The argument that Charlie Hebdo is avowedly anti-Islamic falls flat as it has caricatured Christianity, Judaism and other religions even to a greater extent.
Dr Arnab Chakrabarty
Liberté, égalité, fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) reminiscent of the Third Republic, these three words may seem to be in common parlance in today’s world. A glimpse back into history and one may easily notice that the French Republic extensively relies on this motto as its founding principle. Popularised during the French revolution when tyranny was overthrown, the 1958 Constitution of the French Republic espoused the deeper significance of this phrase. While France underwent a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions including defeats in both the First and Second World Wars, its reunification with Axis dominated Vichy France and the formation of a unified Republic allowed it to finally rise from the ashes of its former self and stand as one of Europe’s most powerful states. Post-War France made positive overtures to its former adversary Germany and the formation of the European Union also led to cooperative understanding among the signatory states. It is indeed a shining example for the rest of the world that former adversaries who were at each other’s throats would now sing in unison for unity while decrying aggression and war.
Never did the people of France ever imagine that there would be a spree of terror attacks on its own soil, indeed the entire period of the Cold War exhibited conventional military scenarios between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Also, the end of the Cold War did give rise to scenarios where non-conventional threats became more prominent in the forms of insurgency and rebellions but not terror attacks on French soil. Terrorism that emerged as a sly force gradually engulfed the entire world in its flames. Radicalisation, cheap and effective weapons, unstable regimes and tremendous amount of money created a behemoth that was not only Hydra-headed but still remains elusive like the Medusa. Debates have been engineered and while a section pleads with the discrepancies in studies related to terrorism, the other is outright clear in its accusations against those who defend such heinous crimes.
Before we delve into the subject, a bit of examination of the French concept of secularism should suffice. France finds itself at the crossroads facing flak for its ‘intolerant and discriminatory’ attitude and also earning laurels for not bending its back for any particular religious group. The 1905 French law that defined the relationship between the Church (read religion) and the state is a part and parcel of French contemporary life. In opposition to Papal interferences, the concept of secularism was so designed to keep religious interferences at bay. Religion was thus confined to the private sphere with the state not endorsing any particular faith. While being dominated by Catholicism, church signs and scenes of nativity are restricted along with restrictions on the public display by other faiths. While some urge the state to improvise along with time especially in the era of religious confrontation, others prefer the strict version of secularism which they perceive to be an inalienable part of the French identity and polity.
Muslims who make up around nine per cent of France’s population seem to be at odds with its secular values. Indeed, as alleged, the right to blaspheme itself is confusing as freedom of expression at times supersedes blasphemous acts as exhibited by the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo. In 2020, a French schoolgirl was at the receiving end of death threats issues by radical Islamic outfits after her diatribe on Islamic ideals went viral on a social media platform. While she argued that her reaction was to certain insulting comments against her, the other side left no stone unturned to castigate her. Ultimately it took the French President to intervene and defend the right to freedom of expression while severely criticising the death threats against her. Back in 2015 the infamous Charlie Hebdo massacre again placed the spotlight on France with debates ranging between freedom of expression and blasphemy. The recent murder of Samuel Paty, a French schoolteacher and the Nice massacres also highlight the thin line between secularism and the soft underbelly of religion.
Of course, while the entire Islamic conscience has been shaken at the insults meted out to their prophet, those who espouse the cause of secularism and are of liberal intent find themselves on a sticky ground. The battle as of now is not between the far-right and the Islamic world, and certainly Macron is no poster boy of the far-right akin to the anti-immigrant rabble rousers that cloud the streets of major European cities. In fact the argument that Charlie Hebdo is avowedly anti-Islamic falls flat as it has caricatured Christianity, Judaism and other religions even to a greater extent. The French schoolgirl was defending her support for the third gender when a radical Islamist pursued her with personal attacks and Samuel Party was no skinhead either. The battle is between secular French values and Islamic beliefs, the freedom of expression encapsulating the right to take liberties with religious beliefs and the protection of the same. The position of the so called liberal elite is in question as they have transferred all the blame on the French government ignoring the fact that offending religious figures, icons and beliefs is in vogue in the Republic. While one may agree that offense to religion may entail trouble and should largely be avoided, the larger question stands - should the French Republic amend its laws in order to subscribe to the sentiments of its Muslim population and the larger Islamic world? If Islamic nations can be ruled by the religious ethos, then what harm does it create if secular ethos shapes the ideals of the French Republic? After all doesn’t the Liberal elite espouse secularism as opposed to religious orthodoxy?
Certainly the onus is on the self-certified liberal elite who for years have been on a campaign espousing secularism and freedom of religion, critique and respect for law. They certainly did not come to the defence of the French schoolgirl, or Charlie Hebdo, even for Samuel Paty and the Nice massacre (even the truck massacre of 2016) went without condemnation. While selective outrage is the forte of the same liberal elite, the French Republic does not distinguish between its citizens as it allows the freedom to criticise to all irrespective of their beliefs. Hence the liberal elite has now been caught in the crossfire between radical Islamists and those who stand with the secular values. Certainly no self-respecting liberal will condone murders at the behest of religious sentiments, and may actually be able to find out an amicable third way, or to begin with condemn these acts of terror like they condemned the Christchurch shooting in 2019. Either the liberal elite has to foment a global secular order which is applicable to all the nation states be it the French Republic or a theocratic Islamic state, which is acceptable to all and is homogenous in nature or it may have to resist from opining on issues that may colour it as biased to say the least. Indeed it is painfully ironic that those who were criticised by the Liberal elite as fascists are actually up in defence of the secular values of the French Republic. How convenient for them who have stood up for the rights of third genders, immigrants, refugees, sub-national groups and have carried out a plethora of activities related to freedom of expression and conscience to maintain such a stony silence when the entire Republic is besieged. It is they who have to wake up from their perennial slumber and decide where the discourse should head and where they stand since they have an opinion on every occurrence.
(Dr Arnab Chakrabarty is Guest Lecturer, Department of International Relations, Sikkim University.)