Photo of candles and a "Je Suis Charlie" banner arrange as a memorial

Updated: Reactions to Charlie Hebdo and the terrorist attack

Photo by Marc Piasecki/Getty Images

This piece was updated to reference Roxanne Gay and Gary Younge, writing for the Guardian.

Brother Karekin M Yarian, BSG, an Episcopal friar in San Francisco, has written a Facebook post on his complex feelings about Charlie Hebdo and the public response to the terrorist attacks in France.

His Facebook blog, written under the name PunkMonk, expresses sympathy for the victims of these attacks, but simultaneously explains why he can’t identify with the solidarity message of “Je suis Charlie”.

In response to criticism of his position, he’s also shared a Slate article he found relevant. The article, titled “Charlie Hebdo Is Heroic and Racist”, holds that we can regard Charlie Hebdo as heroic for standing up to threats of violence, but still condemn them for racism and mean-spirited attempts to provoke and inflame an oppressed minority within France.

From the Slate article:

This, in a country where Muslims are a poor and harassed minority, maligned by a growing nationalist movement that has used liberal values like secularism and free speech to cloak garden-variety xenophobia. France is the place, remember, where the concept of free expression has failed to stop politicians from banning headscarves and burqas. Charlie Hebdo may claim to be a satirical, equal-opportunity offender. But there’s good reason critics have compared it to “a white power mag.” As Jacob Canfield wrote in an eloquent post at the Hooded Utilitarian, “White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire.”

So Charlie Hebdo’s work was both courageous and often vile. We should be able to keep both of these realities in our minds at once, but it seems like we can’t.

It’s a complicated response to an enormous tragedy, and one that can be hard to express; the comments on both articles have been largely negative and suggest that in each case the respective author is blaming the victims of violence.

On the Guardian, acclaimed graphic artist Joe Sacco has posted a disturbing but appropriate cartoon response, titled On Satire. The imagery is disturbing but relevant. Sacco asks us to question what it is about Muslims in this time and place that some of them are unable to laugh off this satire, and suggests that asking that question is a better course of action than demanding that they accept our worldview and mockery of their faith. The cartoon, which may be disturbing, is available on the Guardian.

Dyab Abou Jahjah, activist and writer, had no difficulty in supporting free speech and the rights of Charlie Hebdo, but took the moment to express solidarity with Ahmed Merabet, the 42 year old Muslim police officer who was executed by the gunmen.

The Guardian covered his family, and their appeal to unity and peace, in a recent article.

From the Guardian article:

Ahmed Merabet, the police officer gunned down in the Charlie Hebdo attack, was killed in an act of barbarity by “false Muslims” his brother said in a moving tribute on Saturday, where he also appealed for unity and tolerance.

Speaking for a group of relatives gathered in Paris, Malek Merabet said the terrorists who ignored his brother’s plea for mercy as he lay wounded on the street may have shared his Algerian roots, but had nothing else in common.

“My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims,” he said. “Islam is a religion of peace and love. As far as my brother’s death is concerned it was a waste. He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity.”

Has it been difficult for you to express yourself in talking about this tragedy? Do you feel comfortable navigating the complicated intersections of grief and caution, perhaps in pastoral situations, when talking with people effected emotionally by this tragedy?


Roxanne Gay and Gary Younge, both writing for the Guardian, have published similar pieces. Younge makes an argument against polarized debate, asking us to consider both points of view, and Gay asks us to consider nuance and thoughtfulness in our responses.


Posted by David Streever

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  1. It can and must be asked, if rhetorically, why many are “effected emotionally by” a situation involving white people in a Western country. Over three times as many people were killed by a car bombing in Yemen on the same day. How few in the United States even noticed that?

    • David Streever

      That’s an excellent criticism of Western values and culture, Joe. Thank you for sharing it.

      I think, for white people in the West, it’s easier to identify with the expressed values and lifestyles of people like them in France, which is why we’ve seen so much more coverage devoted to the dangers of terrorism in the West; it speaks to the nature of terrorism, and the success of the terrorists, that so many people have put themselves in the shoes of the victims in France. It seems obvious that this is the real goal of terrorists, and their success at creating a culture of fear is as obvious as their intent.

