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Debating Islam in the Republic after the Paris attacks

The most widespread response to the Paris attacks in January 2015 was the slogan “Je suis Charlie”. Immediately understandable as a reaction to the three-day sequence of violence, it expressed solidarity with the victims’ families and a commitment to defend freedom of expression.


As it spread around the globe, this slogan also raised a host of important questions. Many have wondered what exactly 'Charlie' stands for. Does identification with 'Charlie' signify an ultimately abstract endorsement of freedom of expression?




  • The idea that 'more' laïcité or 'more' Republican values can be considered a solution is worrying

  • Does identification with 'Charlie' signify an ultimately abstract endorsement of freedom of expression?

  • Campaigns for the equal treatment of Muslims are necessary and their potential has not yet been fully exploited in France


How does it relate to the work published by the satirical magazine, and particularly its portrayals of Islam and Muslims, which – it should be mentioned – had received much less public support in France in the last couple of years? People have also asked who is excluded from this new collective identification with 'Charlie'.


One outcome of that debate is the parallel slogan “Je suis Ahmed”.


Perhaps the most important question here is how the huge and in many ways unprecedented mobilisation after the attacks has affected the debate on Islam in France and the policies people want to see.


What has changed or will change in these respects? Judging from the past few weeks and the first policy responses, the most likely answer would be: very little.


Indeed, even if such an attack seemed inconceivable some weeks ago, most reactions to it have followed a specific – and well-established – pattern which took off with the first debates on Islam in the late 1980s.


The tragic events in January 2015 have reinforced certain traits in this discourse, but otherwise it is familiar.


One key feature of this discussion is a tendency to portray controversies around Islam as a struggle between freedom rights at the heart of the Republic and restrictions or censorship imposed in the name of religions – and associated notably with Islam or certain interpretations of it.


Since the late 1980s, the question repeatedly raised has been whether Muslims are really able, given their historical tradition, to accept a political order founded on equal freedom for all and a strict segregation of religion and politics.


Over the same period, Muslims representing a broad spectrum of organisations, trends and understandings of Islam have asserted their commitment to the secular Republic and have argued that the secular order can be legitimated from an Islamic point-of-view. Their argumentations follow lines of reasoning that vary greatly in their complexity.


Some of them, like the publications of Tariq Ramadan, have reached a global audience and durably shaped Muslim discourses on Europe.


In spite of these argumentations, doubts have remained and are widespread. The question whether Muslims are really loyal to France is still being asked. The suspicion that they are not has profoundly influenced the way Muslim criticism of “Charlie Hebdo” has been perceived by the broader public.


Ever since the Danish cartoon affair in 2006, various Muslims – ranging from the ‘moderate’ Mosque of Paris, controlled by the Algerian state, to organisations close to the Muslim Brothers – have protested against cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Indeed, they initiated court proceedings against the magazine.


The legal basis for this was provided by the French law on press freedom. It dates from 1881 and – among other things – makes it an offence to injure or discriminate against individuals or groups on the basis of their (supposed) religion or ethnicity.

The existence of this law is something of a banality. It signals the simple fact that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute, but can be limited for a number of reasons.


Indeed, this law has often been used by various groups, not least Catholic organisations, and frequently with success. In general, legal action of this kind by religious groups has drawn criticism. However, when Muslim organisations made use of this law against cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, their recourse to it was seen in a very different light. They were accused of rejecting freedom of expression outright.


During the campaign in support of “Charlie Hebdo” in 2007, which brought together leading politicians from right across the spectrum, the right to laugh about anything at all was regularly defended. In striking ignorance of the relative complexity of the right to freedom of expression, whose scope is not definitive, this right was now imagined to be absolute.


That this right – in France as much as elsewhere – is routinely subjected to limitations, not only those defined by courts, was obscured. It was obscured in favour of creating the illusion of an unambiguous legal order which lends the rejection of Muslim demands an aura of self-evidence.


No attention was paid to the need – and more importantly, the chance – to decide explicitly and in a spirit of self-responsibility how the scope of freedom of expression should be delimited in this precise case, and how Muslim criticism of certain cartoons should best be met.


The terrorist attacks have given new impetus to this discourse. These attacks have lent plausibility to a position which largely cuts off communication – for that is the position of those who wear the badge “I am Charlie”.  The badge shields the wearer from any opponent with a legitimacy sufficient to make demands and from the need to enter into any kind of debate.


That so many people adopted this position with so much urgency is hardly surprising, given the violence. Nevertheless, the popularity of this position is not something to rejoice in, nor something which bodes well for the future.


It is a position which denies the complexity of politics. By taking an overtly systematic view of the Republican order, important opportunities for political deliberation and action are eliminated.


This is already evident in the first responses from the government and the debates that ensued. After the government announced its educational measures following the attacks, much emphasis was placed on the need to strengthen the teaching of laïcité now to be celebrated annually on December 9th – and the 'values of the Republic'.


The idea that 'more' laïcité or 'more' Republican values can be considered a solution is worrying. The question to debate should be how these values and secularism are defined and what definitions are adequate to the new context of a Republic with a sizeable Muslim population.


