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Profile: Philippe Val

This is an inviolable question of principle here in the land of Voltaire and Zola. We are willing to appear before the courts if some think the drawings go too far, but we are certainly not willing to give way to the desires of religious extremists.
- Philippe Val

The Blanket will feature a biography of each of the 12 signatories of Manifesto: Together Facing the New Totalitarianism, along with each of the Danish cartoons their number represents.

This is the sixth in the series.

Anthony McIntyre • 17 April 2006

Charlie Hebdo is the weekly staple of a large swathe of the French radical left. Founded by Philippe Val in 1992, it draws inspiration from satirical forerunners rooted in the 1960s and 70s. It has established a reputation for itself as 'nonconformist and liberal' and has become something of a bulwark at the centre of press freedom. Val became known as a humorist with the alternative media in the 1970s and 80s. In the 1990s, he helped found the Volatire Network, a body promoting the separation of church from state and which successfully helped block the French government from financing the religious dimension of a papal visit to the country. He was also involved in ATTAC France which was central to the anti-globalisation movement.

When Charlie Hebdo published the Danish anti-theocrat cartoons it was following a well established satirical and secular tradition of challenging religion. Images elsewhere in the issue which featured the Danish cartoons caricatured Christianity and Judaism. Often the magazine had been taken to court by 'extremist Christians' but had defended itself successfully. Muslim groups in the country sought a court order prohibiting the Danish cartoons being reprinted. The court rejected the pleas of the Muslims on grounds of a technicality. For Val this was, 'good news to us all. We are defending the principle of the right for caricature and satire … Criticising religion is legitimate in a state of law and must remain so.'

It was not a view shared by the president of France, Jacques Chirac, who spoke out against 'overt provocations.' Chirac added that 'anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided.' This placed Chirac in the company of the Union of Islamic Organisations of France, one of the groups seeking the court injunction. It said, 'one cannot insult a religion.'

The difficulty faced by Chirac and those who endorse his position is that blasphemy laws were abolished in France as a consequence of its Revolution towards the close of the 18th Century. They were reinstated under the Restoration but by 1840 were no longer on the statute book. Today the country is free from laws specifically forbidding blasphemy. That religious convictions should somehow be privileged in a country like France with its solid secular tradition is exactly what Phillipe Val and Charlie Hebdo aimed to challenge.

Fundamentalist religious men think that what's sacred is sacred for eternity, that God does not know change. Absurd. History shows that dogmas evolve and religions appear and disappear. We live in a perpetual movement of things and in an eternal debate between those who don't want things to change and those who accept the incessant evolution of life to organize it better.

On the front cover of the magazine which featured the Danish cartoons was a full page image entitled Muhammad Overwhelmed by the Fundamentalists. It depicted Muhammad, who sat face buried in hands, bemoaning that, 'it's hard to be loved by fools.' In similar fashion to the initial twelve Danish cartoons published in Jyllands-Posten, Charlie Hebdo's front cover depiction was contextualised by its editor as not constituting a full frontal assault on a complete group of people but rather as a challenge to a considerably smaller number of theocrats determined to use religion for power and advantage.

In the editorial explaining the reasons behind printing the cartoons Val said:

It is unacceptable that religious groups are setting down the rules for the rights of the press and freedom of expression. It is not up to religious groups to decide what to publish or not … when extremists extract concessions from democracies on points of principle, either by blackmail or terror, democracies do not have long left.

Charlie Hebdo which has a weekly run of around 100,000 copies increased its output for the cartoons edition to 160,000. By the middle of the first day on the streets even this proved too little. Another 150, 000 copies were rushed off the printing presses. By the end of the production run 400, 000 copies had been sold. Reactionary attempts to curb what people may view and deny them the right to make up their own minds failed miserably. The French were not prepared to ditch their literary culture to placate theocrats. It is a culture in which cartoons feature strongly. As one BBC report put it:

...try to walk through the comic book department in any bookstore and you have to step carefully over several cross-legged figures on the floor, oblivious to all around them as they devour yet another Asterix annual.

Despite the threat from the theocrats Val said, 'I think individuals are allowed to have fears. That's legitimate. On the other hand, institutions have no right to express fear.' His magazine in defence of solid secular left wing values was an institution that chose to shun fear. Staff at the magazine later had to be placed under the protection of French police and the magazine's offices in Central Paris had police guards stationed at the front doors while nearby parking space was cordoned off in a bid to prevent a car bomb attack.

In his decision to publish, Val referred to the most controversial cartoon, which showed the prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban. While the censors in Ireland and Britain have sought to depict this as a stereotype, purposely crafted to depict all Muslims as terrorists, Val rubbishes this interpretation and argues that it is not a comment on Muslims and their religion but on the interpretation of both Islam and the Prophet by theocratic fascists. To have refrained from publishing would have been handing a victory to the fascists. can be interpreted in different ways by everybody. The crime depends on who watches the caricature. It does not represent Islam but the view of Islam and the prophet offered by the Muslim terrorist groups who affirm that the prophet inspires them to kill and launch attacks.

