On Monday, Charlie Hebdo unveiled the cover of the first issue to be published after terrorists killed eight members of its editorial staff. On it, the prophet Mohammed, wearing a white robe and turban, sheds a tear while holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign, under the words “Tout Est Pardonné” (“All Is Forgiven”).
The cover is certainly provocative, given that Charlie Hebdo’s depictions of Mohammed—considered sacrilegious by many Muslims—are what earned it the ire of Islamist terrorists in the first place. It’s also ironic: Under the circumstances, Mohammed holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign is unexpected. But what does it mean? Yesterday, after the cover was released, we at Slate debated its message, without much resolution: Was Charlie forgiving Mohammed, or was Mohammed forgiving Charlie? Either way, was the forgiveness sarcastic or sincere?
Today, at a press conference and in an interview with Libération’s Isabelle Hanne (who has gotten some of the best scoops from Charlie’s surviving staff in the wake of the attack), Luz, the cartoonist who drew the cover, explained his intentions, even though he didn’t really want to. He told Hanne, in French, “Am I going to have to explain a drawing? I really don’t want to explain this drawing, except at face value.” Luz went on to say that the cover is a callback to the 2011 cover that provoked other terrorists to firebomb Charlie Hebdo’s offices: a drawing of Mohammed saying, “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!” Luz continued:
With this cover, we wanted to show that at any given moment, we have the right to do anything, to redo anything, and to use our characters the way we want to. Mohammed has become a character, in spite of himself, a character in the news, because there are people who speak on his behalf. This is a cover aimed at intelligent people, who are much more numerous than you think, whether they’re atheists, Catholics, Muslims …
Luz also told Hanne about other ideas and sketches for the cover: The first drawing he did—which he described as an emotional catharsis for himself after seeing his colleagues’ dead bodies—was of “our friends’ asses on the ground, with the writing, ‘Free expression, my ass!’” Another notion was to show the terrorists arriving in heaven, asking after their 70 virgins, only to be told, “They’re with Team Charlie, losers!” Then there was another attempt at blasphemous provocation: portraits of Charlie’s murdered cartoonists with the headline “We are God.”
But the drawing they settled on, according to Luz, was meant less as a provocation than as a joke.
I had this idea that I was stuck on: to draw my caricature of Mohammed, the one that had started all the chatter. And to do him holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign. It made me laugh. It was my last-ditch effort. So I drew my little drawing, and I looked at his face, and it made me laugh. I saw this character who had been used in spite of himself by nut jobs who set shit on fire, by terrorists. Humorless assholes: That’s what these terrorists are. Of course everything is forgiven, my man Mohammed. We can overcome, because I managed to draw you. I showed my drawing to Richard Malka, then to Gérard Biard, and then we cried. Because we had it, a cover that looked like us, and that didn’t look like everyone else or like the symbols that have been imposed on us over the last few days. Not a cover with bullet holes, but just a cover that makes us laugh.