Perspective: Why The Charlie Hebdo Massacre Won't Stop Free Expression

(Spectrumbot) #1

A couple of years ago, as I entered the staff room at the French international lycée where I teach, I found a group of my colleagues standing around a large table in the middle of the room. On one side of the table there was a variety of pastries, cheeses, crackers and bread; on the other were three or four bottles of champagne – corks removed, ready to pour. At the center of the table was a large hand-made sign that read, "Laïcité: 105 ans!!" It was December 9, 2010 and my colleagues were celebrating the 105th anniversary of the "French Law on the Separation of Churches and State" – the 1905 law that officially established state secularism in France.

At the time I was a bit embarrassed because I had never heard of the law. I knew, of course, that France had such a law, but was not aware that it was important enough to celebrate with un petit goûter--a little snack--during an afternoon break at school. Plus, I thought to myself, it's not like this is the 50th or 100th anniversary – it's the 105th anniversary. Who celebrates the 105th anniversary of anything?

Last Wednesday, when heavily armed gunmen entered the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 10 staff members and two police officers, one of the first thoughts that came to my mind was that afternoon back in 2010. Though France has struggle in recent years to find a balance between religious expression and secularism (and I knew this issue would be a topic of conversation this week given the circumstances of the attack), my thoughts went back to that day not because I immediately viewed the Paris attacks from the perspective of religion or religious freedom, but because for the French, laicité is a concept that is much more closely tied to liberty than to religion. Freedom from the constraint of religious influence and domination is essential for what they call "freedom of conscience." Historically in France, one was either within the Catholic church or outside of it, there was no middle ground. Laicté emerged from a desire for freedom from the moral authority of a single, dominant religion. Creating separation from this religion was, therefore, the ultimate expression of liberty.

And here in France, that is where reactions to last Wednesday's events start. The attack on Charlie was first and foremost an attack on liberté – an idea that very important in French history and culture. But among friends I have talked with, the role of religion in France is also a topic that, more and more, people are trying to come to grips with. There are other issues, of course, but I'll briefly focus on reactions I've seen in the areas of liberty and religion.

Voltaire in Vignettes

A French friend of mine told me the day after the attack that "this is personal" because the attack came against the press, one of the most important pillars of the French concept of liberté. France is immensely proud of the role it has played in promoting free speech and freedom of the press around the world. Most French people can tell you very quickly that Agence France Presse is the oldest news agency in the world (established in 1838) or that the first mass-circulation newspaper was Le Petit Journal, a Parisian daily first printed in 1863 that was by the mid 1880s, printing over one million copies every day. (An interesting note about Le Petit Journal is that is was also the first French paper to include an illustrated supplement each week – starting the tradition of including illustrated commentary that is so important around the world today). To giver you an idea of how important the press is in French history and culture, the history curriculum during the final year of high school (the famous 'baccalaureate year') includes a major section called médias et opinions publiques en France, which essentially covers how and to what extent the press influences public opinion in France. One of the topics students study in depth is J'accuse, an open letter written by French intellectual Émile Zola in 1898 and published in a newspaper called L'Aurore. The letter was addressed directly to French president Felix Faure and claimed, among other things, that the government's decision to convict Alfred Dreyfus – an officer in the French army and a Jew – of espionage and treason was blatantly anti-semetic. The letter was wildly controversial (the government went so far as to sue Zola for libel and he was forced to flee to England to avoid prison), but it was credited with changing public opinion on the entire Dreyfus Affair issue. Is is in this tradition--the idea that the press can, even should, be a part of the public conversation--that most French people view last weeks tragedy.

Charlie Hebdo is not Le Petit Journal or Agence France Presse, that is for sure. It isn't Le Monde, Le Figaro, or Libération either, for that matter. Charlie Hebdo is a relatively small satirical magazine that prints about 30,000 copies every week. When I asked my friends and colleagues about the magazine, I was hard pressed to find anyone who read it regularly. But, as one friend told me, "we always see the cover." And it is the cover that satirizes, offends, provokes, shocks, and denigrates....everyone. Many French people I know do not particularly like the magazine and some patently dislike it, saying it often goes too far. A colleague told me just the other day that she thought it "was a terrible publication." She then said, without hesitation, "mais aujourd'hui, je suis Charlie."

Charlie Hebdo is freedom and liberty for the French. It doesn't matter if you like the magazine or not, it symbolizes the notion that ideas and the freedom to express them are alive and well in France.. And while many French people may disagree with the viewpoints expressed in the cartoons on the cover each Wednesday, they are united in their defense of its right to publish them. Yes, Voltaire's proposition that "I may not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" is alive and well in France. Perhaps this is why Libération, one of the country's largest daily newspapers, used it's editorial the day after to attacks to describe Charlie as "Voltaire in Vignettes."

