Terror in France relaunches a national debate on the right to offend

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On Thursday, three people were stabbed to death in a church in the French city of Nice. While the investigation is still ongoing, French President Emmanuel Macron said after the incident that the country was under attack by “Islamist and terrorist madness”.

Thursday’s murders follow the October 16 murder of Samuel Paty, a teacher in the northern suburbs of Paris, in Éragny. He was beheaded after showing caricatures published in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo depicting the Prophet Muhammad to students in his class. An 18-year-old Chechen refugee admitted to the murder in a social media post before being shot by police.

The name Charlie Hebdo will be familiar to anyone who remembers the terrorist attacks that took place in 2015, when gunmen forced their way into the magazine’s offices in Paris and murdered 12 people. The attackers allegedly said they had just avenged the Prophet Muhammad. Charlie Hebdo, a small magazine known for its provocative and often offensive images and articles, published caricatures of the prophet in 2012. Many Muslims consider the images of the Prophet Muhammad to be very offensive.

The recent attacks are a reminder of the tensions in French secular society, which frequently touts the values ​​of freedom of expression and the freedom to practice religion. France is home to 5 million Muslims, many of whom live in poorer areas and are often marginalized in politics and the media. The vast majority of these do not support Islamic extremism, but often face unfair stereotypes, experts say.

“I believe there was an attempt to Islamize poverty in France by the far right which had bled into politics and mainstream media, making people see crime in the suburbs as a Muslim problem. , rather than a socio-economic problem, ”says Myriam François, associate researcher at the Center for Islamic Studies, SOAS, University of London. “The fact that there is an audience for anti-Muslim rhetoric in the country will not be news to anyone who remembers the 2017 French election, which came down to a run-off between current President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. , who then led the far-right French National Front.

Macron may have won comfortably, but more than 10 million French voters went with Le Pen, an anti-immigration candidate who claimed France was “under attack by radical Islam.” The growing popularity of Le Pen’s party has pushed concerns about Islam into the mainstream, with French politicians introducing controversial laws in 2010 that prohibited Muslim women from wearing niqabs and burqas in some settings.

Far-right attitudes and the long French tradition of secularism can play into the decisions of public figures in French media and politics to criticize Islam in sometimes radical and derisory ways. Aurelien Mondon, from the University of Bath, who specializes in right-wing populism, describes it as a “punch” on an already struggling minority.

“France has a long history of satirical media, and traditionally it begins to fight like Charlie Hebdo once did. In recent years, it has started to take hold, especially with regard to Muslims. When you do this in a country where there is structural Islamophobia, there is a real risk of creating more stigma and exclusion, ”Mondon says.

Mondon believes that some misinterpret the historical principle of secularism in France. “The 1905 law, which separated church from state, clearly stated that you would be subject to penalties if you made someone follow a religion and also if you prevented someone from following their religion. In the context of modern France, what we see is the second, with women and girls being forced to take off their hijabs, niqabs and burqas. ”

France has a long and cherished tradition of freedom of expression, and nothing can justify attacking cartoonists or journalists for what they say or draw.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, many French people expressed their support for his unconditional exercise of freedom of expression with the slogan #JeSuisCharlie. But hate speech should not be confused as an integral part of French identity, says François. “It is quite possible to be horrified by the murders that have taken place and still think what Charlie Hebdo is doing is offensive,” she said.

“The problem for France is when people start pretending that Charlie Hebdo’s right to offend is a barometer of national identity. It basically forbids one point of view and implies that if you don’t support Charlie Hebdo, you are not entirely French. ”

Things get even more complicated when the state seems to be supporting a particular side. Macron has publicly supported Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish whatever he wants. The images shown by Paty were in a class on freedom of expression supported by the French education system. And a front page of Charlie Hebdo was projected last week on public buildings in Toulouse and Montpellier, both of which have sizable Muslim populations.

The leaders of the Muslim world also took sides this time. Turkish President Erdogan accused Macron of discriminating against Muslims, questioned whether he needed “some kind of mental treatment” and encouraged a global boycott of French goods. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has also accused Macron of attacking Islam.

A spokesperson for the Elysee Palace, seat of the French presidency, told CNN that Erdogan’s attacks are “dangerous in all respects”.

And this is again the seemingly impossible problem France faces. On the one hand, freedom of expression – even the right to offend – is a cornerstone of French society. On the other hand, when the state defends rude, provocative or hateful expressions of opinion, it risks encouraging prejudice against the majority of French Muslims, who are not extremists and do not support terrorism.

Mondon says, “If we don’t start discussing the broader societal issues France faces, we allow the narrative of two French people: Muslims on one side; the French on the other. And this kind of division is not only incorrect, but exactly what the terrorists want. “

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