THE LINE BETWEEN FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND HATE: Unpacking Recent Tensions in France

Dr William Barylo

Following President Macron’s call last month to fix the global ‘crisis’ with Islam and labelling of Muslims as ‘enemies of the Republic,’ France has ignited the ire of Muslim societies across the globe. Like any declaration targeting Muslims, such words bear severe consequences for local Muslims, with spikes in anti-Muslim incidents and crimes.1

However, the spectacle of the French government targeting Muslims is only the unfolding of a well-rehearsed pre-election act where the President has to contend with the Front National far-right party and try to earn votes mostly receptive to xenophobic, racist and Islamophobic narratives.

When put in perspective with France’s colonial past, the current narrative around Muslims is nothing new. France’s approach to citizenship is articulated from the perspective of assimilation: French citizens are equal in rights and duties, but should also be equal in public appearance and behaviour. The assimilationist school of thought argues that French society should be a homogeneous entity where no one should stand out by their political choices or their cultural and religious heritage.

Beyond wars and massacres, France’s colonial project would use psychological weapons aimed at making the colonised assimilate. A historical example resides in the 1958 campaigns in Algeria encouraging women to remove their hijabs, which comprised mass ‘unveiling’ public ceremonies.2 Is this not a coincidence that the term ‘Islamophobia’ was coined as early as 1918 by a French painter3 analysing orientalist trends in the arts? The remnants of this colonial legacy are still vivid as their lineage has birthed the contemporary laws banning the hijab from public schools in 2004, and the niqab from public spaces, in 2010. Furthermore, this colonial dichotomy between the ‘Republic’ and ‘Islam’ has imprisoned not only politics but the French media and even academia in seeing Muslims as the ultimate ‘other’ – only worthy of analysis from the perspective of immigration, poverty, violence and their ability to be ‘compatible’ with the French ‘Republic’ as the beacon for European civilisation. Again, Macron’s speech is nothing new; on 26th July 1806, French Emperor Napoléon attempted to ‘regenerate’ Judaism and make it ‘compatible’ with the Empire.

It is important to understand that the current policies and discourses against Muslims have nothing to do with secularism. Renowned academics such as historians Emile Poulat and Jean Baubérot4 (since then dismissed as ‘leftists’) have stressed in multiple volumes how the original French laïcité (initially the mere separation between religious authorities and the executive) has been hijacked to be used as a tool for the exclusion of religious visibility in public spaces. Since 9/11, laïcité has been distorted and summoned as a means to implement the same assimilationist agenda, which prevailed in the colonial era. The matter is quite similar to Charlie Hebdo: it is not a matter of freedom of speech.

Since the pre-Revolution Lumières era (the French Enlightenment), satire was used to critique, ridicule and point fingers at the paradoxes of people in positions of power. However, in the case of Charlie Hebdo, attacking minorities under fire, does not fit into this historical tradition of satire. The magazine has a long history of caricatures of Jews and Jewishness,5 and even disabled people,6 but is, however, perceived by the establishment as an anti-racist outlet. When the magazine depicted French Black MP Christiane Taubira as an ape,7 the magazine was cleared from any wrongdoings. Challenged several times by anti-racist organisations, Charlie Hebdo has escaped condemnations (when other outlets were condemned while using similar comparisons and techniques), arguing that its satire is a sort of caricature within the caricature. Charlie Hebdo’s argument is that it is offering a ‘ridiculing window right into the psyche of a Front National (…) voter’.8

This approach highlights the contentions with the very French matter of what is known as ‘third degree humour’, it tells facts from the perspective of the target to criticise them – in a similar way that Sacha Baron Cohen, through the caricatural character of Borat, holds a critical mirror to U.S. American society. With Borat, the target is not Kazakhstan, but the U.S.; similarly, Charlie Hebdo argues that its targets are not Muslims but the far-right and the establishment. While Borat could be perceived as an offensive stereotype of a Kazakh journalist, as an outsider oblivious to American social cues, he uses his freedom-to-offend as a medium for revealing America’s paradoxes. However, not everyone understands the joke,9 which works as a harmful double-edged sword. In the words of Aizada Arystanbek, ‘Borat alone is not responsible for people being racist towards Kazakhstani migrants, but it gives a lot of people a comfortable instrument to use against us.’10 Therefore, Charlie Hebdo, lacking any context and pointers to make its satire understood, in a similar way to Borat, gives people instruments and weapons to use against Muslims, under the cover of freedom of speech – with the consequences we are now witnessing in France and worldwide.

Until 2020, President Macron did not care about Muslims or Islam at all; the themes were largely absent from the government’s discourse; the president even called colonisation a ‘crime against humanity’.11 However, as a neoliberal politician, the French president is first and foremost a pragmatist. Attacks against Muslims have become part of a notorious French tradition in the run up to any election. Under the cover of attacking ‘religious extremism’, anti-racist organisations have since long understood that between the lines, this attack is against the visibility of ordinary Muslims in the public sphere – a theme dear to far-right voters. Ahead of a looming economic crisis bubble inflated by rounds of redundancies and business closures, the government needs to score points. At times when the French far-right discusses a potential ‘Frexit’ along the same conservative narratives as in the UK, the government understands the need to become bolder at hunting votes in Front National territories, in fear of a repeat of the 2017 election scenario.

