Shock, disbelief, then sadness. When news of the Charlie Hedbo shootings hit, I called my mom immediately. She’s a French journalist. She knew some of those killed and injured, including Cabu who had even drawn a picture of her once. I figured she’d have some motherly wisdom to explain away this senseless killing. But there was only stunned silence. That day, solidarity with the victims and praise of their devotion to freedom of expression dominated worldwide social media—#jesuischarlie. Then something weird happened. As my French friends and family disconnected and went to bed, my American friends began sharing articles and posting statuses that condemned the killings, yes, but also denouncing Charlie Hebdo for Islamophobia and racism. #jenesuispascharlie.
Racist? Charlie Hebdo? The accusation is strange, considering the newspaper’s long history of being actively anti-racist. Yet there it was, written on left-wing alternative media blogs and shared in little Facebook images—the claim that Charlie Hebdo was a racist, Islamophobic publication. Mind you, these same writers did express a commitment to uphold unequivocally the right to freedom of expression. Unfortunately, accusing someone or something of racism (legitimate or not) is increasingly becoming a form of censorship in its own right, hinting at a tension between protecting free speech and criticizing verbal oppression. Even Duke’s Omid Safi, in an otherwise very thoughtful reflection on the events, can’t refrain from chastising the cartoonists for being part of a media who’s “free speech [is] applied disproportionately against a community that is racially, religiously and socioeconomically on the margins of French—and many other European—society.” But Americans who accuse the French media of racism for its caricatures of Islam fail to consider an important difference between how our two cultures approach the question of faith in a political and societal discourse.
In America, religious belief is often an intrinsic part of personhood. Thus, when actors participate in political discourse, their faith also plays a role, with all faiths treated equally. It’s a republican process that prizes religious diversity. But in France, a longstanding tradition of secularism forces the political sphere to disassociate the two. The French government, for example, does not ask about religious belief in its census. Arguably, this tradition is occasionally used to target and limit the personal freedoms of certain minorities, but these acts should not diminish the importance of minding France’s secular devotion when we talk about its society. Criticizing religious belief is not the same as criticizing personhood. A year ago, Charlie’s editor, Charb, asked in an interview “where is the connection […] between being Arab and affiliating with Islam?” Though that’s my own, non-professional translation, his choice of words says a lot about how dialogue is framed: you are (être) Arab, you are affiliating with (appartenir) Islam.
Back in 2006 following worldwide protests against a Danish cartoonist’s caricature of Mohammed, the law professor Ronald Dworkin wrote: “in a democracy no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not to be insulted or offended. […] Religion must observe the principles of democracy, not the other way around.” Yes, the French Muslim community is an all too often marginalized group, but that does not mean it should be exempt from the same scrutiny as other demographics when it tries to advance its religious beliefs into the political sphere. But pointing out – or in the case of Charlie Hebdo mocking – the reactionary fascist elements of this community, should not be denounced as Islamophobic. Doing so limits political society’s ability to respond to attacks on democratic freedoms by shaming it into political over-correctness.
So no, as a French publication operating in a society that prizes secular democracy and differentiates between religious belief and personhood, Charlie Hebdo was neither Islamophobic nor racist. Both require an attack to the personhood of the community members. The tragedy though is that in the wake of shooting, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons have already been used to promote Islamophobia and racism and will continue to be subverted for hateful purposes. The cry to defend the freedom of the press has been taken up by many different parties as a means to further political agendas.
The irony isn’t lost to the surviving cartoonists of the paper. Luz commented on the new symbolic stature of the newspaper: “this unanimity is useful to Holland in helping strengthen the nation. It’s useful to Marine Le Pen to ask to reinstate the death penalty. Symbolism in every sense can be used by everyone to do whatever they like. […] It’s wonderful that people are giving us their support but it’s going against Charlie’s cartoons.”
Hoël Wiesner is a Trinity senior and dual French-American citizen.
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