The editor of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, who was killed on Wednesday in a Paris terrorist attack, was known for standing up to extremists who threatened his publication’s right to free speech in the past.
Stéphane Charbonnier, known simply as “Charb,” refused to censor cartoons in Charlie Hebdo that were offensive to some Muslims (Islamic doctrine prohibits portraying Allah or Muhammad on paper).
“I would rather die standing than live on my knees,” Charb told Le Monde in 2012.
On Wednesday, multiple gunmen killed at least 12 people, including Charb and other cartoonists from the magazine, when they opened fire at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo.
The attack comes after the satirical magazine featured a new book by Michel Houellebecq that depicts the French government in 2022 as being run by Muslims.
And it wasn’t the first attack leveled against Charlie Hebdo. In 2011, the magazine was firebombed a day after it ran an issue featuring an image of Prophet Muhammad on its front page with the caption, “100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing.”
Charb told French media after the attack that the publication’s equipment had been destroyed but that there was “no question of giving in” to the extremists, according to The Telegraph.
In an issue published soon after the attack, Charlie Hebdo published a satirical response, declaring, “Love is stronger than hate” with a cartoon showing a Muslim man kissing a white male columnist, The New Yorker noted.
Charb had been living under police protection because of the death threats he’d received over the years, according to the BBC.
In 2013, he was included on the Al Qaeda propaganda magazine Inspire’s list of people “Wanted Dead or Alive for Crimes Against Islam.”
In 2012, Paris police warned him against publishing cartoons showing a representation of Muhammad, according to The New Yorker. He declined and the cartoons ran in the magazine anyway.
The reactions were so violent that the French government had to temporarily close some of its embassies and consular offices, Reuters reported.
French politicians and columnists criticised Charlie Hebdo for publishing the cartoon, but Charb stood by the magazine. He told Le Monde, “When activists need a pretext to justify their violence, they always find it.”
Charb never gave any sign that he would bend to the will of terrorists. He told The New Yorker that mocking Islam must continue “until Islam is just as banal as Catholicism.”
The Daily Mail notes that Charb staunchly defended Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech, saying the magazine satirizes many other things — including feminism, nuclear energy, and homeland security — so it should be able to poke fun at Islam as well.
In 2012, Charb explained to Al Jazeera English why Charlie Hebdo continued to publish controversial cartoons that could be used as justification for extremist attacks. He said (emphasis ours):
I have been in this newspaper for 20 years, it has been 20 years that we have been caught and caught of being provocative, it just so happens that every time we deal with radical Islam we have a problem and we get indignant violent reactions. […] But what surprises me is the reaction of French politicians: We are a country in the rule of law, we respect the French law. Our only limit is French law, it is that what we have to obey. We haven’t infringed the French law, we have the right to use our freedom, as we understand it.
The other cartoonists killed in Wednesday’s attack were Cabu, Tignous, and Wolinski, French police said.
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