Martyn Turner: ‘Charlie Hebdo fought extremism with laughter, satire and free speech’

‘It is an attack on the European way of life, European culture. How should we respond?’

My first reaction to events in Paris yesterday, apart from sadness and shock, is that it is wrong to suddenly get especially worked up because a small group of extremist religious miscreants decided to kill off some European cartoonists, journalists and policemen. After all, the self same nuts decide every day to kill off many other substratas of society: men, women, children, goat-herders, traders, refugees, and anyone else that takes their fancy. They do not discriminate.

Very few can escape the wrath of their Kalashnikovs. Very few cannot cause offence to them by anything more than simply existing and not being one of them. And many of those horrors go by unnoticed by our media. And, of course, like the IRA before them, the terrorists of al-Qaeda and Islamic State are far more adept at killing their own “tribe” than killing others.

So in the same way that most victims of the IRA could be labelled “Catholic”, most victims of Islamic State are Muslim. But the attack in Paris is a bit deeper. It is an attack on the European way of life, European culture. How should we respond? Well, of course, in this way of life, this culture we don’t respond because that is the point of having a “culture” in the first place. “An eye for an eye” is the prerogative of others a bit farther east. With a few notable exceptions we don’t just slaughter people because we don’t agree with them. Except in world wars, of course.

To this particular and peculiar brand of Islamania, Charlie Hebdo committed the greatest crime. They fought extremism with laughter, satire and free speech. When I am in France, Charlie Hebdo is my weekly of choice. It is far livelier than Canard Enchaîné and far less intimidating than Sine Hebdo (itself a breakaway from Charlie Hebdo). In France they take satire very seriously. They are devoutly anti-clerical in the broadest sense and have been for a century or so. The fight for the freedom of the press was fought against the church and against the political classes in France long ago and was won.


Charlie and the other magazines see it as their mission in life to exploit the boundaries of taste and freedom as much as they can. So when Islam came into this culture it was treated by the satirists in exactly the same way they had been treating other religions for decades. When you add to this a large dollop of the French cartoonists' love of the scatological and gynaecological, you get something that can probably only be sold in the presse tabacs of France. Charlie Hebdo would not survive too long in a Dublin newsagent without being hauled before the beak for blasphemy, indecency and anything else they could think of.

Of the cartoonists mentioned as dead, but not confirmed as I write, I knew a couple. Cabu (Jean Cabut), I knew by reputation and, of course, through his work. Apart from a healthy scepticism for all things political, he was enthusiastically opposed to militarism and violence. He was a vegetarian. A tough gig if you live in France.

Georges Wolinski, I am told by a cartoonist chum who knew him, was Jewish and from Tunisia. Tignous (Bernard Verlhac) had visited Ireland and the now defunct cartoon festival in Rathdrum a couple of times.

Ironically, this horror will, in all probability, produce another outcome that will be anathema to both the perpetrators and the victims of this outrage. France, like Germany and other parts of mainland Europe, is currently in thrall to anti-Muslim sentiment. France has a large Islamic population and serious problems with integration and, to use a French political term, co-habitation.

Whereas the response in Germany is a growing number of anti-Islamic demonstrations it is, in France, manifested by otherwise tolerant people supporting the National Front who claim that they will do something about immigration. This could be a mighty boost for Marine Le Pen’s chances of becoming the next French president. They may say “Je suis Charlie” today but they might say “Je suis Le Pen” tomorrow.