The Night of the Pens

Agence France Presse

I first began to learn about Islam in my ninth year history class at school; the Isra and Mi’raj, Hijra, Five Pillars and similarities with fellow Abrahamic faiths all featured in the curriculum. The controversy surrounding the Danish newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad was raging worldwide at this time. As part of the unit on Islam, our teacher suggested we conduct a debate on the cartoons themselves – should they have not been published in light of expected religious sensitivities, or was freedom of expression paramount in this context? I keenly volunteered to debate for the former position and passionately delivered my arguments; I maintained these opinions for years to come.

Half a decade later, I was studying in Strasbourg as part of an Erasmus exchange. One of my classes, specifically tailored for foreign students, could be described as a cross between a press review and writing composition module. On a weekly basis we would be assigned a story, as well as several articles about it in the national press, and asked to comment in methodological fashion on such elements as the articles’ sources, their respective formats and contrasts in emphasis and style, potential biases and so on. A little pedantic in nature, also covering topics largely related to the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections and seldom reading articles from anywhere other than the national daily and weekly press. One story which we reviewed, and the publication at its heart, however, was to be of lasting significance to me.

I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo prior to when its offices were firebombed in late 2011. I don’t recall reading it too much in France; I might have preferred at the time the slightly more sophisticated and investigative feel of Le Canard Enchainé. Nonetheless, learning of its very existence alerted me to another, just as worthy form of journalism; one pulling no fewer punches, exposing and ridiculing society’s and politics’ entrenched and artificially immutable beliefs, with a temerity and simplicity foreign to other written or published forms.

Yesterday morning, much like I did a few years ago when preparing for a university assignment, I was reviewing press coverage of another attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices, this time one with far more devastating consequences. It is dreadfully unfair that my knowledge of Charlie Hebdo has largely been shaped by these two incidents.

There is little to add to the many fine words and deeds in the aftermath of the attack. My views have moved on since 2006; at an age where my understanding of religion, including my own, is somewhat greater than previously, I am now further aware of the need to also question and challenge the dogmas central to it, much like those underpinning the viability of any other of our institutions. Resulting fanaticism and incoherence mean those efforts are not in vain.

Satire and journalism may bring out and expose the best and worst in human society, but there are no other instruments more effective at performing that complex role. I will try to subconsciously bear that in mind next time I relish or tolerate a piece of journalism.

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