In turn, the political mainstream in France edges dangerously to the far-right. Is a far-right takeover scenario possible in France? The dynamics observed from Poland to Hungary, including Trump’s victory in 2016 and the Brexit referendum all point to the inevitable: whether it will come from a Front National victory or a radicalisation of the current government, the question is when?

Muslim charities are being shut down without due process and houses raided by the police, in a repeat of the 2015 State of Emergency, all too reminiscent of the World War II Vichy era when the police would raid houses in search of Jewish families. Despite recursive (but merely symbolic) condemnations by European and United Nations Human Rights bodies for its treatment of minorities,12 France’s policies and discourses become increasingly oppressive. While some organisations such as the recently closed Barakacity are turning to Turkey in search of political asylum and the CCIF (Collective Against Islamophobia in France) is looking forward to expanding internationally, the key question is about the future of all the many ordinary Muslim citizens who are sandwiched between political wrestling matches and an increasingly racially polarised society, and are left to organise by themselves their struggle for liberation. Soon after Macron’s declarations, numerous heads of state including Pakistan and Turkey, pointed at the president’s dangerous game of dividing society by attacking Islam instead of focusing on terrorists13 and backed the grassroots-driven boycott of French products.

With European organisations looking to the East in search of safe havens and Muslim countries holding the former imperial power to account with unprecedented strong messaging; what does the future hold for European Muslims? Are we witnessing the planting of seeds of future pan-Islamic international collaborations where countries like Turkey, Pakistan or Malaysia emerge as beacons of safety for European Muslims? If so, France’s divisive policies and narratives would only have resulted, ironically, in what they were trying so hard to prevent.

1. Dearden, Lizzie. The Independent. Islamophobic incidents rose 375% after Boris Johnson compared Muslim women to ‘letterboxes’, figures show. 2 Sep 2019.  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/boris-johnson-muslim-women-letterboxes-burqa-islamphobia-rise-a9088476.html

2. Falecka, Katarzyna. From colonial Algeria to modern day Europe, the Muslim veil remains an ideological battleground. The Conversation. 2017. https://theconversation.com/from-colonial-algeria-to-modern-day-europe-the-muslim-veil-remains-an-ideological-battleground-70242

McMaster, Neil (2012). Burning the veil: the Algerian war and the ’emancipation’ of Muslim women, pp.1954–62. Manchester University Press (2012)

3. Dinet, Alphonse Étienne; ben Ibrahim, Sliman (1918). La Vie de Mohammed, Prophète d’Allah. Paris. cited from Otterbeck, Jonas; Bevelander, Pieter (2006). Islamofobi  – en studie av begreppet, ungdomars attityder och unga muslimars utsatthet (PDF) (in Swedish). Anders Lange. Stockholm: Forum för levande historia. ISBN 978-91-976073-6-0. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 January 2012. “Modern orientalists [are partially] influenced by an islamofobia, which is poorly reconciled with science and hardly worthy of our time”

4. Baubérot, J. (2006). L’Intégrisme Républicain contre la Laïcité [The Republican Fundamentalism against Secularism]. Paris: L’Aube.

5. Granat, Alain. Quand Charlie Hebdo fait ses couvertures sur les Juifs et Israël. Jewpop 17 October 2020.  https://jewpop.com/opinions/charlie-hebdo-couvertures-juifs-israel/

6. Handicap.fr. Morano bébé trisomique: une association à nouveau déboutée [Down syndrome baby caricature : an organisation loses the case again]. https://informations.handicap.fr/a-charlie-hebdo-trisomie-10364.php

7. Beauchamp, Zack. A new website explains Charlie Hebdo cartoons for Americans. Vox. 14 January 2015. https://www.vox.com/2015/1/14/7546903/understanding-charlie-hebdo

8. Understanding Charlie Hebdo. Islamophobia Satire. 2 March 2017. http://www.understandingcharliehebdo.com/

9. Askarbekov, Yerlan. What Kazakhstan really thought of Borat. BBC. 28 Oct 2016.
https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20161028-what-kazakhstan-really-thought-of-borat

10. Arystanbek, Aizada. Borat profits from Kazakhstan’s name, we don’t. Open Democracy 28 October 2020. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/borat-profits-from-kazakhstans-name-we-dont/

11. https://www.france24.com/en/20170216-france-presidential-hopeful-macron-describes-colonisation-algeria-crime-against-humanity

12. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23750/ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16547479https://www.france24.com/en/20200702-european-court-of-human-rights-condemns-france-over-inhuman-living-conditions-for-asylum-seekers

13. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/26/whats-behind-the-middle-east-boycott-of-french-products


Author

Dr William Barylo

Dr William Barylo is a researcher in Sociology at the University of Warwick. He looks at how young Muslims in Europe and North America navigate race, class and gender barriers from a decolonial and restorative perspective. He is an awarded photographer and film-maker, having directed the documentary ‘Polish Muslims: an unexpected meeting‘ and the author of Young Muslim Change-Makers: Grassroots Charities Rethinking Modern Societies. (Routledge).


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