Book Review: ‘Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia and the True Enemies of Free Expression’ by Stephane Charbonnier (Charb)
‘Open Letter’ is a manifesto written by Stephane Charbonnier, also known as ‘Charb’ which had been written at the beginning of 2015. In a tragic twist, the infamous attack of the offices of Charlie Hedbo by Islamist terrorists would occur just a few days after he had finalised his manifesto. One year on from the attack, his manifesto has now been released and translated into English. Though it was written prior to the Charlie Hebdo attack in which Charb lost his life, the manifesto is even more important and relevant in the aftermath of the attack.
The manifesto begins with an insightful foreword by Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker. The foreword does a fine job of outlining the context which Charlie Hebdo worked in; part of a long-standing tradition of direct, sometimes crude satire in stark contrast to the generally refined and reserved discourse of France. Charlie Hebdo, for its part, confronts and engages in issues and debates in a way other French publications simply do not do. It mocks and satires religious fundamentalism in all forms, regardless of what religion it is based from. This background is important and sets the context for the rest of Charb’s manifesto.
One of the main themes of the book is a defense of the work produced by Charlie Hebdo. At many points throughout Charb’s career as a cartoonist and eventually editor-in-chief at the magazine, Charlie Hebdo was heavily criticised, sued on multiple occasions and occasionally attacked. Among the most frequent accusations levelled against Charlie Hebdo, especially in recent years, was the charge of Islamophobia, one which Charb vehemently refutes in Open Letter. According to critics of the magazine, the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo are Islamophobic, having a particular prejudice towards the religion of Islam, and by extension, people of the Muslim faith. Charb argues that not only does the evidence show that his magazine fearlessly satires and mocks all religions, but that the whole notion of ‘Islamophobia’ is a nonsensical idea conjured up by middle-class, nominally ‘progressive’ commentators. According to Charb, the idea of Islamophobia is an inherently patronising and discriminatory one, as it implies that those of Muslim faith are incapable of handling satire and criticism. The insistence of these middle-class commentators and intellectuals to conflate ridicule of religious extremists, as Charlie Hebdo does, with an attack on the religion and all its adherents is also an alarming attack on free speech, from his perspective.
In the years leading up to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and especially since then, the magazine has gained notoriety among some international commentators who do not place the form of satire Charlie Hebdo produces in its necessary cultural context. Charb also spends part of the manifesto explaining where the magazine actually stands in the broader cultural and political context of France, particularly towards the end. This section of the manifesto explains just how much pressure, not only from society but also from France’s legal system Charlie Hebdo operates under. The magazine has been subject to countless lawsuits, its cartoonists threatened with criminal charges relating to hate speech as well as physical threats, all for merely drawing cartoons. When placed into this context, the reaction against Charlie Hebdo is shown to be utterly absurd.
Open Letter is an important and worthwhile read, both for those who support Charlie Hebdo as well as for its critics. The manifesto is an intelligent, humorous and insightful window into the worldview of Charlie Hebdo and of Charb, showing a depth of thought and nuance many critics do not credit the magazine and Charb with. It raises challenging questions and perspectives on issues of free speech, Islamophobia and religious satire and is well worth a read for anyone interested in these issues, regardless of their opinion of the magazine Charlie Hebdo.