Freeing Freedom of Thought: Charlie Hebdo’s Aftermath

Andrew Karns, JHU:

A group of faculty from the Johns Hopkins University hosted a panel and discussion on the recent terrorist attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo, a weekly satire magazine known for its crude and distasteful depictions of politicians and religious figures. The conference was titled “Is All Really Forgiven?” in reference to the title of the issue released immediately after the attack. The cover featured a caricature of the prophet Mohammed holding the iconic “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) sign under a title that read “Tout est pardonné” (All is forgiven), a symbolic illustration precisely because Charlie Hebdo’s earlier depictions of the prophet were cited by the terrorists as their motivation for the attack.

Many more attendants participated in the event than the organizers had anticipated, and as ushers hurriedly and quietly unfolded more chairs, the panelists began to provide various political, historical, and social insights into the larger contexts of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and their aftermath. Some panelists provided clear insights into France’s complex history with the Muslim world, while others stressed the importance of being unafraid to show the latest Charlie Hebdo cover in the face of the attacks. Indeed, the massive outpour of support and solidarity in France following the attacks was in several ways unprecedented.

Still, there was a certainly an air of uneasiness among those who grappled with the question of Islam and its connection (or disconnection) to the attacks. Some gave a critical eye to the movement that gathered under the slogan “Je ne suis pas Charlie” (I am not Charlie), while others spoke on the difficult integration that many Muslim immigrants face in Europe.

“Why is Islam blamed for everything?” demanded Niloofar Haeri, a panelist who sought to provide broader contexts on Islam throughout the discussion. This seemingly rhetorical question may actually be much more complex under closer inspection, as it is revealed by the perceived necessity to ask such a question and the attitude lying underneath it. It was revealed that the attackers claimed to be acting on behalf of a branch of Al-Qaeda, and named “blasphemy against Islam” as one of the reasons that they targeted Charlie Hebdo. The Koran, remarked Haeri in turn, does not speak about any kind of sin of blasphemy to begin with. It would be nonsensical to conflate the two.

The proper distinction between Islam as a religion and the many extremist groups who only claim to act on its behalf is a crucial one to make and one that we must defend. But this distinction should not be construed into an argument that shields Islam, or any other religion or ideology for that matter, from critique if we believe in and support an idea of secular free thought. This point is particularly important to bring out in the face of complex developments in France that followed the terrorist attacks. Many were disturbed by a series of interviews conducted by Le Monde, a prominent French newspaper, in which high school teachers and students of Muslim background revealed their mixed reactions to the attacks.

“I have no pity for him [Charb, a cartoonist killed in the attack],” reported a 14-year-old student. “He had zero respect for us Muslims. But it was not worth killing a dozen people. They could have only killed him.”

Other teachers related the difficulty that they encountered in trying to have their class participate in a minute of silence held in schools across France out of respect for the victims. The Ministry of National Education reported “certain cases of disturbance” that were treated professionally “in proportion to the gravity of the acts,” in reference to the acts of disrespect and defiance that flared up in a handful of schools.

Another student, who is 17, confessed that she “did not really want to participate” in the minute of silence. “I did not find it fair to honor them because they had insulted Islam and other religions, too.

The publication of these interviews shocked the French public in the few days that followed the attacks. Knowledge of these sentiments among France’s Muslim youth and their refusal to pay their respects to the victims emerged almost paradoxically alongside other social movements that reinforced calls for solidarity and tolerance, especially the #NotInMyName movement led by the French Muslim community that sought to show their collective condemnation of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. The French government has also made repeated calls for tolerance and solidarity with their Muslim community, but how are these views reconciled with a contrarian picture of an increasingly ostracized and radicalized community that has even reached the point of leaving their home country to fight in the Syrian Civil War and elsewhere?

A few examples illustrate this near-sighted perception of tolerance into which many of its proponents fall. There is an irony in the fact that the Charlie Hebdo magazine was sued many times in the past on the accusation of publishing hate speech, only to become later a powerful symbol of free speech. Michel Houellebecq, a particularly well-known but extremely controversial author in France faced a similar lawsuit following the publication of Submission, an allegorical novel in which he sharply criticizes what he names the “French strain of Islam.” In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País, which was held two days after the attacks, he defended his work and argued that a hypersensitive approach to offensiveness in media and the public sphere is undermining freedom of thought.

“When I was judged on [charges of] racism and absolved about 10 years ago, the judge correctly noted that Islam was not a racial attribute,” he explained.

The interviewer pressed him on the question by suggesting that Islamophobia can act as a type of “cultural racism.”

“Now I think you are asking words to mean things that they do not,” he replied.

Indeed, this suggests that it would be impossible to properly understand the larger picture of Islam in France or other Western societies without first freeing our debate and discussion over it. As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson pointed out in his opinion on President Obama’s recent controversial speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, even though the president rightly called for tolerance and understanding, a hypersensitivity to potentially offensive ideas often creates shamefully condescending remarks. Obama faced a strong public backlash after he commented that Christians ought to remember their troubled history with the Crusades and the Inquisition before getting on their “high horse” and condemning radicalized Islam. “Muslims are not slow learners who can be held only to a medieval standard,” wrote Robinson. He notes that there can be no reservations, for example, in our condemnation of ISIS burning alive a captive Jordanian pilot. “The fact that Joan of Arc met a similar fate in 1431 does not make it improper to ‘get on our high horse’ about unspeakable acts being committed in our time, which makes them our responsibility.”

Haeri deemed criticism of Islam in light of the Charlie Hebdo attacks unfair and asked why Christianity did not face the same level of scrutiny. She pointed to a Bible verse in the book of Leviticus which calls for the stoning of “whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord,” an act evidently not practiced by contemporary Western Christian societies. But Christianity has no shortage of critics, and we must understand that if we believe in a secular freedom of thought, Islam must be allowed to have them as well and those critics must become a part the discussion. If one demands an organic and complete understanding of Islam, it is only natural to offer the same to other beliefs. And this can begin with the simple notion of naming something, whatever it may be, for what it is.


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