Section: Opinion

To be or not to be Charlie

By Mort Guiney

Last Friday in Peirce Lounge my colleague, [Assistant Professor of French] Pierre Dairon, organized an informal public discussion, in which I was glad to participate, on the recent terrorist attacks in France. The students, faculty members and other community members who attended asked questions and made comments that placed the spotlight squarely on some of the most intractable problems facing French society and the rest of the world. For example, why did the 2,000 deaths at the hands of Boko Haram in Nigeria, which happened in the same week, receive so much less media attention than the 17 deaths in Paris, horrible as those were? Do the constant descriptions of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo killings as a conflict between radical Islam and freedom of speech hide more fundamental social, economic and political issues? What changes, revolutionary or evolutionary, must happen in French society to guard against future events of this kind? What about in the rest of the world?

We discussed the fact that France, unlike the United States, has laws forbidding speech that constitutes “public incitement to racial hatred.” Is it therefore hypocritical for its government to defend attacks on specific religions, such as the publication of satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad that many people consider to be expressions of precisely such hatred? A law passed in 2004 prevents women from wearing the traditional Muslim headscarf, or hijab, while in a public school, on the principle that a secular society cannot tolerate “ostentatious” signs of religious faith inside the space where initiation into citizenship is supposed to occur. Is that a good way to create a national community, or does it only produce even more alienation and resentment?

We will never know what influence current French laws may have had on the three men who murdered 11 Charlie Hebdo staff members, two policemen and four shoppers at a kosher supermarket. We do know, however, that close to 10 percent of French citizens identify as Muslim. On average, they are significantly worse off economically and socially than the other 90 percent, and they make up 60 percent of the prison population (“Charlie Hebdo and Free Expression,” The New York Times, Jan. 19, 2015). These statistics should sound familiar in an American society that falls short of its own ideals of liberty and equal opportunity. The bloodshed in Paris on January 7 may have been caused in small part by a disagreement over what constitutes freedom of expression, but more importantly, it is the symptom of a much larger and more complex global crisis. To declare “I am Charlie”, or “I am Ahmed” (in honor of the slain Muslim policeman who was assigned to protect the Charlie Hebdo office after it was firebombed several years ago), is perhaps a recognition of that fact, in addition to being a simple, straightforward expression of human empathy for the victims. Let’s hope that people also see it as a call for the kind of thoughtful, inquiring spirit that characterized last week’s discussion.

Mort Guiney is a professor of French. Contact him at


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