Charlie Hebdo: defending more than one narrative

By Fernanda A. Marín:

Heads of State marching through Paris after the Charlie Bebdo attacks. Photo: European External Action (creative commons)
Heads of State marching through Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Photo: European External Action (creative commons)

I wasn’t lucky enough to be present at the latest demonstration in support of the “Je suis Charlie” movement, in solidarity with the victims of the terrorist attack in Paris that happened just under a month ago. I saw how all my friends living in Paris took out their pens and marched across the streets of their city to claim that freedom of speech would not be taken away from them with bullets and fear. I wanted to be there with them, marching by their side; but for different reasons.

Before I continue, I would like to be clear on two things: first, of course I believe in freedom of expression; and second, I am more than upset for the lives lost during the attack. Nonetheless, seeing this event simply as an attack on freedom of expression and French solidarity and unity would be too simplistic. This attack goes beyond the right to mock whoever we want, and it goes beyond the religion each of us is free to practice.

I refuse to believe in a simplistic narrative that portrays the shooting as an attack on French freedom of expression due to rising Islamic fundamentalism. The event is far more complex than mainstream media has led us to believe. The causes include a complex history of racial and religious tension and deep problems of integration that date back to the independence of Algeria, a former French colony.

Areas of Paris are stigmatized for their large migrant populations. This has led to the marginalisation of a Muslim population of 6 million. Almost 70% of French citizens say Muslims have failed to integrate into society, but the truth is that the country makes no effort to welcome them in, and the worst part is that we were all well aware of it. It was a ticking bomb waiting to explode. So the problem French society is now facing did not start the day of the shootings; it has evolved over many decades. This situation is getting worse, and it is something that we should all care about. This is why…

The question of censorship: should we have the right to mock religion?

Many have pointed out the parallels between Charlie Hebdo’s content and the anti-Semitic cartoons of 1930’s Germany. Those who defend the magazine claim that foreigners don’t understand the humour, and that freedom of expression is a fundamental right of any democracy. So having the right to mock whoever we want should never be censored. Nonetheless, an article by Jason Stanley in the New York Times made an interesting point about satire within societies where a minority feels oppressed. He claims that mocking the Pope is not the same as mocking Muhammad because Catholics (or at least Christians) are the overwhelming majority in France. The underlying tensions go beyond simple cartoons, but the cartoons serve to crystalize the feeling of many Muslims that they are an object of ridicule in French society.

So, going back to the original question, should there be a restriction of freedom of expression? No, absolutely not, but if we are to understand why those drawings had the power to create so much anger, we should not focus on the cartoons per se, but the society in which they are published. In other words, we should not blame the cartoonists, but try to understand the readers.

From the march to the paradox

When over 50 heads of state came to Paris to march next to François Hollande to make a stand for unity and freedom of expression, it’s more than European solidarity that made them take the journey. France, the country with the largest Muslim population in the EU, has just become the European guinea-pig for tackling these sorts of problems. If it succumbs to inter-communal tensions and political extremism, the rest of Europe will fear the experiment has failed.

The ‘threat of radical Islam’, increasing islamophobia and the rising popularity of extreme-right parties with openly xenophobic rhetoric is old news. However, the most painful irony of the killings in Paris is that it has helped radicalize fragile societies across Europe, creating further tension and violence. Furthermore it has given far-right parties ‘excuses’ to legitimize their racist and xenophobic policies.

Sadly, this movement to ‘defend freedom of speech’ has once again become a political tool. It has just fanned the flames of the so-called ‘war on terror’. Several countries are using this to increase security measures and reduce privacy. The UK and Australia are the clearest examples. David Cameron has called for additional powers in response to the attacks in Paris, despite the fact that the authorities already had the attackers on their books under the current regulations. In a speech given three weeks ago, he claimed that there should be no means of communication that authorities cannot access. This explicitly referred to encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp and Snapchat no longer functioning with their current privacy terms and conditions.

This has all backfired on us. And we are allowing it. This freedom of speech and tolerance discourse is actually leading us towards the loss of our privacy rights and the rise of xenophobic parties. Quite the irony, isn’t it?

Fernanda A. Marín is a Master’s student in International Security at Sciences Po, Paris. 

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