Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, announced on Tuesday that it would republish several cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed. The cartoons, which originally appeared in the Danish press in 2005 and were published by Charlie Hebdo in 2006, touched off a firestorm of anger from across the Muslim world which decried them as blasphemous. They are cited as the impetus for a series of deadly attacks carried out by two brothers, Saïd and Cherif Kouachi, on January 7, 2015. 

The attack on the magazine’s headquarters claimed the lives of 12 people, nine of whom worked for the magazine. During the ensuing manhunt for the brothers, a known associate, Amedy Coulibaly, stormed a kosher supermarket, where he took 19 hostages and murdered four. Both Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers were killed by police forces on January 9, 2015.

Saïd and Cherif Kouachi.

The announcement comes just days before the trial of the alleged accomplices of the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly. The trial, which has been delayed by a lengthy five-year investigation, will commence on Wednesday with open questioning. It is likely to last for several months. On the decision to republish the cartoons a spokesperson for the magazine said they “belong to history, and history cannot be rewritten nor erased.” 

According to several reports, the magazine has been asked several times to republish the drawings since the attacks. “We have always refused to do so, not because it is prohibited — the law allows us to do so,” a spokesperson stated on Tuesday, “but because there was a need for a good reason to do it, a reason which has meaning and which brings something to the debate.” The magazine cover published on Wednesday contains several cartoons. At the center is a one illustrated by cartoonist Jean Cabut who was among those killed in the January 2015 attack.

Alongside the cartoons is the headline Tout Ça Pour Ça or “All this for That.”

Among the list of 14 suspects, three will be noticeably absent: Hayat Boumeddiene, Mohamed Belhoucine, and his brother Mehdi Belhoucine. The Belhoucine brothers are believed to have fled France days before the 2015 attacks. According to France24, both brothers joined ISIS and fought and died in Iraq or Syria in 2016. The third, Hayat Boumeddiene, was Coulibaly’s partner. He is believed to have joined ISIS and is still at large. 

Of the 11 suspects in custody, one man, Ali Riza Polat, 35, a French citizen of Turkish origin, is the most high profile. Polat is suspected of being the link between Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly’s “right-hand man” according to investigators. The charges leveled at the suspects, including Polat, complicity in terrorism charges, are punishable by life sentences, according to France24.

Je Suis Charlie and Laïcité

Paris rally in support of the victims of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting, 11 January 2015.

The trial will likely open a valve for the French people who, in 2015, had amassed in support of the murdered journalists. This lead to the Je Suis Charlie (I am Charlie) movement which swept across the globe. The movement, which sparked a national and international outcry in favor of freedom of speech and press, also points inwardly at the heart of French culture. 

In France, as in the United States, there is a division of Church and State. Though the division is at times blurry as can be seen from the following: All churches, temples, and synagogues built before 1905 are property of the state and are tended to via municipal and national coffers. All religious feasts are French National holidays. Finally, the government pays the salaries of teachers in religious private schools.

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France is underpinned by the notion of Laïcité, or simply, secularism.

Laïcité took on its contemporary shape in 1965 when the Roman Catholic Church accepted the notion of religious freedom under the Declaration on Human Dignity passed by the Vatican II Council. Prior to this, the Vatican required national governments to impose the moral guidelines of the Church on their citizens. In France, Laïcité countered the moral power of the priesthood over the French people. In essence, Laïcité represents the right to not just the freedom of religion, but from religious coercion. 

But Laïcité is far from perfect. Some see it as rabid secularism that oversteps its intended purpose, a kind of hammer that views any religious expression as a violation of Laïcité. This notion came to head in the late 1980s through a widespread domestic debate about the wearing of the hijab or headscarf. According to staunch readings of Laïcité, the wearing of a headscarf in a public space — like a school, for example — violated the right of the others’ in that space to be free from coercion. 

The debate eventually led to a blurring of political lines in France whereby French republicans, typically in favor of intervention by the secular republic in the quest for preserving freedom from religious coercion, were pitted against the liberals, who in turn vied for the liberty of the individual to practice their religious freedoms. In 2004, the French government issued a ban on headscarves in public spaces. In 2011, France became the first European country to ban the full-face veil, or niqqab, in public spaces. 

Post-9/11 

Pancrate representing a parody of the motto of France, the word Fraternity having been replaced by Laicité.

This battle over the hijab has since become a sociopolitical vortex, pulling into it questions of freedom of expression, speech, and press. Likewise, questions of Frenchness have arisen leading to battles over France’s policy of minority assimilation (foreigners seeking French citizenship must adopt French customs and language) and a rising tide of Islamophobia. It has also underscored France’s colonial past in the Middle East and North Africa, highlighting the social strife surrounding immigration from those regions, stirring prejudices against Franco-Arab communities, and widening social gaps along racial, ethnic, and religious lines. 

In the post-9/11 world, Laïcité has become a talisman in the fight against radical Islam. Through its lens, a common Frenchness is clarified. In so doing the threats of radicalization and extremism become markers of a dangerous other. Je Suis Charlie was not just a message of support and solidarity, but one of unity in the fight against radical Islam. The sentiment is mirrored by the words uttered by France2 reporter Nicole Bacharan on the evening of September 11th, 2001: “Ce soir, nous sommes tous Américains” or “Tonight, we are all Americans.” Her words seemed to echo John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner.” 

Charlie Hebdo: “We Will Never Lie Down”

On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said that he would neither condemn nor condone the publication of the cartoons by Charlie Hebdo. In a press conference while on a trip to Lebanon, Macron said that it was not his place to pass judgment citing France’s freedom of expression. 

“It’s never the place of a president of the Republic to pass judgment on the editorial choice of a journalist or newsroom, never. Because we have freedom of the press,” Macron said.

He went on to say that it was incumbent on the French people to show civility and respect, and to avoid a “dialogue of hate.” 

Meanwhile, the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo is unwavering in what publishing the contentious drawings represents. “We will never lie down. We will never give up,” director Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau wrote in a note that accompanied the cartoons in the latest edition.

“The hatred that struck us is still there and, since 2015, it has taken the time to mutate, to change its appearance, to go unnoticed and to quietly continue its ruthless crusade,” he added.