NOUS SOMMES TOUS FRANCAIS
The French face acute challenges in both integrating their Muslim population and
understanding the faith that others profess. They are not alone in this.
The award made to Charlie Hebdo in the summer of 2015 by the US wing of PEN International for its unswerving commitment to freedom of expression was not without its critics. Some were quick to make a distinction between journalists who risk their lives exposing corruption and cartoonists who indulge in the crude mocking of beliefs others hold dear.
It is not easy commenting on this matter. Nothing could ever justify the massacre of eleven people and the injuring of eleven others in that Parisian magazine office in January 2015. Neither should the atrocity inhibit free speech. In practice, though, where the US constitution protects the citizen’s unfettered right to speak their mind, UK law places limits. Incitement to religious hatred or violence is not allowed; criticism of people and the things they believe in is a different matter.
In a way, the debate over free speech describes a wider challenge to responsible living. The esteemed conservative philosopher, Edmund Burke, championed people’s liberty but observed that if they use their freedom irresponsibly, the State may be obliged to intervene to protect others. The onus is thus on citizens to express their liberty with a dutiful conscience; in this way, freedom is preserved. The modern complaint that the State interferes in too many matters beyond its scope may have some traction, but rarely is attention given to the reckless use of freedom by the public which necessitates new laws and interventions to preserve the peace.
Charlie Hebdo has made a living out of vicious satire. The Roman Catholic Church has received more attention than Islam; the satirists’ desire to poke fun at the powerful is the fulfilment of the French republican value of laicite, which asserts that religion should be kept out of public affairs. The sacred is not publicly protected, but the merciless lampooning of Muslim sensibility feels different to the traditional anti-clericalism of the French.
France’s relationship with its indigent, mostly Muslim, Arabs is complicated and rooted in nearly two centuries of North African colonialism. This history is a brutal and unrestrained one where Arab populations were subjugated and humiliated before bloodily obtaining post-War freedoms. In modern France, immigrant Arabs are usually found in the squalid banlieues which ring major cities. These are places of poverty and slow burning despair which breed alienation from the French state. Most French people avoid the banlieues and do not mix with those who live there. It represents a major policy question which French governments have failed to answer and which poses renewed risks in the light of the Islamic radicalisation of youth.
Charlie Hebdo may be striking a fearless blow for press freedom but in the process the satirical magazine offends many in the most marginalised communities of France. This may be a trade-off the French feel they must make to protect Enlightenment values but it is not one they can ignore.
If other people’s poverty is poorly understood, then the role of religion is even more so in the secular west. It is not just Muslims who are subject to this; too much media commentary is clueless about the importance of religious faith to fellow citizens and takes perverse pleasure in ridiculing or patronising it. The French face acute challenges in both integrating their Muslim population and understanding the religious faith that others profess, including Christianity. They are not alone in this: if the French bore the slogan Je suis Charlie, we might say nous sommes tous francais. It is a central question of our time.
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