Politics / Society

The Day After “Je suis Charlie”

How will the Charlie Hebdo attacks affect France’s stakes and relationships in the Muslim World?

On January 7, 2015, two gunmen stormed the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 staff members before fleeing the premises to shouts of “Allahu Akbar”. Two days of manhunt and media frenzy ensued, culminating in the assassination of four people in a Kosher deli in Vincennes and two police operations by French police and gendarmerie against the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly.

On the following Sunday, an estimated 3.7 million demonstrators convened peacefully in multiple French cities, in what is now regarded as the largest public gathering in the country since Paris was liberated in 1944. But the real element of surprise was the immediate and widespread global support: cries of “Je suis Charlie” echoed in all corners of the world as people rallied in front of French embassies and cultural centers, coming together in support of freedom of speech and of the press, but also in support of the belief that Muslims worldwide should not pay for a crime committed by a small group of French fanatics.

© The Guardian

© The Guardian

On January 14, the surviving Charlie Hebdo staff members printed a new issue, of which 7 million copies were distributed. Lo and behold, Charlie had done it again: the Prophet featured prominently on the cover, crying a single tear and holding a “Je suis Charlie” placard, under the words “Tout est pardonné” (all is forgiven). This was considered by many journalists and readers a feat of courage, resilience and humor, and even as an attempt at reconciliation, while others regarded it as yet another gratuitous provocation. In the following days, turning on their TV sets and reading the news, the French realized that not everyone was Charlie indeed, and that several countries[1] were witnessing large anti-Charlie Hebdo protests and significant anti-French sentiment.

In this age of instant and constant commentary, much has already been written on the attacks’ purely internal implications for France: politically with an immediate, short-lived rise in President Hollande’s popularity, and the proverbial increased chances of the Front National[2] in the presidential election of 2017; legally, with a reviewed legislative arsenal against terrorism laws, and the proverbial fear of a French Patriot Act; and economically, with a hypothetical, temporary slump in tourism for Paris. But what do these events imply for France’s presence and stakes in the Muslim world?

First, let’s take a look back at a decade of tension between Western European countries and Muslim-majority States around the great game of Aniconism[3] vs. Free speech.

Just under a decade ago, in September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten[4] published several cartoons portraying the prophet Muhammad as part of an attempt to discuss Islam and self-censorship. Protests and riots erupted in several countries, notably in early 2006, and claimed over 200 lives. Churches and Danish diplomatic missions were attacked and a boycott campaign launched. This was the first of several notable occurrences of European press publishing caricatures of the Prophet, a feat largely frowned upon by Muslims. Indeed, Islam condemns idolatry. Though Islam’s diversity breeds varying interpretations of the Quran’s principles and statements, this ban is generally interpreted as requiring the prohibition of all figurative representations of the Prophet. Charlie Hebdo reprinted the Jyllands Posten cartoons alongside with its own depiction of a weeping Prophet, under the headline “Mohammed Overwhelmed by Fundamentalism”. Faced with a number of suits and complaints lodged by Muslim groups, the newspaper was eventually backed by French courts[5]. In response to the ensuing backlash, Charlie stepped it up and published an issue entitled “Charia[6] Hebdo”, once again portraying the Prophet, which caused the newspaper’s site to be hacked. In 2011, its offices were targeted by a firebomb; six days later, the paper published a drawing of a Muslim man kissing a cartoonist.

Charlie Hebdo’s offices after the firebomb attack of 2011

Charlie Hebdo’s offices after the firebomb attack of 2011

The most recent episode in this dark series of events occurred a month after the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices, in Copenhagen, when an individual presumed by the Danish police to be Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein[7] murdered a civilian and wounded three policemen at an event titled “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression” on February 14. The attacks are believed to have targeted Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who infamously drew the face of the Prophet on a dog’s body in 2007[8]. These pictures were printed in a number of Swedish newspapers, drawing condemnations from Jordan, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and causing Vilks to receive numerous death threats.

These various events have mainly been framed by Western media as the reactionary protection of a scarcely-understood religious imperative, versus one of the most beloved, protected and hailed founding principles of democracy: freedom of speech. Such a manichean picture has the effect of pitting evil, backward Muslims against the the free-spirited, liberal West. It is important, however, to remember that these caricatures were not created in a vacuum: like any event, they are set in a chronology, in a history; that is to say, they are taking place within a broader context. This context is that of deep popular fears in Europe regarding the integration of Muslim populations within secular western European democracies, as witnessed for example by the rise of Pegida in Germany and the Front National’s success in various local elections in France. These primal fears are closely related to our fear of the unknown, which, in turn, breeds racism, hatred, and rejection.

