The Soapbox: Charlie Hebdo and France’s biased secularism

By Brendon Kaufman ’15

The Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, apparently inspired by provocative portrayals of the prophet Mohammed, have elicited a number of responses from the French public. Notably, many French people have decried the events as a blatant danger to the right to free speech, seeing the assault as an attempt to silence dissent towards Islamic extremists. In the context of France’s complicated history with Muslims, however, it is clear that France’s reaction regarding free speech is at best questionable, and at worst completely hypocritical. France has enacted many recent policies that appear to be in the name of French republican values such as secularism and public safety, but in reality unfairly target a growing Muslim population that has never been assimilated into French culture. I argue that the French reaction can be understood as yet another affront to Muslims, disguised under the vague Western idea of free speech.

First, during the 1980s and 1990s, a number of incidents arose in public schools where Muslim girls were told to take off their hijabs. In 1989, three girls were expelled for refusing to take off their hijabs. To explain the expulsions, teachers and other French citizens often appealed to feminism, claiming that the girls didn’t have any choice in wearing the headscarves. Others argued that the hijab doesn’t conform to France’s idea of laïcité, or a secular state. The French government eventually enacted a law in 2004 prohibiting religious symbols in public schools. Although the law encompasses all religious symbols, such as the Jewish yarmulke or the Christian cross, it has come under fire for its almost unique application to Muslim girls. Clearly, the law was not simply created to enforce laïcité, but rather to impose a narrow vision of the French identity which excludes the hijab.

Next, in 2011, the French government banned wearing face-covering headgear in public places. Officials cited the advent of terrorism and increasing public danger and argued that hiding the face is a security risk and a threat to society. The European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban in 2014, but it nonetheless mostly applies to Muslim women who historically do not present any threat. Yet again, France passed legislation that seems to have had hidden goals in prescribing a certain, non-Muslim, way of life.

The supporters of Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech fall into this pattern of veiled Muslim rejection. The concept of free speech in France fundamentally differs from that in America. As it was explained to me by numerous French friends and acquaintances during my year-long stay in France, hate speech is expressly forbidden under the law. However, it is incredibly difficult to define free speech or hate speech. To give an example of how France has previously handled this issue, the comedian Dieudonné was recently forced to stop using anti-semitic hand gestures during his performances. On the other hand, Charlie Hebdo frequently published incendiary cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in compromising positions, pictures which were known to be offensive to many in the mainstream French Muslim community. After the attacks, social networks and news stations exploded with support for Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech, using the hashtag #jesuischarlie to express solidarity with the publication. Even though Charlie Hebdo’s weekly production is minimal compared to most French newspapers (I had never heard of the cartoons after an entire year), many claimed that the publication somehow was a bastion of French free speech.

How were Dieudonné’s actions clearly hate speech, but Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were just expressions of opinion? How could the French people so openly condemn Dieudonné, but so widely support Charlie Hebdo? I argue that the distinction between these two events is not as clear as the French make it out to be. The French reaction results not only from frustration and shock, but also from a deep-seated racism and rejection of the Muslim population. The destruction and tragedy resulting from the events in Paris are inevitably horrific, but France must realize that their actions marginalize Muslims and detract from their values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Brendon is a Math and French double major, who recently spent a year studying abroad in France. He enjoys spending time at Turning Stone, listening to Steely Dan and debating the etymology of Finno-Swede idioms.

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