The Role of Laicité

Though France did not fully separate church and state until the 1905 law I mentioned earlier, laicité is one of the core concepts of the French constitution. Article1 formally states: La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale. The combination of the constitution and the 1905 law was intended to curb the power of an establishment religion--Catholicism--and create a society where the practice of religion was both something to be protected at all costs and something to keep out of politics at all costs. Today political leaders are free to practice their own religion, but are expected to keep religious views out the public discourse, the idea being that religious positions are generally not compatible with reasoned political debate. But French secularism has gone beyond the halls of the Asemblée Nationale and is now often applied to citizens in public places, leading to frequent conflict between the government and those who wish to public display their religious affiliations (particularly France's large – and growing – non Christian population). Because faiths such as Islam, Sikhism and Judiasm are often accompanied with strict dress codes (think hijab, turban, yarmulke), they have increasingly been the target of bans imposed by the government. In 1994 the French government tried to make a distinction between "discreet" and "ostentatious" religious symbols. Those considered ostentatious including the Muslim hijab, were banned from all public places in the country. In 2004 the French banned all "conspicuous" religious symbols from public schools, carefully making sure not to mention any religions in particular so as to avoid charges that the law was targeting Muslims. In 2011, France became the first country in Europe to ban the burqa in public. The ban was challenged in European Union courts but upheld in a 2014 decision.

How does all of this relate to last weeks attacks? That depends on who you talk to. Many friends I spoke with were firm in their view that the attacks were an act of terror aimed, essentially, at the western ideals of freedom, liberty, and democracy and should not be viewed as a "clash of civilizations" between the Muslim world and the West. Yes, the assailants were radical Islamists, but the issue is not really about religion, per se. But others are not so sure. Benoit, a teaching colleague and a strong atheist, summarized his views like this (I'm summarizing here):

it may not be strictly about religion, but one issue that we (the French) are going to have to address is how we are going to apply the idea of laicité today and going forward. This is not 1905. We have a lot of non-Christian immigrants and we have a complicated history with many of our Muslim immigrants--he Algerian war wasn't that long ago, you know.

As we were talking, some other colleagues came around and we began talking about what French secularism really is, or rather, what it should be. I was somewhat surprised to hear several people argue that, though they fully agreed with and supported laicié in France, the application of the idea needed some revision. No one was exactly sure what a new application of French secularism would look like, but a theme that emerged in our small group was that perhaps in an effort to protect freedom of thought and religion, the French conception of laicité actually infringes on people's right to express religion freedom or, in some cases, actually prevents it.

In some cases it goes beyond that and is used to advocate right-wing policies. France's far-right party, the Front National (FN), uses the idea of secularism to promote a xenophobic and anti-Islam agenda. In 2012 Front National's leader, Marine Le Pen (daughter of longtime FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen) went so far as to compare Muslims who prayed openly in public to the Nazi occupation of France. This is important because Front National is not some fringe political party – it is the third largest party in France and in last years elections for European Parliament (different from elections to the National Assembly), Front National won the most seats of any party in France.

Perhaps because of the rising popularity of Front National, leading intellectuals in France are beginning to more openly debate laicité. As more and more non-Christian immigrants feel marginalized within France, frustration (on all sides) increases. In an interview with the French daily Le Monde in 2012, one of France's most influential historians, Jean Baubéro (who has the title of Chair of History and Sociology of Secularism at the university where he teaches), argued for some changes, saying that the 1905 law was now being used to limit religious freedom by effectively removing the visibility of religion in public areas, something he argues the law was not intended to do. Instead, it was passed to ensure and protect freedom (liberté) throughout France. Even former French president Nicholas Sarkozy engaged in the debate. During his run for president in 2007 he called for a more "positive laicité", one that recognized the contributions that religion and faith-based groups have played in France's history and one where religious freedom could be used to illustrate the importance of liberty in general. (Sarkozy later strongly supported new legislation in France that outlawed the burqa in public).

That brings us back to Charlie Hebdo. As I write, millions of French citizens are marching through streets from Paris to Lyon to Bordeaux. This afternoon here in Nice they are expecting more than 50,000 people to march along the famed Promenade des Anglais. The marches are being called "Unity Rallies" and they hope to unite French people around the very ideals that masked men tried to destroy last week. Though those masked men tried, they failed. My television is showing me--right now--millions of reasons why their attempts to stop people from expressing themselves will not succeed. I don't know if these marches will cure some of the deep-rooted sociological issues that are present in France, but millions of people coming together in support of (essentially) each other can't be a bad place to start.