This context is only reinforced by the fact that, in several Western European States, children of first-generation immigrants from Muslim countries are now facing new socio-economic challenges and a sense of rejection from mainstream society. In turn, this is causing a small minority to fall into the arms of fundamentalism in response to being deprived of their Western European national identity and sense of belonging. This small fraction is receiving strong media attention and distorting the public perception of Islam and Muslims in Western Europe. This misunderstanding between Western countries and a minority of Muslims also stems from living side by side in countries which partly failed to protect and promote diversity as a benefit for everyone. In this difficult context, satire related to Islam, whatever the artists’ original intentions may have been, becomes a political act with multiplied effects.

The misunderstanding works both ways, and the Western license to publish anything in the name of freedom of speech does not sit well with the populations of many Muslim-majority states. Some have argued that Charlie Hebdo’s satire “plays on two layers[9], in the tradition of French satire, implying that these seemingly racist or Islamophobic cartoons are actually critiques of racism and Islamophobia, a debatable nuance that is lost on a large proportion of the global readership.

Indeed, in the Philippines, 1,500 demonstrators gathered and burned a Charlie Hebdo poster, while the organizers told Agence France Presse that “what happened in France (…) is a moral lesson for the world to respect any kind of religion, especially the religion of Islam (…) Freedom of expression does not extend to insulting the noble and the greatest prophet of Allah[10].

Protesters in the Philippines burn a Charlie Hebdo poster

Protesters in the Philippines burn a Charlie Hebdo poster

A Turkish court went as far as to ban websites which reproduced Charlie Hebdo’s latest issue. Cumhuriyet, a Turkish newspaper that had done so, was targeted by a number of death threats. In Egypt, President al Sissi demanded that any foreign publication deemed an offense to religion be prohibited, while in Morocco, the government refused to allow the distribution of newspapers reprinting Charlie Hebdo’s caricature of the Prophet[11].

However, a substantial part of the negative reactions to the latest Charlie Hebdo issue in the Muslim world has consisted in blaming the newspaper not for blasphemy but for deepening “hatred and discrimination between Muslims and others” and carrying out a “racist act which works to incite sectarianism”, in the words of Dar al Ifta[12], a central religious institution supported by the Egyptian authorities.

Similarly, Al Azhar University, one of the oldest universities in the world and a center for the study of Islam, deemed the cartoons an incitation to hatred and issued a statement claiming that the cartoons “do not serve the peaceful coexistence between peoples and hinder the integration of Muslims into European and western societies”, while Abdullah II, King of Jordan, considered it “irresponsible, reckless and thoughtless”.

The historical diversity of Islam, the complex interplay of national allegiances, and the individual circumstances of each person’s life, create an infinite variety of IslamS, plural. But nuance is the enemy of certainty, and France is a victim of many of its citizens’ patent ignorance of what Islam and its variations are. Instead of an enlightened understanding, what we witness is prejudice and preconceived notions from which fear, hatred and racism[13] naturally spring. The much debated vivre ensemble, the ability for the French to coexist in peace and harmony regardless of their identity (and in this case, more specifically, their religious identity), is subject to growing doubts. Just take a look at this TellMama infography on anti-Muslim attacks perpetrated in France in the mere two days following the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

source: Tellmamauk.org

source: Tellmamauk.org

The perception by the population and political leaders in Muslim-majority States of the way France treats its Muslim community (the largest community in Europe with 4 to 5 million[14] Muslims and 8% of the French population[15]) bears direct implications on France’s future relationship with these countries and its economic and political stakes in the Muslim world. As the butterfly effect[16] will have it, a small cartoon sketched at night by a journalist under the dim lights of his Parisian office may have immense, lasting consequences worldwide. Oh, the perks of globalization!

Watch out for the undertow: damage to France’s relationships with Muslim-majority States?

The Muslim world (49 countries with a Muslim demographic majority[17], see map below) is home to 1.6 billion inhabitants with a per capita income of $4,185 (40% of the global per capita income). Together, these 49 countries weigh $5.7 trillion[18].Islamic_world

This is of course a tremendous market and one in which France has strong stakes (investments, subsidiaries of major listed companies of the CAC 40, …), not least because of its privileged economic ties to some of its former mandates and colonies. This is also, again, 1.6 billion people who may or may not understand the moral imperative for Western cartoonists to desecrate time and again the most cherished and sacred figure in Islam. The caricatures have already had economic consequences: in the week following Charlie Hebdo’s first post-attack issue for example, individuals in Saudi Arabia called for a boycott of French products[20]. Some websites provided lists of locally-available French products for Saudis to boycott, though Arab News reports that there was no evidence of “effect on sales of French products in Saudi Arabia”. A similar social media campaign emerged in Jordan, with activists demanding a boycott of Total-affiliated gas stations and Carrefour stores.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks, the ensuing demonstrations and the most recent Charlie Hebdo caricature by Luz have the potential to affect France’s relations with Muslim-majority countries and its stakes those countries; perhaps not single-handedly, and perhaps not immediately, but in an aggregate way, over the long haul, in ways that are hard to quantify. It is this sentiment which could potentially have negative repercussions on France’s economic and political stakes in those countries, though a connection between a negative perception and a tangible economic variable, for instance, is a tenuous and complicated one to make.

