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Local Laughter, Global Polemics: Understanding Charlie Hebdo

This past Wednesday, February 18th, there was a discussion in JRC 101 about the recent events that occurred in France. In case you did not hear what happened: on January 7th, 2015, two armed men, understood to be Muslim extremists, stormed into the office of the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris and killed a total of 12 people, including two police officers. Charlie Hebdo, a local magazine that is infamous for their satirical cartoons, was the target of this attack.  Specifically, the publication has a history of poking fun at religion and politics.  There have also been other incidents related to religious intolerance in France since this attack.

A panel of members from Grinnell College and the community spoke about their opinions regarding issues of religion, tolerance, and freedom of speech and expression. This roundtable discussion was moderated by Professor David Harrison (French) and featured the following panel: Professor Jan Gross (French), Professor Katya Gibel Mevorach (Anthropology), Kamal Hammouda (Adjunct Religious Life Leader), and David Vauclair (visiting scholar from Paris). The various perspectives and backgrounds of these panel members provided a holistic view of the complex issues at play surrounding Charlie Hebdo and France as a whole. From this discussion, from reading various articles about this topic, and from speaking with family and friends, I have formulated a few thoughts of my own.

First, it is important to note that freedom of expression in France is different from here in the United States, especially with regards to what can and cannot be expressed via cartoons and other forms of art. I would like to make another note here: I am by no means an expert on the politics of Charlie Hebdo, its staff, or the French laws regarding freedom of expression. I do believe, however, that it is important to question when freedom of expression may or may not be going too far.

What I know is this: Charlie Hebdo is a publication that aims to provoke people and that touches on incredibly important, but also sensitive topics, often with quite shocking and appalling cartoons. For example, the magazine has, on multiple occasions, shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.  Not only is Muhammad an incredibly sacred figure in Islam, there is also the belief for Muslims that Muhammad should not be depicted because it encourages idolatry. Not only has Charlie Hebdo depicted Muhammad, but it has published nude and other derogatory caricatures of him, which many Muslims find particularly offensive and insulting. In my opinion, the magazine is neglecting a fundamental, baseline respect for religion. In this case, it denies basic respect for the Muslim population in France and across the globe.

While Charlie Hebdo claims to mock and criticize other religions as well as Islam, which is certainly does, there has been an overwhelmingly amount of deliberately anti-Islamic cartoons published.  Further, this advances the attacks on a community that is already increasingly marginalized.  The Muslim community in France, as relayed to us by Professor Jan Gross, is about 7.5%. While there is a significant number of Muslims living in the country, there are many xenophobic sentiments shrouding the community that have complex, colonial roots.

While I believe that we should criticize, question and challenge those institutions that we may disagree with, like religious and political bodies, which Charlie Hebdo undoubtedly does, I think that there are better ways to do so without attacking an entire community that has nothing to do with a few extremists. By doing so, I believe that there is a perpetuation of the stereotype that all Muslims are “terrorists” or “extremists”. As Adjunct Religious Life Leader Kamal Hammouda stated so eloquently during his discussion, “Terrorism and terrorists have no religion…they are fanatical”.

The issue of freedom of expression and religious intolerance are extraordinarily complex and are topics that I have truly struggled with throughout the process of gathering my thoughts and writing this article. The concerns that I have touched upon are only but a small part of my considerations about Charlie Hebdo and the question of freedom of expression.  I encourage you to research this issue more if you find it particularly interesting. There are various articles on the web that talk about these questions and topics.

I would like to leave you with this: while contemplating the subject of freedom in today’s world, I urge you to think about your own commitments regarding what constitutes freedom of expression for yourself and if there are things that you believe may be “crossing the line”.

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