The last few days have been traumatic to say the least, but throughout the past week I have been immensely proud to be living in France. The French will not be intimidated by these attacks. Like Americans after 9/11 and the British after the Tube bombings in 2005, the French have decided that they will not allow terrorism to win. They have said they will be defiant, and they have been. As time passes and the events of last week slowly – very slowly in all likelihood – fade away, there will be conversations that need to take place. These conversations will be difficult and contentious. They will include discussion about the limits of freedom and liberty, the role of religion in society, the political impact of events like the Paris attacks, immigration and integration, radical Islam, measures to combat terrorism, and many, many others.

I'm not sure what the result of these conversations will be, but I am sure that Charlie Hebdo will be there every Wednesday with a brand new issue satirizing and making fun of all parties involved.

Jonathan Scriven teaches history and political economy at the Centre International de Valbonne, an international school near Nice, France. Jonathan is a graduate of Andrews University and recently completed a doctorate in international relations from the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations in Geneva, Switzerland.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Elaine Nelson) #2

Our U.S. Founders were greatly influenced by the Fresnch Enlightment philosophers as shown in our Declaration of Independence. Voltaire is an icon for liberty lovers everywhere.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #3

anymore than Ted Wilson will stop members from reading outside books., Tom Z

(Eric Webster) #4

A very well written and enlightening article. Thank you Jonathan.

(Pagophilus) #5

Free expression is only for those who agree with you. Try pushing for free expression for a biblical creation, or against the acceptance of homosexuality, or against anthropogenic global warming, and see how far you get. Charlie Hebdo is a popular cause. The world’s reaction does not mean that they believe in free speech. As atheism gains a hold on the world look to China to see what freedom of speech under atheists will look like.

(Freddy Ortiz Regis) #6

Very interesting article that moves us to reflect about the concept of secularism in today’s world.

The author presents two views of secularism: one that involves not bring religion into public life and one that allows the outward forms of religion in public life.

What cope with this dilemma? Is there in the Bible an answer to this?

I think so. In Matthew 6:6 Jesus urges us to keep our relationship with God in the area of privacy; not like the Pharisees who held the exercise of their religion in public way.

Reflect on this verse: “But when you pray, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

(Thomas J Zwemer) #7

it was Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin that brought Freedom of speach and religion to America. it was Ellen White and now Ted Wilson who would limit it. In the name of their concept of God. As if they had a lock on Daniel and Revelation. Tom Z

(Carolyn Parsons) #8

Yet you are here freely expressing these sentiments. It seems rather alarmist to me.

(Carolyn Parsons) #9

I believe that in many ways, Americans did let terrorism win. We gave up lots of freedoms, tacitly or directly supporting the patriot act that has eviscerated our freedoms of privacy and free association. We have allowed the government to build and maintain the NSA which acts like an independent actor unbound by US law, international laws and laws of other countries.

Today, we are allowing these attacks in France to affect the way the story is being reported in the media. Many media outlets won’t show the Charlie Hebdo covers without pixelating them or cropping out the cartoons. Self censorship seems more effective than official censorship. Fear is prevailing even outside of France; it already has stopped free expression.

(Winona Winkler Wendth) #10

Ellen White specifically warned against reading Voltaire, although I wonder how much of Voltaire she read in either language. But they were both vehemently anti-papist and generally opposed to a world-religion; I think it stops there.

(David Read) #11

Exactly right, Carolyn. One of the reasons Charlie Hebdo was targeted is that it was one of a handful of Western publications that re-printed the Danish cartoons that led to rioting and murders. The overwhelming majority of Western publications would not show the Danish cartoons even after they had become a huge international news story. And the same pattern prevailed after the Charlie Hebdo massacre: very few Western news outlets would show Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. The message is that violence and intimidation work. They effectively cause Westerners to self-censor, and that’s what the Muslims want. They want us to voluntarily submit to sharia law principles, one of the most important of which is that you absolutely do not ridicule the Prophet, on pain of death.

(Elaine Nelson) #12

Yes, I remember years ago reading her condemnation of Voltaire, and then I read his Candide. He was one of the first free thinking satirist as was Jonathan Swift. Evidently, she knew little of U.S. history and how the Founders were making American free from religious tyranny that the “godless” French had overthrown.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #13

that is not like Ted reads her,nor I. Tom Z

(le vieux) #14

Seems like the folks in 1984 had free expression, too–as long as they could hide from the ever-present screen that monitored their every movement and recorded their every word.

