Suis-je Charlie? France, Islamophobia, and the Power of the Pen

I love Paris in the springtime
I love Paris in the fall
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles.

(“I Love Paris,” lyrics by Cole Porter, 1953)

I love Paris. I love the austere churches, the bustling sidewalks, the cheese, the coffee, and of course, the chocolate. But you did not have to love Paris as I do to be devastated by the horrendous attack last week on Charlie Hébdo, a satirical magazine, which initiated an orgy of violence that culminated in the deaths of four hostages at a kosher grocery store on Friday afternoon. (The tragic and fraught relationship of Jews and Muslims in France must be a topic for another essay.) The perpetrators of these crimes were the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi and their associate Amedy Coulibaly, Islamic extremists whose justification for the murders appeared to be vengeance for cartoons that had satirized the prophet Mohammed and radical Islamic figures.

My first reaction to hearing the tragic news on Wednesday was an eminently human one: shock, horror, sadness. But unlike many of the other knee-jerk reactions I heard both from the media and from my own social circles, reactions which expressed defiance and rage, I couldn’t help but recall France’s troubled colonial history and its more recent struggles with traditional religious communities. This attack did not happen in a vacuum, but rather at a particular social-historical moment containing the baggage of years of secular-religious conflict.

Unlike the United States, which effectively promises “freedom of religious expression,” France rather operates under the principles of “laïcité,” which promises government institutions and public spaces freedom from religious influence. In 2004, laïcité was put into practice via a law that prohibited students in public schools from wearing symbols or garments which represented their religious identity. The law effectively targeted Muslim girls, who were now banned from wearing headscarves, a common and some say obligatory show of modesty in Islam. In his excellent article “French Secularism and the ‘Islamic Veil Affair,’” Talal Asad explains that “the headscarf worn by Muslim schoolgirls has become the symbol of many aspects of social and religious life among Muslim immigrants and their offspring to which secularists object…The headscarf worn by Muslim women was held to be a religious sign conflicting with the secular personality of the French republic.”[1] For at least the past ten years, the conflicting symbol systems and ideologies of French secularism and traditional Muslim practice have been struggling for dominance in French Muslim communities.

Where, then, does Charlie Hébdo fit in to all of this? Like many satirical organizations, Charlie Hebdo promised to be an equal-opportunity offender. No religious, political, or social group or individual was safe from its biting pen. And nor should they be: at its best, satire speaks truth to power, questions authority, and inspires others to action. The jester is, after all, the only one who dares tell the king what no one else will. But the particular history of secular-religious relations in France complicated this situation. White, middle-class men lampooning what is largely an oppressed immigrant population is not speaking truth to power. It is reinscribing harmful, prejudicial narratives that only serve to perpetuate an unjust system.

Let me be clear: I am in no way condoning the attacks upon Charlie Hebdo. Freedom of the press is a cherished ideal in western democracy, and one about which I am personally quite enthusiastic. Nor am I blaming the victims of the attacks for what happened to them; that burden rests squarely with their killers. But I am suggesting that perhaps there are more effective responses to this tragedy than a rousing call to publish more cartoons about Islam. Just because someone can publish something offensive, does not mean one should. (Please see this cartoon from The Guardian.)

Offense is not always the most responsible use of the power of the pen. Caricaturing Muslims only serves to further alienate and marginalize that population—even—especially—the population that is not already radicalized. As Matthew Yglesias of Vox says, “The fact of the matter is that racist and Islamophobic attitudes are a huge problem in the everyday lives of Europe’s Muslim population. Far-right political parties are on the rise, and mainstream parties are moving to co-opt their agendas. Blasphemous, mocking images cause pain in marginalized communities. The elevation of such images to a point of high principle will increase the burdens on those minority groups…Problems will increase for an already put-upon group of people.”  (The full article can be found here.) The fact of the matter is that for some reason, there is a not-insignificant group of young Muslim men who feel that their best option is to join a radical jihadist movement. What systemic social forces are compelling them in that direction? We must look at ourselves and honestly ask whether our actions are serving to solve, or merely aggravate, this phenomenon.

If the wish of satirical cartoonists is a better world—and I have to believe, that as smart, thinking, human beings, it is—for what other purposes could they use their G-d-given gifts of humor and wit? What other power structures are deserving of criticism? Is there a way of honoring journalists’ right to freedom of expression that might actually serve to repair the damaged relationship between secular and Muslim communities? I believe there is, and I believe that together, we can find this new path forward.


[1] Talal Asad, “French Secularism and the ‘Islamic Veil Affair,’” The Hedgehog Review 8, no. 1-2 (Spring-Summer 2006): 94-95.

Featured image used with permission:

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