In the last month, following the devastating attacks at the offices of the satirical political magazine Charlie Hebdo, the aforementioned incident has become a focal point of a myriad of debates. Despite the sheer number of arguments that arose, it seemed that the vast majority were concerned with our democratic right to freedom of speech, and it therefore appears that we have adopted a blinkered attitude in our response to the attacks. We have unknowingly simplified, and even Westernised, our views on the shootings, seeing it as little more than an outright attack on our democratic values. In doing so, we have not only disregarded historical and socio-political contexts, but have in fact surrendered ourselves to further figurative attacks on our freedom and our idea of democracy.
First and foremost, we cannot proceed without addressing France’s eternally problematic relationship with Islam as a whole. Years of colonisation in the Maghreb and Africa sowed the seeds for the fear of Islam that we see even in contemporary French society, as Muslim brotherhoods in Algeria were perceived to be hindrances to the supposedly progressive ideologies of secularism. This has been fuelled further by La Loi Stasi, which prevented the wearing of ‘ostentatious’ religious symbols in educational establishments, and the banning of the burqa by Sarkozy under the pretext of the liberation of women. The discomfort between France and Islam thus continues to grow, institutionalised and politicised by Le Front National. However, conflict arises also between two of France’s founding principles; secularism, or la laïcité, and the tripartite, singsong national motto of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Freedom, Equality, and Brotherhood) simply no longer correlate.
To bring the historical context back to post-Charlie-Hebdo France, the Fraternité branch of this moral code has undoubtedly already been violated; we almost always fail to discuss the aftermath of the shootings, in which mosques in the towns of Albi and Aix-les-Bains were shot at and burned down respectively, during which a Frenchman willingly created a divide between himself and fellow Frenchman, simply because of discrepancies in belief and lifestyle. What struck me most, however, was the way in which these events were heartlessly exploited for personal and political gain. It was as if the metaphorical ban on Islamophobia had been lifted for a day, and even Marine Le Pen was quick to jump on the bandwagon, utilising the events to promote a nationwide referendum on the reestablishment of the death penalty. The aim is evidently to instill fear into the hearts of the religious, but how can we hypocritically argue for one set of democratic principles concerning freedom of speech whilst turning a blind, Nelsonian eye to the concept of religious freedom for all?
Finally, the preposterous assumption that we need to assign responsibility for these attacks to the global Muslim community serves only to compartmentalise our multicultural societies further, and again comes down to an inability, or perhaps an unwillingness, to differentiate between Islam and fundamentalism. James O’Brien refreshingly dealt with this issue on LBC in early January, but I, for one, cannot decide whether the dire requirement for an entire community to apologise on behalf of a few psychotic individuals is a case that does in fact highlight white supremacy. I cannot see the entireity of the United States apologising for the Sandy Hook shooting in the foreseeable future, nor the British population asking for forgiveness after years of colonial rule, so why must the Muslim community be subject to a profound sense of guilt and self-doubt? Oppressing the oppressed further is nothing but a ticking time-bomb.
The problem with centralising on the free speech debate is that it limits our perspectives and denies us the opportunity to take ourselves out of a Westernised mindset and put ourselves in others’ shoes. Needless to say, the issue of censorship and self-censorship are incredibly prevalent in this scenario, but they seem to rest on one end of the spectrum, whilst the preservation of multiculturalism in France rests on the other. As a self-confessed Francophile, I would hate to see such a beautiful country with such rich history and cultural prowess crumble under racist ideologies, but unless active attempts to change contemporary France are made, this is the beginning of a downward spiral.
By Sharlene Ghandi
[image credit: Khalid Albaih]