A teacher, Samuel Paty, as part of a lesson on freedom of expression, showed his class the cartoons that were the centre of the Charlie Hebdo case. Muslim students were told that if they believed they would find offence; they should look away. This lesson was relayed to a parent of a child in the class which led to him posting angrily online about what had occurred in the lesson. A man living fifty miles from the school saw this post and drove to the school. He proceeded to brutally murder the teacher and decapitate him. He then resisted arrest by firing an airsoft rifle at police, who returned fire, shooting him dead.
(It is important to mention that by no means, and in no way are the actions of this individual condoned. What happened sickened me to the pit of my stomach and I couldn’t get the images out of my head.)
There are two main points that can be garnered from this horrific murder. The first is that France appears to be a nation divided. The second is that the media portrayal of the incident is further proof of a dangerous rhetoric being touted when it comes to refugees. France, and by extension many other countries in Western Europe who have large migrant populations seem to have real issues with integration, and communication between different cultural and religious groups. Emmanuel Macron’s use of the term ‘Islamist Terror Attack’ is an Islamophobic dog whistle in a nation already fraught with inter-community tensions. Branding what happened as Islamist highlights a misunderstanding of the term that often promotes Islam’s perception as a religion of barbarism and violence. The true definition of Islamism is the belief that society should be governed by Islamic principles, and laws. What happened here has absolutely no basis in accepted Islamic practice, let alone Islamic law. In his role as president it is essential that he choose his words wisely, especially at a time where the pressures of a pandemic, global economic crises and widespread unemployment have people in an almost constant state of fear
The way in which it was reported with asylum seeker, muslim, and refugee repeated incessantly was more reminiscent of a UKIP rally than the BBC. This is in part due to homogenisation of these words in right-wing politics across Europe. The danger here is the exacerbation of aggression towards Muslims, refugees and other migrants not only in France but even here in the UK.
It is almost impossible to think of something in recent years that has sparked the debate surrounding freedom of expression like the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices. The French magazine’s depiction of Islam’s Prophet in a derogatory manner (made more significant given that in Islam iconography, particularly of God and his prophets is widely prohibited) was attacked in 2015, resulting in the unconscionable murders of 12 people. The world then plunged once more into black and white as the words ‘Je Suis Charlie’, with its dark background and white font; filled screens, newspapers and magazines across the world. For weeks afterwards, the discussion about when freedom of expression becomes hate speech raged on, and it is still impossible to draw a definable line.
Perhaps the answer is that while it is true that there are overtly racist things that are better left unsaid, it is impossible to stop them coming out and unhealthy to do so also. It can even be healthy for all opinions to be expressed given that certain prerequisites are met. The first is that people will always be offended by certain things, it’s inevitable and justifiable. To put this in the context of the derisive cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed, it is often expressed by Muslims that they love God more than anything else, and second to God is the Prophet Mohammed. So, when a cartoon of this nature comes out, it is not beyond the imagination of anyone why some Muslims may get offended.
The second prerequisite is that the producer of such content should be allowed to be criticised. For example, when the burqa ban was announced in France, Charlie Hebdo published a front-page cartoon which depicted a naked Muslim woman running as if freed, with a burqa inserted into her behind. This was heavily criticised at the time, especially considering the plight of many Muslim women who live in France suffering from arguably some of the worst codified Islamophobia across Europe. In fact, the President at the time of publication, Jacques Chirac, criticised the paper saying it was purposely provocative.
Finally, those of opposing viewpoints may attempt to change each other’s opinions on the matter at hand. This should be encouraged as in the process of doing so, other parties can express the reasons why they feel a certain way. A criticism of the reporting on the Hebdo cartoon was that it was said to be offensive mainly due to the widespread prohibition of iconography, however it is arguably far deeper than that.
Going forward further efforts must be made for integration between communities. As second and third generation immigrants assimilate into French society this may be come easier, and yet that isn’t to say that an effort shouldn’t be made with the older generations of migrants, many of whom directly suffered as a result of French colonisation. Furthermore, an establishment of trust in these communities can help authorities discover those that communities find troubling or dangerous and take preventative action early. That being said, these problems won’t go away overnight and the prevention of othering those who aren’t native to a country is a problem deep-rooted in societies across the world. Yet now, more than over we must embrace that which makes us similar and not which makes us different.