This double question is in fact an open one. While current events may sideline it for a while, it cannot ultimately be avoided. In a moment of national crisis like now, it is all very well to brandish laïcité as a symbol of unity or as a means to achieve it. In the day-to-day life of France, it is frequently the object of references which seek to legitimise diverging or conflicting views of France and the place of Islam within it.


This can be illustrated by the notorious case of the headscarf. Authorised in principle by the supreme administrative court, the State Council, in 1989, when the first girls were expelled from a state school, it was prohibited by a new law in 2004.


However, this ban on 'conspicuous religious symbols', de facto curtailing Muslim headscarves and isolated cases of turbans, only applies within the precinct of state schools.


Ever since, regular controversies have made it abundantly clear that many French people, including prominent politicians, want the space of freedom for covered Muslim women to be restricted further.


This and other cases make one wonder who it is that has a problem with the principle of equal freedom. Does the widespread reluctance to accept Muslims as citizens and the criticism of Islam stem from a conviction that equal liberty is the foundation of the Republic? Are they actually compatible with this conviction?


Reading many of the public statements by intellectuals and politicians, one cannot help doubting that this is always the case. The mobilisation against racism and Islamophobia is slowly gaining ground in response to increasingly explicit views about Muslims which deny equality.


Is campaigning for non-discrimination and respect for legal equality in the name of citizenship the solution to these current controversies?


Muslim intellectuals in France have been heatedly debating this question for the past twenty years.


Perhaps the most prominent view is still – and not only in France – that relying on human rights discourse is the best way to establish the right of Muslims to live as Muslims in France.


This line of argument strongly informs numerous attempts, by Muslim federations or individuals, to reason the legitimacy of citizenship from both a Muslim and a secular point of view. The centrality of references to human rights is, indeed, a common denominator among a range of Muslims from “moderate” to conservative.


In the past decade, this position has come in for stronger criticism and revision.


The disparate contributors concur in recognising that the conditions of life for French Muslims are not solely determined by the law and that, in consequence, restricting activism and intellectual debate to issues of law and citizenship is unsatisfying.


Certainly, very different conclusions have been drawn from reviewing that exclusive focus on law. In some cases, it has led to a discourse demanding cultural self-assimilation by Muslims as newcomers in a different cultural context.


In others, it has led to complex forms of activism seeking to promote Muslim interests in particular fields of society.


These reflections merit broader interest. Above all, they encourage us to inquire more precisely about what can be done before debating what should be done. Most directly, they prompt us to consider what the law can do to achieve equality for French Muslims.


Without a doubt, campaigns for the equal treatment of Muslims are necessary and their potential has not yet been fully exploited in France. From a slightly different perspective, however, it could well be argued that the transformational potential of such campaigns is quite limited.


Indeed, these campaigns implicitly assume a well-ordered vision of politics which, more often than not, cannot be observed in France. This vision centres on a strong state capable of making equality prevail despite the inequalities inherent in social life. While clearly attractive, this vision of a well-ordered France is in several ways unrealistic.


The crucial and most obvious lack of orderliness concerns the category 'Muslim' itself.  In many, if not most, public usages, the term 'Muslim' designates not (only) a religious identity, but a constant conjunction between Islam and social problems – the banlieue – in a framework of migration from North Africa and its related identities. This conjunction entered the mainstream long ago and profoundly affects any debate about Islam today.


There are those who persistently call for an end to the 'amalgam' between the religion of Islam and issues external to it. A rigorous policy of anti-discrimination, largely juridical, is essential to this aim.


The conjunction between Islam, banlieue and Maghreb is seen from this angle as a mere coincidence. Here, the state is fully external to discrimination, and citizenship is asserted as fundamentally undifferentiated.


In recent years, the voices of those who question this view of politics in the French Republic have become louder and more numerous. They question whether the conjunction between Islam and particular transnational ethnicities and social identities is really external to Muslim subjectivities?


Can it be simply abolished through state policies and the law? Shouldn’t more attention be paid to the local production of (in)equality and its complex power structure?


More generally, is the neat separation between religion and other dimensions of identity really the default position – or is it not, rather, part of a modernist vision with a time-spatial particularity that is ever more apparent in what is called the post-secular condition? In a context of growing urgency around the question of Islam, the answers about what can be done are becoming increasingly divergent.


At the same time, related visions of France as a secular political entity are now more differentiated and antagonistic. “Charlie Hebdo” has been contributing to this process. Because of the exceptional and tragic circumstances, this differentiation has temporarily been put aside in the name of national unity. A more durable step to unity would be to recognise the differentiation and address it more fully.



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Further readings:


John Bowen, Why the French don't like Headscarves. Islam, the State, and Public Space, Princeton, Princeton University Press 2007.
Abdellali Hajjat and Marwan Mohammed, Islamophobie. Comment les élites francaises fabriquent le 'problème musulman', Paris, La Découverte 2013.
Olivier Roy, Secularism confronts Islam, New York, Columbia University Press 2007.
Joan W. Scott, The Politics of the Veil, Princeton, Princeton University Press 2007.