Fear and freedom of care: the delicate balance of France
My regional flight had landed in Istanbul a few hours earlier, and what I thought was an uneventful early January night at an airport hotel in 2015 turned out to be a non-stop information flow from Paris. Images showing a car in a narrow street in the French capital were replayed ad nauseam. Newsletters scrambled to report what was going on in the offices of a satirical magazine that I hadn’t heard of. The tension was high; the fear and the shock were palpable. Never have French reports appeared so inconsistent. A terrorist attack was in progress. Charlie Hebdo quickly became a loaded term in Europe, embodying an absolute clash of values. But that was just the start.
Fast forward to fall 2020 and a new level of terrifying news has emerged from Paris: the beheading of a schoolteacher leaving his job. I listened to the France Culture channel for local reports. “Destroy our freedom” (destroy our freedom) said the live stream. It was a predictable combination of words and receiving them early was no surprise. Going back to the abundance of arguments on individual freedoms, which heated up following the numerous attacks around Paris in January 2015, and the invocation of the Bataclan alongside Charlie Hebdo are hardly edifying. But, on this occasion, there was more at stake. In France, education is a red line.
The teacher in question was reportedly targeted for showing the controversial cartoons. The class in question was civics and the topic was the limits of free speech. The teacher, praised by his colleagues and students for his skill and attention, had a teaching plan and communicated it to the students. Dealing with controversial materials such as satirical cartoons is common practice in French class discussions about freedom of expression, according to other teachers. In a different world, namely a college classroom in the United States, I encouraged students in music and censorship sessions to find songs from their own world that were restricted. While some were initially outraged by the idea of censorship in a country where many individual freedoms are constitutionally protected, the students were not lacking in examples. The exercise was revealing to say the least. He showed how society practices censorship in multiple ways. In another example in the United States, a colleague who taught a civic law class told me that it was a very stressful experience and that it had a negative impact on the teacher’s popularity among students.
It is not unusual to stir up emotions when discussing the exercise of freedoms, especially freedom of expression. The murdered French teacher was only too aware of this peril; it was widely reported that he had warned students about the cartoons, telling them they could leave the classroom if the pictures could offend. But he didn’t know much. What in his mind was an act of sensitivity to conflicting views would not spare his life.
In the debates following the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo staff, I found one notion particularly puzzling: the freedom to offend, which, I must say, was new to me. For someone who spent their formative years in a diverse part of the Middle East, there is an inherent contradiction in the right to offend. If behaving sensitively to values that are dear to others is a moral value in its own right, then offending is certainly not a socially constructive choice. In other words, in various societies people take care of each other; avoiding intentional infringements is a given – but it is also a choice.
Thinkers have debated the meaning of free will for centuries, and in a very nuanced way. Philosophers, religious scholars and scientists are still trying to determine how free we really are as individual human beings. Recent research suggests that alongside our upbringing, our genetic makeup also influences our belief systems.
For someone who spent their formative years in a diverse part of the Middle East, there is an inherent contradiction in the right to offend.
While the existence of mass-disseminated and offensive publications may be the result of a belief in the freedom to do so, teaching about them is not. In fact, dissecting the complexities of freedom and choice in educational debate helps students appreciate the power of their freedom to choose, which equips them to make socially responsible decisions. This awareness is especially important when the disagreements are wide and deep.
In 2015, I packed my bags and headed to Ataturk Airport in the wee hours of January 8th. As I dragged my large suitcase to the check-in counter, the television was still on. My transatlantic flight included a stopover in Paris and I needed to know if the airports were still open, especially for flights and travelers from the Middle East. There were no major disruptions, other than tighter security checks – something I had become accustomed to when boarding flights to the United States in Paris since the early 2000s. But this time I had nothing to complain about. The country was visibly in shock, even in the transit zone of its largest international airport.
Maybe I should buy something in print with today’s date, I thought. A particular option came to mind. “Charlie Hebdo isn’t anymore,” said the newspaper seller, looking me in the eye but staring into space. Fear had struck the house, and deep, his eyes seemed to say. “It doesn’t exist anymore,” were his exact words, which my mind heard as: “What planet do you live on, callous visitor?” I later learned that magazine prints were flying off the shelves as I was glued to a news screen.
The magazine eventually returned to circulation and, with it, seemingly endless controversies. But the memory of that moment at Paris-Charles De Gaulle leaves me today to wonder: what other things have ceased to exist in the souls of teachers and parents of all religious beliefs and all cultural origins in France ? How will Muslim parents and children – also teachers – deal with the repercussions of such disturbing events as they attempt to lead a normal life in Europe? At the time of printing, France is fully involved in the debate over new laws that will at best restrict civil liberties and at worst further isolate specific sections of its population. As I read the news and follow the media, I wish that I and a lot of people could have the chance to look each other in the eye more often.
- Tala Jarjour is the author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Alep”. She is a visiting scholar at King’s College London and an associate at Yale College.
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