Two days after 12 people who worked at the controversial Charlie Hebdo -- “a weekly, French satirical newsmagazine” -- were shot and killed by four gunmen -- Vox website content editor Max Fisher tried to assert the publication's importance by pointing to the “Love Is Stronger Than Hate” cartoon cover of the November 2011 edition.
The cover depicts Charlie Hebdo -- the magazine portrayed by a generic male staffer with a pencil behind his ear -- kissing a generic Muslim man, with the smoldering ashes of the office in the background.
Fisher explained that the publication “was known for its provocative cartoons,” some of which mocked Islamic extremism while portraying an image of the prophet Mohammed, “a fact that in itself is considered an insult and profound religious violation by many Muslims, extreme and not extreme.”
The content editor then noted:
Yet it would do a profound disservice to Charlie Hebdo and its leading cartoonists, many of whom were murdered in the attack, to describe it as an anti-Islam or anti-religion magazine, or to portray it as having provoked just for the sake of provocation.
The context here: The magazine had recently published an issue "guest-edited by Mohammed" that depicted a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed on the cover saying: "100 lashes if you don't die of laughter," with similar fare inside the issue.
“It was far from the first such cartoon in the magazine, but, in response, unknown assailants hacked Charlie Hebdo's website and firebombed its offices,” Fisher stated.
“The magazine was not just criticized by Islamist extremists,” he continued. “At different points, even France's devoutly secular politicians have questioned whether the magazine went too far. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius once asked of its cartoons: 'Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?'"
“It is, actually,” Fisher asserted.
“Part of Charlie Hebdo's point was that respecting these taboos strengthens their censorial power,” he noted. “Worse, allowing extremists to set the limits of conversation validates and entrenches the extremists' premises that free speech and religion are inherently at odds (they are not), and that there is some civilizational conflict between Islam and the West (there isn't).”
“These are also arguments, by the way, made by Islamophobes and racists, particularly in France, where hatred of Muslim immigrants from north and west Africa is a serious problem,” Fisher stated.
He then noted:
And that is exactly why Charlie Hebdo's "Love Is Stronger Than Hate" cover so well captures the magazine's oft-misunderstood mission and message.
Yes, the slobbery kiss between two men is surely meant to get under the skin of any conservative Muslims who are also homophobic, but so too is it an attack on the idea that Muslims or Islam are the enemy, rather than extremism and intolerance.
Laurent Léger, a Charlie Hebdo staffer who survived the attack, told CNN in 2012: "The aim is to laugh. ... We want to laugh at the extremists -- every extremist. They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept."
“That this mission had gotten the magazine attacked in the past, and may have contributed to the terrorists' motivation in murdering its staffers today, should show us all just how important it is, and how high the stakes are for all of us,” Fisher noted.
Charlie Hebdo began its run in 1970 and has been published every seven days since then, except for a long hiatus between 1981 and 1992.
“The magazine's name roughly translates to 'Charlie Weekly,' and there are two explanations for why it's called that,” Fisher stated. “Decades ago, a satirical publication called Hara-Kiri (with the tagline: 'a stupid and nasty magazine') was driven out of business after mocking the death of Charles de Gaulle.”
"Some of its staff went on to start Charlie Weekly, and some of them say the 'Charlie' name is a nod to de Gaulle,” he stated. “But others say it's a reference to the Peanuts character Charlie Brown because the magazine printed those cartoons alongside its raunchier, satirical fare.”
“Charlie Hebdo's editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, who was murdered in the attack, described the newspaper's positions in 2012 as left-wing, secular, and atheist,” Fisher said.
As a result, the newspaper also mocked the Pope (showing Pope Benedict XVI holding a condom and declaring "This is my body!" and -- in another cartoon -- in a loving embrace with a Vatican guard).
Charlie Hebdo's weekly circulation was about 50,000 (compared to about 500,000 for Le Canard Enchaîné, its better-known rival in the satirical press), and it has often struggled financially. In November of 2014, it asked for donations in order to keep its doors open, and it's anyone's guess what will happen to the magazine after this devastating attack.