Arts Controversy Guide

The attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine headquarters took place on Wednesday, January 7th, 2015 in Paris, France. Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical news magazine that started in 1970. The magazine is most well known for their cartoons.


This cartoon reads “The invention of Humor: Oil and Fire”
This reads “Predictions of the Mage Houellebecq: ‘In 2015, I lose my teeth…In 2022, I observe Ramadan!'”


Many of the magazine’s cartoons were on edge with somewhat sensitive topics, including religion and race. The magazine describes itself as “…an angry magazine, a paper that takes the piss. It’s a weekly with a wallop, a digest with a dream. It’s a periodical that argues and a journal that thinks. It’s a gazette of the grotesque – because that’s what so much of life and politics is.” As you can see from the images above, the magazine doesn’t hold back from expressing their opinions in a pretty crude way.  While some people may find this disrespectful, the magazine has a right to publish and speak their minds.


The attack was done by two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi. The two made their way into the magazine’s headquarters armed with assault rifles. They killed 12 people and injured 11. Why were they the ones to attack? They later came out as belonging to a branch of Al-Qaeda which was located in Yemen.


Al-Qaeda’s flag


Al-Qaeda is a militant Sunni Islamist organization. Many of the people who are involved with this organization are extremely passionate about Islam. Islam is a monotheistic religion that states there is only one God, and that the prophet Muhammad is the last messenger of god. Islam’s religious text, the Qur’an, does not specifically state that depictions of the prophet are forbidden, but the notion that there is only one God is why depictions of the prophet are very frowned upon. There is a fear that the depiction of Muhammad could lead to idol worship. When the brothers attacked the headquarters, they yelled “We have avenged the Prophet!”


A still photo from a witness’ video of the two brothers exclaiming “We have avenged the Prophet!”



After hearing this, it might be quite evident as to why the gunmen decided to attack the magazine headquarters filled with rage. This attack was not something that happened over a short period of time. Islamic organizations began getting angry at Charlie Hebdo in 2006 and eventually, unsuccessfully, sued the magazine with the French hate speech laws. Again in 2011, problems occurred when the magazine released an issue that was “guest edited by Muhammad.” The front cover had a cartoon that depicted Muhammad saying “100 lashes, if you don’t die laughing!”

After the publication of that cover, the magazine’s office was firebombed, and their website was hacked. On the hacked website it read “You keep abusing Islam’s almighty Prophet with disgusting and disgraceful cartoons using excuses of freedom of speech… Be God’s curse on you! We will be your curse on cyber world!”

This is what the hacked webpage looked like. Click on the photo to learn more.


The magazine came back with a new magazine cover that read “Love Stronger Than Hate” and it depicted the Prophet Muhammad as gay, by showing him kissing an editor of Charlie Hebdo.

All of these magazine cartoons fed the soon to be lit fire under angry Islamists. The two brothers were the ones who finally decided to take their anger in the form of violence to the headquarters of the magazine. The reason why this entire controversy is so important, is because it is very much about freedom of speech, and art censorship. Because although these cartoons were found very offensive to many, it was still the opinions and ideas of the magazine writers and publishers. So the question that this tragic event brings forward is, where is the line between artistic freedom and outright hatred. This is an important idea to keep in mind in today’s world especially with topics of race and religion being even more tense than ever before.


The magazine’s cover after the attack on their headquarters. Click on the photo to see more.

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