After the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015, when Islamic terrorists killed 12 people (including 9 journalists), many morose commentators discredited themselves morally, criticizing the dead and almost justifying an abominable crime against the spirit they claim to represent.

Charlie Hebdo is a unique weekly magazine through its total independence, and is part of a long French tradition of irreverence that goes up to Rabelais and the Renaissance humour. It is a satirical and political week in the tradition of liberty triggered by the French Spring of 1968. It first appeared under the name of Hara-Kiri, among the founders being the writer and cartoonist, now deceased, Cavanna, but also the artist Roland Topor and some of those killed in 2015, such as Wolinski or Cabu.

The magazine had a very agitated history, and was even banned in 1970, at the death of General de Gaulle, for a joke on the front page about the late president.

On the morning of January 7, 2015, during the editorial meeting, the Paris headquarters of the satirico-political weekly were attacked by two French citizens, brothers of Maghreb origin, who murdered 12 people, including nine of the most important designers and journalists from Charlie at that moment. Terrorists were tracked and killed two days later by police special forces.

New Europe asked the Charlie Hebdo journalist Antonio Fischetti to explain the misperception of the French humour abroad, knowing very well that this kind of humour goes very badly through other cultures:

Antonio Fischetti: Any kind of humour has a code, whether it’s French humour, Jewish humour, the Amazonian Indians, or Martian humour, assuming they exist. Indeed, Charlie’s humour does not go down well in some other cultures …

New Europe: … it is a humour that fits into the tradition of Rabelais and the Marquis of Sade, for example.

Antonio Fischetti: … exactly, and that’s hard to translate into other cultures. People do not possess the key, they interpret everything at the zero degree of hermeneutics. I do not criticize them for that. We have a completely different intellectual grid in France. Besides, Charlie practices humour most often based on drawings, and in many cultures people do not know how to read, analyse, decrypt a drawing. Even in France, very often. At school, we are taught how to analyse a text, but never how to analyse a drawing. In fact, a drawing can be much subtler and more complex than a text. The caricature codes are very subtle. They refer to something of the actuality, or to historical or cultural allusions, provide complex levels of interpretation, and caricatures, especially, should never be approached at the first degree. A drawing is not what you see, but what is hidden underneath. Decryption of a drawing is an extremely complex process. It’s like asking someone who has not heard a musical note in his life to feel the beauty of a Mahler quartet. The cartoon code in France, but especially in Charlie, is as complex as the code of the French laïcité. We are reproached to be virulent in the critique of religion. Those who curse us forget that before, in the sec. XIX, criticism of religion was much more violent than today.

New Europe: Or even before, in the Enlightenment, with Voltaire who said about the church: Écrasons l’infâme, “Let’s Crush Deceit.”

Antonio Fischetti: Of course. And today, the drawings that create us most problems are those that laugh at religion. Before, we had problems with the drawings of sex. Now, the new obscenity has become the sarcasm directed against religion.

New Europe: Laïcité – this is a word almost impossible to translate. Many people confuse laity, laïcité as promoted in France, with militant atheism.

Antonio Fischetti: Yes, but it is the same in Belgium, to give another example. Belgium, although it is a Catholic kingdom as seen from the outside, remains a strictly secular country in the education and in the public sphere.

New Europe: And technically, even Turkey is secular, from Atatürk to now, although Erdoğan is trying to do everything to change that.

Antonio Fischetti: Laity does not mean denying everyone’s right to practice their chosen cult, but that religion should remain strictly private, not public or political. In France there are even believers who militate for secularism. There is no contradiction there.

New Europe: What do you think when you hear that Europe is based on Judeo-Christian foundations?

Antonio Fischetti: Only partly. Our Europe was built on the spirit of Renaissance, then on the spirit of Voltaire and Diderot. Judeo-Christianity forms only one of the facets of European identity. The French Revolution itself was a product of the spirit of the Enlightenment, Aufklärung. At Charlie we even have some Muslim colleagues, who earlier did not dare to assert themselves as atheists. We have two moderate Muslim practitioners who believe that each of us has the right to laugh at the Muslim religion as we have the right to laugh at any other religion. That makes us feel that we are not alone in the struggle with obscurantism and insanity. We do not laugh at people. I cannot laugh at an Arab because his skin is darker than mine. We laugh at ideas, ideologies, beliefs. If, for example, a Muslim newspaper would make cartoons about atheists, we would be the first to laugh.

New Europe: If you do not laugh at people, how do you explain then the cartoon with the Kurdish child drowning on a beach – a difficult one to explain, with the text: So close to the target … “Two child menus for the price of one.” 

Antonio Fischetti: The first to be offended by that drawing were those who refuse to accept refugees. It’s a drawing that laughs at the mirage of Western society, not at the death of a child. This is obvious by the presence of the McDonald’s panel. We even published drawings with a concentration camp in the Holocaust. That does not mean, however, that we laughed at the Jews who died in camps. The target was quite different. Humour does not know taboos. We should introduce courses in school to decrypt and interpret the cartoon.

New Europe: How do you see the future of French press freedom?

Antonio Fischetti: I’m not very optimistic. Even in France we are witnessing a regress as to criticising religion. My friend Gérald Dumont, who wanted to put on stage a show based on Charb’s book (formerly Charlie’s editor-in-chief, assassinated with the others in January 2015) in Lille: Lettre aux escrocs de l’islamophobie saw the show cancelled, we also saw cancellations of caricatures, editors who refuse to publish books with the drawings of Mahomet. If in France we have already reached this point, can you imagine what is happening in the rest of the world? I see it every time I travel … The recent wave of planetary religiosity is a terrible threat to our freedoms. Then, with regard to us, Charlie Hebdo, those who do not want to see how we enjoy life and chuckle at everything are free not to buy the magazine.