Fighting a culture war against the Muslim “enemy within” will not help counter terrorismby Myriam François / November 9, 2020 / Leave a comment
When French pupils returned to school in November, they marked a minute of silence to remember Samuel Paty. The teacher’s lesson on free speech, which included Charlie Hebdo’s satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad, was used to justify his brutal murder on 16th October. A fortnight later, three people were killed at a church in Nice. Today, a wounded France is, inevitably, not only grieving but also trying to make sense of these gruesome crimes.
There has been much defiant resharing of the images in the wake of the attacks, which in turn has seen Muslim-majority countries call for a boycott of French goods. This led to protests and an attack on a security guard at the French consulate in Saudi Arabia. In response, President Emmanuel Macron sought de-escalation: “The caricatures are not a governmental project,” he insisted to Al Jazeera, “but emerged from free and independent newspapers.”
Charlie Hebdo might be independent, but support for such images is now a litmus test for patriotism. Despite the magazine’s tragic losses, its free speech has been institutionalised. After Paty’s killing, mayors projected the Muhammad cartoons onto government buildings. Macron has now backed using them as part of the curriculum. It is entirely possible, though, to support free speech and also condemn the provocation of sensitivities in a country where Muslims are systematically disadvantaged.
French public opinion on this issue has hardened. In 2006, over half of French people thought it wrong of Charlie Hebdo to publish caricatures of the Prophet, while after the 2015 attacks on the magazine’s offices, which killed 12 people, 57 per cent thought they should be allowed to be disseminated. By contrast, 69 per cent of French Muslims believed publication was wrong. Some French Christians share Muslim concerns. After the Nice attack, the Archbishop of Toulouse said that showing the cartoons in class was “throwing oil on the fire.”
But this is about more than cartoons. There is a wider conversation to be had about France’s six million Muslims, religious civil liberties and the rule of law. Free speech is threatened in France, but often not from the direction you might expect. The writer Éric Zemmour—twice convicted of hate speech against Muslims—continues to…