Yeah, I’d rather have pagans control the government, than atheists. Rome was not great, but it wasn’t atheistic, and Christianity prospered.

(le vieux) #15

Ah, yes, never miss an opportunity to criticize that godly woman.

(Elaine Nelson) #16

I would much prefer atheists than rigid Fudamentalist Christians rule this nation. Isn’t this what Adventists have always predicted, a religious power would take over?

(David Read) #17

This is about religion. Sharia law says that you are not allowed to criticize or ridicule the Prophet, and wherever Muslims have the power, they give that sharia principle the force of law.

First, you have to understand that Islam’s legal tradition come from three sources: 1) the Quran, 2) the hadith (collections of traditions about the life of the Prophet) and 3) the sira or biographies of the life of Muhammad, foremost among which is that of Ibn Ishaq. The precedent for killing those who ridicule the Prophet is in Ibn Ishaq’s sira of the Prophet, in the story of ʻAṣmāʼ bint Marwān, a poetess who ridiculed and made trouble for the Prophet. According to Ibn Ishaq, she said:

“I despise B. Malik and al-Nabit
and Auf and B. al-Khazraj.
You obey a stranger who is none of yours,
One not of Murad or Madhhij.
Do you expect good from him after the killing of your chiefs
Like a hungry man waiting for a cook’s broth?
Is there no man of pride who would attack him by surprise
And cut off the hopes of those who expect aught from him?”

The Prophet did not take kindly to this:

When the apostle heard what she had said he said, “Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?” Umayr b. Adiy al-Khatmi who was with him heard him, and that very night he went to her house and killed her. In the morning he came to the apostle and told him what he had done and he [Muhammad] said, “You have helped God and His apostle, O Umayr!” When he asked if he would have to bear any evil consequences the apostle said, “Two goats won’t butt their heads about her”, so Umayr went back to his people.

Ibn Sa’d’s account is this:

" `Asma’ was the wife of Yazid Ibn Zayd Ibn Hisn al-Khatmi. She used to revile Islam, offend the prophet and instigate the (people) against him. She composed verses. Umayr Ibn Adi came to her in the night and entered her house. Her children were sleeping around her. There was one whom she was suckling. He searched her with his hand because he was blind, and separated the child from her. He thrust his sword in her chest until it pierced up to her back. Then he offered the morning prayers with the prophet at al-Medina. The apostle of Allah said to him: “Have you slain the daughter of Marwan?” He said: “Yes. Is there something more for me to do?” He [Muhammad] said: “No two goats will butt together about her”. "

People who argue that this isn’t religious or isn’t about Islam are in deep denial. Believing Muslims believe in the veracity of Islam’s source documents, and believe that Muhammad was the perfect example of what a Muslim should be and do. I don’t like the people who murdered the staff of Charlie hebdo, but they were acting in an impeccably Islamic way, according to their scriptures and a long tradition (many centuries) of Muslims who have acted exactly as they acted. This is what Islam is. I fully understand the desire to believe that Islam is simply Methodism with funny hats, and I understand the problems that the truth creates for the Western political establishment, which has imported Muslim immigrants by the millions.

But it is time to face the truth. Islam is not just a religion in the Western sense, but a religio-political ideology that is all-encompassing in its dictates, and it is grotesquely incompatible with Western notions of freedom of religion, speech and the press. Ironically, as Jonathan Scriven explains in his beautifully written article, the French really ought to have a leg up on Americans in terms of understanding how a religion can also be a stifling political system, because such a religio-political combination is exactly what the French thought they had banished forever with their 1905 law on separation of church and state. But just as full-throated Roman Catholicism is a religio-political combination, Islam is an even tighter combination of the political and the religious; in the Muslim mind there is no distinction, even in theory, between mosque and state. Islam is both a religion and an ummah (or nation). The idea that we Westerners can create a de-politicized, Westernized, neutered Islam is, and always was, arrogance of the highest order.

(le vieux) #18

One of the few points on which we agree, but I’d still rather have pagans than atheists, if the history of modern atheist governments is any indication of how they might behave in the future. One needs only to look at the USSR, China, and North Korea, to see how Christians might be treated.

(Winona Winkler Wendth) #19

She was, generally, not well-read. The argument, of course, is that, given the nature of inspiration, she didn’t need to be. Candide is one of my favorite works and translated—with the help of Bernstein, Hellman, and Parker—well during the self-complacency of the mid 1950s. I love the opera, too.

(Peter) #20

A new perspective I read after tragic, inexcusable events in France is this: While we must support freedom of expression, does freedom of expression really give us freedom to be insulting to others? We may have a freedom, but is it always advisable or even Christlike to use it, especially when insulting or hurting others?