennoune: What are the best ways for the international community to respond to this attack, and what are the best ways for progressives and secularists elsewhere to stand in solidarity with the victims?

Caroline Fourest: Make drawings to support freedom of the press. Support the right to make fun of religions, and of extremists.  Make fun of the fundamentalists. Continue to have a sense of humour. Continue to smile when they want to prohibit us even from smiling.  Support the press.  Journalists today are on the frontlines because they defend something which is elementary to our democracy: Our freedom to breathe and to laugh.

Stand up to incitement on social media.  Beyond the mentally ill people who committed this crime at Charlie Hebdo, there have been years of incitement against the journalists of Charlie Hebdo online.  They were accused of being Islamophobic simply because they claimed the right to laugh at all religions.  It must never be allowed to happen again, this way of designating someone as a target. It must never be accepted again.  Such rhetoric must never again be excused.

Racism must not excuse fundamentalism.  And fundamentalism must not excuse racism. We have to unceasingly fight both at the same time.  

Karima Bennoune: In the Anglophone media, some are resorting to a communitarian analysis and blaming the attacks on France’s failure to integrate Muslims.  How do you reply to such an analysis?

Caroline Fourest: It is really the day of idiotic rhetoric.  That is what the jihadists expect. The jihadists carry out terrorist attacks to make us idiots.  Many countries in the world face terror attacks. We can make a sociological analysis if we want to, but it was not “the Muslims” who attacked Charlie Hebdo.  It was three mentally ill people.  Those fundamentalists who killed in Algeria in the 1990s , were they Muslims who were not well-integrated in Algeria?  Those who resort to such an analysis do not understand that we are facing a political threat, a totalitarian Islamist threat that manifests in terrorism.  This analysis is another way of falling into the trap that the extremists offer us.

We had people born in Normandy who are blond with blue eyes who went to fight with “Islamic State”.  There are Muslims who killed many other Muslims, many more Muslims than Westerners. Today there are all sorts of flags flown by fanatics that are used to rally people without humour, without hope, without spirit.

In fact, secularism is actually working very well in France.  90% of French people are very attached to secularism, including its citizens of Muslim culture. I can tell you that for ten years at Charlie Hebdo, those who sent the most solidarity messages, those who fought on our side the most were of Maghrebin background, whether Muslim or not Muslim. 

Karima Bennoune: As someone who has worked with Charlie Hebdo, as someone who has courageously fought fundamentalism for many years, what are you feeling today?

Caroline Fourest: I feel an even greater responsibility to continue.  I keep with me the images of the faces of my colleagues who have fallen on the front lines of freedom of the press today. I have friends who have been found in their blood, and others who are in shock.  The survivors said to each other that we will all meet tomorrow for an editorial meeting. We will make sure the issue will come out next week. We will not have the same sense of humor we used to have, as they killed all of the best French cartoonists in one massacre. 

But, there is no way they will make us put down our pens. 

Translated from French by Karima Bennoune.

This article was originally published by and is available here.

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There is no way they will make us put down our pens