This type of defence has made it difficult for the censor to shout 'racism' as a means to stymie debate for the purpose of ensuring the reactionary views of the censor are the only ones that shall be aired. Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist who initially penned the contentious image for Jylaands-Posten, had elsewhere outlined motives far removed from those ascribed to him by opponents of the cartoons, and which reflected the sentiments of Val and Charlie Hebdo:

Some interpretations of it are wrong. The general view among Muslims is that it relates to Islam as a whole. That is not the case. It relates to certain fundamentalist views, which of course are not shared by all Muslims … the cartoon is not directed against Islam as a whole, but against the part of it which obviously can inspire to violence, terrorism, death and destruction. And therefore the fundamentalist aspect of Islam. I wanted to show that terrorists get their spiritual ammunition from Islam.

Philippe Val has added his voice to the volume already protesting attempts to mischaracterise the cartoons as racist. He argues that there is an 'amalgam' - an Islam devised concept aimed at making a doublet which binds criticism of Islam with racism:

Racism is expressed when what's reproached to a member of a community is reproached to the whole community. When a Danish caricaturist caricatures Mohammed and Danish people start to be chased in the Middle East, we're dealing with a racist phenomenon similar to that of the pogroms and the brutality exerted against the ethnic groups.

Too often, those supposedly defending freedoms traditionally valued by the Left have lost their way and have found themselves defending the reactionary positions they previously hurled themselves against. Philippe Val by not seeking alliances with anti-Gay lynch mobs and women stoning gangs has helped protect the integrity of a Left wing project in a world where the Left is assaulted from without and corroded from within by the cartoon commissars that all too often make up its ranks.


See also:

MANIFESTO: Together Facing the New Totalitarianism
Freedom of Speech

Philippe Val
Antoine Sfeir
Maryam Namazie
Taslima Nasrin
Irshad Manji
Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Freedom of Expression: No Ifs and Buts
Manning the Firewalls
Ulster Muslims' Fury at Web Cartoons
For Freedom of Expression
Muslim News Interviews The Blanket
Who Fears to Speak
Cartoons and Caricatures: An anarchist take on the cartoon row
Taslima Nasrin (2000)
The Clash of the Uncivilized
Misunderstandings Abound
A Vital Question Not Easily Washed Away
Zen and the Heart of Blasphemy
Closer to Home
The Right to Offend
Wrong to Claim Freedom of Speech
The Parameters of Free Speech
Unreal Paradigms
Cowardice on Cartoon Controversary

Standing Up to the Enemies of Free Speech
Irish Republicanism and Islam
Real human rights - without any religious blackmail
Resisting Censorship
Controversy over the publication of cartoons
Stereotypes Must Be Challenged Openly
New Convert
About the Possible Posting of the Muslim Cartoons
Well Done
A Muslim's Response
Straight Talk vs Orthodoxy

One Man's Terrorist is Another Man's Prophet
Christ Collage
An Eye for An Eye
Glad to See Someone is Not Afraid
There Are No Sides to Peace
Rights and Responsibilities

Censorship: The Blanket's first article (2001): Silence is Not Golden; It is Complicity



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
- Frank Zappa

Index: Current Articles

18 April 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Grave Secrets
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Spoiled Rotten
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Let Bygones be Bygones
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Urgent Memo — Judas Was One of the Bad Guys!
Dr John Coulter

Cluedo in Donegal
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Easter Message
John Kennedy

Óglaigh na hÉireann Easter Statement
The Sovereign Nation

IFC Easter Statement, 2006
Joe Dillon

Lincoln's Despair
John Kennedy

Fred A. Wilcox

Hamas Being Forced to Collapse
Sam Bahour

Profile: Philippe Val
Anthony McIntyre

Freedom of Speech index

11 April 2006

Shed No Tears for the Donaldson Family
Geraldine Adams

Buried in Secret
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The Donaldson Dilemna
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Motive for Murder
Mick Hall

Victim or Pawn?
Dr John Coulter

Agent of the Peace Process
Anthony McIntyre

Happy Easter
John Kennedy

Where, O Where, Is Our James Connolly?
Paul Maguire

Nice One, Tony
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Putting on the Poor Mouth
Seaghan O Murchu

Spare Us the Cures from Quacks
Dr Seamus Kilby

Profile: Antoine Sfeir
Anthony McIntyre

The Letters page has been updated:

Standing Up to the Enemies of Free Speech


Irish Republicanism and Islam


Real human rights - without any religious blackmail


Resisting Censorship


and more...

Freedom of Speech index



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