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

On Thursday, three individuals have been stabbed to dying at a church in the French metropolis of Nice. While the investigation remains to be underway, French President Emmanuel Macron mentioned after the incident that the nation was beneath assault by “Islamist and terrorist madness.”

Thursday’s killings observe the murder on October 16 of Samuel Paty, a instructor in the northern Paris suburb of Éragny. He was beheaded after exhibiting cartoons printed in the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo depicting the Prophet Mohammed to college students in his class. An 18-year-old Chechen refugee admitted to the killing in a social media put up earlier than being shot useless by police.
The title Charlie Hebdo shall be acquainted to anybody who remembers the terror attacks that took place in 2015, when gunmen pressured their manner into the journal’s places of work in Paris and murdered 12 individuals. The attackers allegedly mentioned they have been avenging the Prophet Mohammed. Charlie Hebdo, a small journal identified for provocative and sometimes offensive photographs and articles, had printed caricatures of the Prophet in 2012. Many Muslims take into account photographs of the Prophet Mohammed to be extremely offensive.

The current assaults are reminders of the tensions in France’s secular society, which regularly extols the values of free speech and freedom to apply faith. France is dwelling to 5 million Muslims, a lot of whom dwell in poorer areas and are sometimes marginalized in politics and media. The overwhelming majority of these don’t help Islamic extremism, however usually face unfair stereotypes, specialists say.

“I believe there’s been an attempt to Islamize poverty in France by the far-right which had bled into mainstream politics and media, making people see crime in suburbs as a Muslim problem, rather than a socio-economic problem,” says Myriam Francois, a analysis affiliate at the Centre of Islamic Studies, SOAS, University of London. ”

The fact that there’s an audience for anti-Muslim rhetoric in the country will not come as news to anyone who remembers the French election of 2017, which came down to a second-round run-off between now-President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, who then led the far-right French National front.

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

Both far-right attitudes and France’s long tradition of secularism may play into decisions by public figures in French media and in politics to criticize Islam in sometimes sweeping and derisive ways. The University of Bath’s Aurelien Mondon, who specializes in right-wing populism, describes this as “punching down” on an already struggling minority.

“France has a lengthy historical past of satirical media, and it historically punches up as Charlie Hebdo as soon as did. In current years, it has began punching down, significantly when it comes to Muslims. When you do this in a nation the place there may be structural Islamophobia, there may be a actual danger to create extra stigma and exclusion,” says Mondon.

Mondon believes that some are misinterpreting France’s historic principle of secularism. “The regulation of 1905, which separated Church from state, clearly said you’d face penalties in the event you pressure somebody to observe a faith and equally in the event you forestall somebody from following their faith. In the context of recent France, what we’re seeing is the latter with ladies and ladies being pressured to take away their hijabs, niqabs and burqas.”

France has a long and cherished tradition of freedom of expression, and there can be no justification for attacking cartoonists or journalists for what they say or draw.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, many French people signaled their support for its unconditional exercise of free speech with the slogan #JeSuisCharlie. But hateful speech should not be mistaken as an integral part of French identity, says Francois. “It’s fully attainable to be horrified at the murders which have taken place whereas additionally believing what Charlie Hebdo does is offensive,” she says.

“The downside for France is when individuals begin pretending that Charlie Hebdo’s right to offend is a barometer of national id. It mainly prohibits a standpoint and implies that in the event you do not help Charlie Hebdo, you aren’t absolutely French.”

Things get even messier when the state appears to back a particular side. Macron has publicly supported Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish whatever it wants. The images Paty showed were in a class about freedom of expression backed by the French education system. And a Charlie Hebdo front page was projected onto public buildings in Toulouse and Montpellier, which both have substantial Muslim populations, last week.

Leaders in the Muslim world have also taken sides this time. Turkish President Erdogan has accused Macron of discriminating against Muslims, questioned if he needs “some form of psychological remedy” and encouraged a global boycott of French goods. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan also also accused Macron of attacking Islam.

A spokesperson at the Elysée Palace, home of the French presidency, told CNN that Erdogan’s attacks are “harmful in each manner.”

And that is the seemingly unimaginable downside France faces as soon as once more. On one hand, freedom of expression — even the right to offend — is a cornerstone of French society. On the different, when the state champions crude, provocative or hateful expressions of opinion, it dangers encouraging bias towards the majority of French Muslims, who aren’t extremists and don’t help terrorism.

Mondon says, “If we do not begin discussing the broader societal points going through France, we enable the narrative of two Frances: Muslims on one facet; French individuals on the different. And that form of division shouldn’t be solely incorrect however precisely what terrorists need.”

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