The surviving Charlie Hebdo cartoonist who frequently drew Mohammed for the newspaper has announced he’s retiring the character.
“I will no longer draw [Mohammad]. He no longer interests me,” Rénald Luzier, known as “Luz,” told the French magazine Les Inrocks. “I tired of it, just as I tired of [drawing] Sarkozy. I will not spend my life drawing [Mohammed].”
Luz narrowly escaped the attack against Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office on the publication’s 43rd anniversary January 7 because it was his birthday, and he was running late. His best friend Charb and cartooning mentor Cabu were among 12 staff members slaughtered by al-Quaeda gunmen. Rather than backing down in fear, he responded to the attack by drawing the next Charlie Hebdo cover, which showed the Islamic prophet weeping beneath the words “All is Forgiven.”
Now, his unexpected announcement comes in the midst of a heated debate over such depictions. This week, six renowned English-language authors withdrew from hosting the PEN Literary gala in May after the organization announced it would honor Charlie Hebdo with its Freedom of Expression Courage Award, which Luz and a fellow staff member were scheduled to receive on its behalf.
The writers claimed the newspaper’s punches at Islamic extremism also provocatively targeted France’s disenfranchised Muslim minority, an opinion backed by more than 20 writers — including Junot Díaz and Joyce Carol Oates — who signed a public protest letter. “PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the western world,” they wrote.
Others have vehemently defended Charlie Hebdo, particularly The Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie, who was himself once the object of a fatwa. “If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” he told The New York Times. “What I would say to both Peter [Carey] and Michael [Ondaatje] and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”
As reported in The Guardian, Rushdie subsequently wrote a letter to PEN in which he accused the authors of being “fellow travellers” of “fanatical Islam, which is highly organized, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.” In an angry Twitter tirade that followed, he called the writers “pussies,” prompting a sardonic Facebook reply from Francine Prose.
“I can only assume he meant our feline dignity and was not implying that we are behaving like people who have vaginas,” she wrote. “It would be sad to think that a writers’ organisation cannot discuss free speech without resorting to political accusations and sexual insult.” she wrote, arguing that “provocation is simply not the same as heroism.” Rushdie quickly shot back, “In politics you can’t both be for and against. Your act says you are against … I hope that our long alliance can survive this. But I fear some old friendships will break on this wheel.”
Until now, Luz had remained silent throughout the controversy. While he didn’t address the authors directly, he called racism accusations against Charlie Hebdo “really hurtful and very unfair.”
What’s more, they’ve drained such religious caricatures of their satirical power, and perhaps that’s why Luz isn’t interested in them anymore. As Elias Groll noted in Foreign Policy, “Jokes about Mohammed are no longer read as jokes but as political positions regarding the absoluteness of freedom of speech — as Luz’s cover of the survivor’s issue poignantly showed. It’s hard to fault him for no longer wanting to participate.”