At 11:28 a.m. Wednesday local time, the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo tweeted a cartoon of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. "Best wishes and good health," the caption read. Minutes after the tweet was published, three armed and masked gunmen stormed the paper's offices and opened fire, killing ten of its staff and two police officers.
According to the paper's editor-in-chief Gerard Biard, who was in London when the gunmen attacked, there was "no particular tension at the moment" and no specific threats of violence.
But Charlie Hebdo has been a target for a long time, thanks to a long history of intentionally controversial and provocative cartoons and covers. First founded in 1970 when its predecessor was shut down by the French government (for making fun of Charles de Gaulle—more below), then again in 1992 after ten years out of print, Charlie Hebdo is like a more gleefully and pointedly offensive politically conscious French Mad magazine (with which it shares an affection for vulgarity and distaste for subtlety). Charlie's stance is vocally left, anti-authoritarian, anti-religious, and anti-institutional, but it tends to get the most attention when it undertakes one of its yearly-or-so projects illustrating Muhammad cartoons.
Below, a quick—but not comprehensive—list of the paper's biggest and loudest controversies:
2011: Muhammad "Guest-Edits" Cover
In October 2011, Charlie Hebdo published an issue "guest-edited" by Muhammad and rebranded Sharia Hebdo. The cover featured a cartoon (by the cartoonist Luz) of the prophet telling readers "100 lashes if you don't die laughing."
A week later, the magazines office's were firebombed and its website hacked. Charb, Charlie Hebdo's director and one of its most famous cartoonists, called the attackers "radical stupid people who don't know what Islam is" and "idiots who betray their own religion." The next cover showed a Charlie cartoonist making out with a Muslim with the caption "love is stronger than hate":
2012: Innocence of Muslims Muhammad Cartoons
Not quite a year later, in the wake of outrage in the Muslim world over that stupid YouTube movie The Innocence of Muslims, Charlie Hebdo published a series of cartoons of the prophet. In one, he's bent over, a star covering his asshole; the caption reads "A star is born." In another, above the caption "The film that will set the Muslim world on fire," Muhammad is shown naked lying on a bed, being filmed from behind, saying "My ass? And you love it, my ass?" (Hmm.)
Here's the whole page:
The cover parodied the French film The Intouchables ("a cloying tale of a rich white man who, paralyzed in a paragliding accident, hires a poor black man to care for him"). The Muslim and the Jew are saying "we can't be mocked!"
As the New Yorker wrote at the time, most of the French establishment spoke out against Charlie Hebdo, and police asked Charb not to publish the issue:
When word got out a week ago Monday that the paper was printing a representation of Muhammad—an act that many Muslims consider blasphemous—Paris police called the editor (and cover cartoonist), Stéphane Charbonnier, just as the issue was closing. Charb, as he is known, sent the prefecture the front and back covers, and the police urged him to think again. He declined—satire is, after all, his bread and butter—and the issue hit newsstands a week ago Wednesday.
Immediately, the French government increased security and announced its decision to close the twenty foreign outposts last Friday, which was a Muslim day of prayer. French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault issued a statement criticizing the cartoons and any such "excess." Politicians and editorial pages in much of France attacked the drawings as irresponsible, inopportune, and imbecilic.
2006: Jyllands-Posten Cartoons Muhammad Cover
In 2006, five years before the firebombing, Charlie republished the infamous Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammad, adding some of its own and giving the issue a cover with the headline "Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists," and a cartoon of the prophet crying and saying "It's hard to be loved by dicks"
French president Jacques Chirac condemned the magazine, and a group of Muslim organizations sued, saying the cartoons were racist. The suit was dismissed.
2008: Siné's Anti-Semitism Controversy
In 2008, cartoonist Siné—born Maurice Sinet—sued Charlie Hebdo for wrongful dismissal after he was fired for an apparently anti-Semitic jab in a column about the son of French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The Guardian described at the time:
The young man, Siné wrote without a shred of evidence, was planning to convert to Judaism before marrying Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, the Jewish heiress of a huge electronics chain. 'He'll go a long way in life, this lad!' Siné commented. The piece was published without controversy - until several days later, when a radio presenter referred to it as anti-Semitic. The families of those concerned were said to be 'sickened'. Val, who took the controversial decision to re-publish a Danish newspaper's cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed two years ago in the name of freedom of the press, agreed that the piece was offensive and told its author to apologise.
Siné refused, saying he would rather 'cut his own nuts off' and was, more or less, fired.
Siné won a 40,000-Euro judgment in his suit and went on to launch his own magazine, Siné Hebdo.
"Equal opportunity offense" is an important ideal to Charlie—it's the argument with which the paper has always responded to charges of Islamophobia or racism. Last month, the paper depicted the birth of Jesus:
This one, from 2013 ("Free at last"):
From 2012 ("Pedophile bishops"/"Make a movie, like Polanski"):
And this, which is about the most accurate and literal evocation of Charlie's worldview it could come up with (they're saying "Charlie Hebdo must be veiled"):
1970: De Gaulle Cover
Before the magazine was taking shots at Muhammad, it was taking shots at de Gaulle. Charlie Hebdo was founded in 1970 when its predecessor—Hara-Kiri Hebdo—was shut down by the government for a joke at the late general's expense:
We didn't say it was a good joke. The BBC explains:
Two dramatic events were dominating the news: a terrible fire at a discotheque which killed more than 100 people; and the death of former President Gen Charles de Gaulle.
Hara-Kiri led its edition with a headline mocking the General's death: "Bal tragique a Colombey - un mort", meaning "Tragic dance at Colombey [de Gaulle's home] - one dead."
The subsequent scandal led to Hara-Kiri being banned. To which its journalists promptly responded by setting up a new weekly - Charlie Hebdo.
The Charlie was not an irreverent reference to Charles de Gaulle, but to the fact that originally it also re-printed the Charlie Brown cartoon from the United States.