Most importantly, it is worth stating that sabotaging political and social relations for the sake of proving that one side of the “aniconism vs. free speech” issue is stronger than the other would be a regrettable mistake. The public in France needs to acknowledge that, even though most Muslim immigrants in recent decades are now perfectly integrated into French society, some were not so lucky and suffer the consequences of this failed integration, namely rejection, prejudice, Islamophobia, and social prejudice in the aftermath of attacks such as the one carried out by Mohammed Merah against inter alia Jewish children or, more recently, the Charlie Hebdo and Vincennes attacks. On the one hand, in this tense social context, the media must understand the influence and impact their depiction of Islam can have on the public, and ponder whether this creates a responsibility to refrain from extreme forms of satire, which can be construed as insulting and result in further tension both in France and abroad. On the other hand, asking for Charlie Hebdo caricatures, regardless of how tasteless or disrespectful they might appear, to be forbidden in France is proof of a deep misunderstanding of French history, law, and Republican ideals. No religion in France has the right to dictate its principles to the State: that is the point.

There is no right or wrong answer in the opposition between free speech and respect of personal beliefs, just a necessity for both sides to ponder their actions and responsibilities and refrain from resorting to gratuitous insult or violence of any kind. Efforts should be made by readers of all creeds to take a step back and grant less importance to such satire, bearing in mind that they have an absolute right to speak up and peacefully, calmly voice their disapproval of such satire, which does not warrant a bloodshed.


[1] Notably: Yemen, Pakistan, Mauritania, Algeria, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Chechnya.

[2] The Front National is a French far-right political party with a strong anti-immigration stance.

[3] Defined by Encyclopedia Britannica as “in religion, opposition to the use of icons or visual images to depict living creatures or religious figures”.

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jyllands-Posten_Muhammad_cartoons_controversy

[5] http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2015/01/07/charlie_hebdo_covers_religious_satire_cartoons_translated_and_explained.html

[6] French spelling of “Sharia”.

[7] http://www.newsweek.com/danish-police-kill-suspect-copenhagen-attacks-306942

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lars_Vilks_Muhammad_drawings_controversy

[9] http://www.vox.com/2015/1/12/7518349/charlie-hebdo-racist/in/7271890

[10] As reported in The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/14/charlie-hebdo-muslim-leaders-appeal-calm

[11] Source: http://www.middleeasteye.net/fr/reportages/r-actions-mitig-es-la-nouvelle-une-de-charlie-hebdo-1523357831#sthash.Yt7FPali.dpuf

[12] Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Hebdo_issue_No._1178

[13] But please don’t think I am saying that ignorance is a French prerogative: the Muslim demonstrators in Niger who burn churches (!) and French flags to protest Charlie Hebdo display a comical ignorance of the very newspaper whose paper they are protesting.

[14] There are currently no accurate figures on the number of Muslim citizens in France, due to the fact that French law prohibits any census classifying people by religion. This estimate is the one most commonly cited by the French Interior Ministry. Also, please note that these figures include both practicing and non-practicing Muslims. Let’s hypothetically say that you, dear Nott reader, are a baptized Christian, yet you don’t know a single prayer in full, have never opened a Bible, and the last time you entered a church was as a tourist. You would still be included as part of the Christian population under this paradigm. These figures are thus flawed and should be interpreted carefully.

[15] Interestingly, a survey conducted by French polling institute Ipsos Mori found that French people thought Muslims made up a whopping 23% of the national population (source: http://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2015/01/21/que-pese-l-islam-en-france_4559859_4355770.html).

[16] No, not that dreadful Ashton Kutcher movie.

[17] Figures provided by the Pew Research Center: http://www.pewforum.org/2011/01/27/future-of-the-global-muslim-population-muslim-majority/

[18] Source: http://www.dawn.com/news/1035026

[19] Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/80/Islam_attitudes.png

[20] Source: http://www.arabnews.com/featured/news/692201?quicktabs_stat2=1

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