    • Rod Gillis

      A good and valid question. The answer is probably similar to why we don’t ask hard questions about ongoing western interventions in middle eastern countries. In a former parish where we worked to sponsor refugees from Iraq, we took some flack for doing so. Didn’t the refugees know they are lucky to be here? It had not occurred to our critics that these people were refugees from Iraq as a direct result of the British-American initiated war there. There are few clean hands in this current morass.

  2. Rod Gillis

    Yesterday I attended the local Je Suis Charlie rally here organized by the French consulate. I had an opportunity to sign a book of condolences that will be sent to France.

    Brother Karekin M Yarian’s post makes a contribution to the debate, but it is problematic. Describing freedom of speech as a “liberal value” is a major understatement. Freedom of speech is a fundamental democratic value. It should be balanced with other democratic values only on to an extent justified in a free and democratic society. There is little doubt that the far right will exploit this tragedy in a way that serves their xenophobic agenda. People of good will should stand against such attempts. However a measure of critical reflection is appropriate. It is said that Islam is a religion of peace. Well so too is Christianity; but both religions have faced, and continue to face, challenges living out the value of peace.

    My country has libel laws ( some of the toughest in the free world). It has laws against spewing hate. If people cross those lines under the banner of freedom of expression then they get their day in court. However, the banning of images based on religious sensibility poses a long term risk to the common good.

    Did Charlie Hebdo publish cartoons that were offensive? Yes they did. I’m offended by some of them. As a person of faith I have been offended at times by the satirical and snide presentations of my religion in the media. Notwithstanding, I’m prepared to live with it because I value to the right of freedom of expression.

    Even as we enjoy a wide ranging debate here about the pros and cons of Charlie Hebdo, the family of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi is here in North America appealing for help. Badawi has been sentenced to ten years in prison and one thousand lashes. His crime? Setting up a blog site that challenges the powerful clergy in Saudi Arabia. His story is available from The Associated Press or Amnesty International or NPR.

    Lassana Bathily the muslim shop keeper who saved the lives of hostages in Paris, Ahmed Merabet the French and Muslim policeman murdered by the extremists, Raif Badawi, they all deserve our gratitude for their heroism. So too, without qualification or liberal post-mortem parsing, do the cartoonists who were murdered. Je suis Charlie Hebdo.

  3. Philiip B. Spivey

    Many years ago, my elders distinguished for me the difference between the concept of “freedom” of speech and “licence”. Freedom of speech, they said, may force us to think differently. License—incites. They gave, as an example, our right to disagree with the speaker standing before us. They gave as an example that we had no right, though, to clear the hall of this distasteful speaker by yelling “fire”.

    Like some of the authors above, I would not expect any self-respecting Muslim (or Christian, for that matter) to laugh with us at their expense. In the name of freedom, a number of European publications have been goading Muslims with off-color and licentious cartoons for years.

    In the name of freedom, let us not continue to stoke the fire of white chauvinism and racism.

  4. Robert Martin

    We’ve had plenty of utterly degrading protrayals of Christ and the Church and various symbols of the Church for centuries. We don’t use that as an excuse for killing people. There is no equivlaence between what these murderers did and political/satirical cartoons. By the way, political/satirical cartoons are by their nature aggravating.

    There are oppressed minorities in many countries. There are oppressed minorities in Egpyt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan..the list goes on and on.

    In these places, oppressed doesn’t mean, “You hurt my feelings.” It means mass killings, targeted killings, lawful persecution, destruction of property and people based solely on immutable characteristics.

    At a minimum, our hermeneutics of analysis and criticism would do well to acknowledge these facts.

    • David Streever

      Robert: I’d suggest reading the Roxane Gay piece posted in an update. A criticism of the cartoons is not an endorsement of terror, nor should it be read as such. The only thing that should be read as an endorsement of terror is an unequivocal statement of support for terror and terrorism. As it is an extreme act, it seems uncharitable and illogical to assume that a person supports terrorism purely because they disapprove of racism in cartoons.

      • Robert Martin

        You read my post as stating that saying a cartoon is racist=support of terrorism? I think you are conflating many things….

        My post references the statements that are made in the main post.

