It’s a week since we all went out and paid hommage to the murdered journalists at Charlie Hebdo. Would I still do it now? Well, like everyone else I’m appalled by these atrocities – and by the murders in the kosher supermarket – and I would defend freedom of expression.
Liberty of expression has been enshrined in the French constitution and soul since the Revolution; the rights of freedom of expression by the press were further reinforced by the law of 1881. The liberty of the press carried, of course, limitations; namely it did not permit defamation on account of ethnicity, country, race or religion.
La diffamation commise par les mêmes moyens envers une personne ou un groupe de personnes à raison de leur origine ou de leur appartenance ou de leur non-appartenance à une ethnie, une nation, une race ou une religion déterminée sera punie d’un an d’emprisonnement et de 45 000 euros d’amende ou de l’une de ces deux peines seulement.
But even if there were not legal constraints, these rights carry responsibilities.How far can you go when writing (or drawing) something when it upsets a significant minority of the population? There are those who say that restrictions on illustrations of the Prophet is something quite new and therefore irrelevant. There are others who say that mainstream Muslims need to cope better with criticism if the Prophet. But the fact is that taunts relating to Mohammed are for many moslems yet another example of being ridiculed and marginalised. (I find it slightly uncomfortable that I’m in some agreement with the Pope!) Criticism of Islam is made against a backcloth of Muslims being disadvantaged social, educationally and economically.
There is also an element of double standards in the West’s championing of freedom of the Press: a Danish newspaper did not publish cartoons against the church because, it said, it was concerned about the outcry this might cause.
Things are complicated in France by the fervent support of laicite – separation between religions and the state. The old target – the Catholic church has been replaced by Islam. But the world is more complicated than when Voltaire wrote. France has the largest proportion of Muslims in Western Europe – between 5-8.5% of the population (about 3,500,000). There is a particularly high concentration in some cities; in particular Marseille has about 30-40% Muslims.
The ethnic and religious composition of the French has changed. Should the French not move slightly towards acceptance of a multi-cultural society and work towards including and accommodating significant minorities rather than shoving Voltaire back in their face?
This would involve making concessions. Communes who have decided to refuse to serve non-pork alternatives in school lunches should maybe reconsider. More fundamental, I would support not getting so hung up about the veil or burqa. My French friends support this ban and I have had endless fruitless discussions suggesting that headlong confrontation has helped increase the use of the burqa. The French Government position has been upheld by the European Court, but I would agree with Shami Chakrabardi, director of Liberty who said the ban “has nothing to do with gender equality and everything to do with rising racism in western Europe”.
I agree, for instance, with Jonathan Friesland of the Guardian:
what will be required is an understanding: an accommodation in western societies between their non-Muslim majorities and their Muslim minorities, one that will pointedly exclude and isolate the cultists of violent jihadism. For non-Muslims that means listening to what we are being told repeatedly: that it is not just racist or hostile depictions of the prophet that insult ordinary, mosque-going Muslims but any depiction at all. That may seem hard to grasp, even unreasonable, to non-Muslims but that’s the fact of the matter. And it won’t do to start citing Wikipedia-level knowledge of 12th-century Persian art, with its apparent tolerance of such depictions, in order to tell Muslims about their own religion. We just have to accept that most Muslims – not just extremists – experience such representations as an insult.
I’m not talking about agreeing with all that was written in the Koran or is believed by mainstream Muslims. But I am talking about the French finding a way to allow a French citizen to be a Muslim without being torn in two directions. And above all we need to distinguish between Islam as a religion and the extreme jihadism or cults which have enticed young French muslims to criminal, terrorist acts.
Many Muslims have said these thugs or fascists are not Muslims. Rachida Dati, for example, a Muslim and former Minister of Justice, has said: “This is not about religion. This is about a misuse of religion to try to justify what is unjustifiable.” Non-Muslims also need to ensure that Islam is not conflated with Jihadism.
There are practical as well as ideological reasons for working with Muslims to integrate them better into French society: the more Islam is demonised the more one plays into the hand of the Front National – and al-Qaida.
It is difficult to understand how Coulibaly’s murder of Jews fits into this picture. There has been an alarming rise in anti-semitism in France but I’m not sure how much this is linked with Muslim terrorists – apart from Coulibaly – and how much it is really being exploited by the extreme right. Or maybe the three are often the same: Muslim terrorists/anti-semitists/fascist thugs. Many French people share my distaste for Israeli politics while saying this has nothing to do with anti-semitism, but Netanyahu has inevitably complicated things by attending the Je suis Charlie rally (despite the death of journalists in Israel) and welcoming French Jewish migrants with open arms.
As well as the French needing to better accommodate the Muslim minority within a laic state, the French Muslims need to find a way to work more cohesively. There is no equivalent to a council of bishops to promote a mainstream Muslim policy in France. And most of France’s 1800 imams were educated overseas. Somehow the French Muslims need to sort these problems out. It is clear that some of these foreign imams have been central to the dangerous cults that have supported terrorists.
There is no doubt in my mind that the the fundamental problem is the existence of an underclass of French Muslims, mainly of North African origin but often second or third generation, who are concentrated in pubic housing on the periphery of cities, and who are unemployed, poorly educated and often engaged in a range of criminal activities and hostility to the police. A ripe ground for resentment at perceived or real prejudice and for exploitation by political and cult movements. How does one solve these problems? I really don’t know!
Incidentally it appears that the terrorists were partially motivated after viewing videos of US/UK engagement in Iraq… …
My ideas are further complicated by observing what is happening elsewhere in the world, in particular Israel, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. The second two fuel the fire of those wishing to go to war with Islam in general. I think the world should go to war with these regimes, but not a religious war; rather we have to recognise oppression in the context of their political and cultural circumstances.
So you see, I’m still trying to work out my position but I turn out to be not so clearly Charlie as most of my French friends 🙁