On January 7, 2015, two masked gunmen entered the Paris office of French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, slaughtering eleven men and wounding eleven others. The attackers were seeking retribution for the depiction of the Muslim prophet, Muhammed, in one of the newspaper’s previous issues. The offices had been firebombed in 2011 for the newspaper’s depiction of the Prophet of Islam. Charlie Hebdo has not infrequently drawn criticism for its excessive sanitization of nearly all the world’s popular religious faiths and graphic depictions of revered religious figures.
The perpetrators, which were killed in a shootout several hours after holding the city of Paris in terror, identified themselves with the Al-Qaeda branch based in Yemen, which is known as
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. Ultimately, the attack left twenty dead. Although not explicitly prohibited in the Quran, many Muslims consider the depiction of Muhammad in any medium
to be blasphemous or idolatrous.
The attack has occasioned a wave of support for Charlie Hebdo from across the world, as comedians, politicians, and religious leaders have come forth in support of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. President Obama offered his condolences in a statement saying, “I want the people of France to know the United States stands with you today, stands with you tomorrow… We grieve with you, we fight alongside to uphold our values – values that we share – universal values, that bind us together as friends and as allies.”
On January 11, a rally of about two million people was organized in support of Charlie Hebdo and to remember the victims and their families. The peaceful march was decorated with signs displaying the slogan Je Suis Charlie or “I am Charlie”, which has been taken up by supporters of free speech. The pencil has also become a powerful symbol of free speech, representing freedom of expression.
At the State of the Union Address, lawmakers paid tribute to the victims by holding up pencils. However, reactions to the tragedy and its aftermath have been mixed, as some commentators have been quick to note that the march and the Je Suis Charlie slogan have played into the extremist’s hands by aliening the Muslim communities in Europe and reinforcing the idea that Muslims cannot live in the West without belittling their own religion. Commenting on the respect due to every person’s religion, Pope Francis said, “ One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people's faith, one cannot make fun of faith” but noted, “To kill in the name of God is an aberration.” He went on to say, “In theory we can say a violent reaction to an offense or provocation isn't a good thing ... In theory we can say that we have the freedom to express ourselves. But we are human. And there is prudence, which is a virtue of human coexistence.”