      • David Streever

        “We’ve had plenty of utterly degrading protrayals of Christ and the Church and various symbols of the Church for centuries. We don’t use that as an excuse for killing people. There is no equivlaence between what these murderers did and political/satirical cartoons.”
        I thought you were suggesting that the main post posits an equivalence between the racism of the cartoons & the killing? I don’t think any of the stories/opinions I linked suggest that (and in fact, the first one states clearly that it does not), so I apologize for my confusion.

        Do you mind clarifying for me? I’m sorry, Robert!

  5. At first, I was reluctant to comment on the killings in France, but yesterday I finally linked to a post by cartoonist Joe Sacco on my Facebook page and added the following commentary:

    “Neither speech nor satirical cartoons should be censored. It goes without saying that it is barbaric to kill because of words or cartoons. Still, je ne suis pas Charlie. I understand that people use the metaphor to stand in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. I stand with them in their right to publish whatever they choose, however offensive to one group or another. If I had cartoon skills, I would not use them to draw cartoons like those of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, thus “Je suis Charlie” does not resonate for me. I believe my adoption of metaphors should be those that are authentically mine.

    My thoughts and prayers are with the grieving families and friends of those who were killed and with the people of France in their horror and grief. May love triumph over hate.”

    What followed was a lively discussion on my page with comments still coming in today. One FB friend blocked me but then repented and unblocked me, with the result that his comments disappeared temporarily, and several of my comments made no sense during the time I was blocked.

  6. Rod Gillis

    Folks interested a counter point to Karekin M Yarian might check out George Packer’s, The Blame For The Charlie Hebdo Murders in The New Yorker.

    He writes, “They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades. …The one that has brought mass rape and slaughter to the cities and deserts of Syria and Iraq. That massacred a hundred and thirty-two children and thirteen adults in a school in Peshawar last month. That regularly kills so many Nigerians, especially young ones, that hardly anyone pays attention. …Because the ideology is the product of a major world religion, a lot of painstaking pretzel logic goes into trying to explain what the violence does, or doesn’t, have to do with Islam.”

    Read the entire piece here:

  7. Robert Martin

    David, I am not stating that calling a cartoon racist is supporting terrorism. What I am saying is that the punkmonk appears to be throwing every book and label at a cartoon, the cartoonists, and everyone else. And he has various value judgments he makes up and down the line. He spends more time vilifying culture and the victims, and others not even involved, than examining the murderers. He also says we are blind to our racism and xenophobia and that these cartoons are just like anti-semitism.

    In short, he does not need to arrive at the conclusion that the best way to avoid Muslim murders is to not draw cartoons, because he does not need to get there, he simply needs to say, they are racist, antisemitic, etc, and thereby achieve the same end.

    Now that I read his post more closely, I would state that I find his post to be full of nonsense, and similar to other comments I have read and heard where the blame is cast at the feet of the vicitms and others not even involved.

    • David Streever

      Robert: I’m confused because he states that he doesn’t blame the victims. Again, did you read the Roxane Gay piece? She theorizes why we feel the need to demand that people, like PunkMonk, express the same solidarity and support we express.

      She also makes the point that at a time when nearly the entire world is expressing support and solidarity, it goes nearly without saying that one supports the victims; there is no cultural norm whereby we blame victims of terrorist acts for said acts.

      I think if we’re at a point in our dialogue, societally speaking, not between you & I, where we can’t let others criticize perceived racism without implying that they are justifying acts of terrorists, we have to re-evaluate our position. If we’re in favor of free speech, it’s hard to then condemn the exercise of free speech to speak out against perceived racism.

  8. Rod Gillis

    Re the update and Roxane Gay, she achieves her goal of writing a thoughtful piece–but two criticisms. One, for someone concerned about “group think” she tends to assume a lot about how “we” feel. She writes, “Within our social networks, we can feel less alone. We can feel less impotent. We can make these gestures … We can change …. We can share our anger …that we may not be able to … etc” .

    Who is “we”?

    Two, Gay writes, “…why the rhetorical urge to take the place of the fallen? What does it bring them? I, too, have ached since hearing the news of what happened in Paris but je ne suis pas Charlie et je ne suis pas Ahmed et je ne suis pas juif.”

    Gay parses the metaphor Je suis Charlie, Je Suis anyone, too finely. A number of other commentators offended by or uncomfortable with too close an association with Charlie Hebdo’s content make the same mistake and miss the same point.

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