Charlie Hebdo's cartoons on Prophet Mohammad have France jostling between freedom of speech and Islamophobia

FP Staff
·7-min read

On 16 October, a French teen of Chechen origin tracked down a high school history teacher and brutally beheaded him in a street in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Saint-Honorine.

According to police officials, the suspect armed with a knife and an airsoft gun €" which fires plastic pellets €" was shot dead about 600 meters (yards) from where the male teacher was killed after he failed to respond to orders to put down his arms and acted in a threatening manner.

The teacher, Samuel Paty, had shown images mocking Prophet Mohammad in a lesson on freedom of expression.

The beheading is not the first incident of violence involving the Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the Prophet of Islam. The cartoons first appeared in a Danish daily, Jyllands-Posten. Charlie Hebdo reprinted them in 2006, angering Muslims in France and across the world.

According to a BBC report, the magazine's offices were fire-bombed in November 2011 when it published a provocative cartoon of Prophet Mohammad under the title "Charia Hebdo". In 2013, Charlie Hebdo published a special edition featuring the cartoons.

Two years later, in 2015, a group of gunmen attacked the newspaper's offices in Paris and massacred 12 people, including some of the country's most celebrated cartoonists.

"Charlie Hebdo is part of a venerable tradition in French journalism going back to the scandal sheets that denounced Marie-Antoinette in the run-up to the French Revolution. The tradition combines left-wing radicalism with a provocative scurrility that often borders on the obscene," the article said.

This year, as France began the trials for the 2015 attack amid the COVID-19 attack in September, Charlie Hebdo repubbed the caricatures of the prophet to underscore the right of freedom of expression.

Quickly, a teenager from Pakistan was arrested after stabbing two people with a meat cleaver outside the newspaper's former offices. They did not suffer threatening injuries. The 18-year-old told the police that he was upset over the caricatures.

French president Emmanuel Macron publicly denounced the teacher's beheading calling it an "Islamist terror attack", but cautioned its citizens not to be divided because that's 'what the extremists want.'

"We must stand all together as citizens," he said.

Notwithstanding Macron's call for unity, France has been jostling between freedom of expression and Islamophobia over the Charlie Hebdo caricatures ever since the magazine reprinted them in 2006.

In France, many citizens fiercely defend the laïcité €" French word for secularism that separates religion and the state in the country €" and see freedom of expression as absolute.

For many French citizens, the freedom to practice one's religion is just as important as another person's right to poke fun at it. Even if it's ribaldry that may be perceived as insulting €" such as the Charlie Hebdo caricatures of Prophet Mohammad.

For many among France's large Muslim community, however, laïcité has meant a lack of respect towards their beliefs.

Demonstrators hold placards reading "I am a teacher" during a demonstration in Paris in support of freedom of speech and to pay tribute to a French history teacher who was beheaded near Paris after discussing caricatures of Islam's Prophet Muhammad with his class. AP
Demonstrators hold placards reading "I am a teacher" during a demonstration in Paris in support of freedom of speech and to pay tribute to a French history teacher who was beheaded near Paris after discussing caricatures of Islam's Prophet Muhammad with his class. AP

Demonstrators hold placards reading "I am a teacher" during a demonstration in Paris in support of freedom of speech and to pay tribute to a French history teacher who was beheaded near Paris after discussing caricatures of Islam's Prophet Muhammad with his class. AP

Secularism in France

The French Constitution defines the state only as secular, but it doesn't delineate the boundaries of this secularism. And as a result, secularism in France appears to have evolved into a weapon to identify that which is French and hence accepted, and that which is "not French", and hence to be rejected.

According to an article in Times, the issue at hand is "how the country's 5.7 million Muslims €" the largest Muslim population in the European Union €" assimilate, or not, in a country whose constitution is based on an unyielding principle of secularism and which has seen multiple terrorist attacks by jihadists since 2015".

According to The Associated Press, before the recent beheading, the parent of a student had also filed a complaint against the teacher.

In a video posted recently on social media, a man describing himself as a father at the school said the teacher who was killed had recently shown an offensive image of a man and told students it was "the prophet of the Muslims".

"What was the message he wanted to send these children?... Why does a history teacher behave this way in front of 13-year-olds?" the man asked. He called on other angry parents to contact him, and relay the message.

The father has since then been sent to police custody. France's interior minister Gerald Darmanin accused him of launching a 'fatwa' against the school teacher.

Macron exploits beheading for politics

French president Macron, who is known to provoke outrage and is facing tough competition from the Marie Le Pen-led far-right National Rally, has been exploiting the beheading for political ends.

The beheading has also given him an opportunity to push new legislation strengthening the 1905 act on laïcité, allowing for closer scrutiny of schools and associations exclusively serving religious communities.

"Islam is a religion in crisis all over the world today, we don't see it only in our country," Macron said earlier this month.

The proposed bill, which would go to parliament early next year, would require all children from the age of three to attend French schools, and allow distance learning only for medical reasons. Associations, which receive state funding, would be made accountable for their spending, their sometimes invisible leaders and be forced to reimburse misused funds.

The proposed measures nevertheless address mosques, which Macron said are sometimes subject to hostile takeovers, as well as imams to keep houses of prayer and preachers out of the control of people who use religion for their own ends.

"In a few days, you can see radical Islamists...take control of associations (running mosques) and all their finances. That won't happen again," the French president had said.

Police crackdown

Three days after the beheading of the history teacher, French police swooped on radical Islamist groups across the country. They closed a prominent mosque for sharing the parent's video and carried out a mass expulsion of foreigners identified in government anti-terrorism files.

According to Agence France-Presse, Darmanin, a hard-liner who has been the public face of the government's crackdown, said the swoop on Islamist networks was designed to send a message that "enemies of the Republic" would not enjoy "a minute's respite".

"Fear is about to change sides," Macron had said during a meeting with key ministers last week. "Islamists should not be allowed sleep soundly in our country," he said.

Fear did indeed change sides. This time, innocent Muslim women bore the brunt.

Islamophobia in France

According to a report, earlier this week, two Muslim women were 'stabbed repeatedly' under the Eiffel Tower. The Paris Police arrested two white female suspects who allegedly shouted "dirty Arabs!" as they launched the attack.

According to a report in The New York Times, a complaint filed by the lawyer of the women who were attacked, the attackers also yelled slurs and telling them "go back home" and "this is not your home".

One of the survivors is suffering from a perforated lung, the report said,

Islamophobia in France, however, is older than these events. The country is home to some of the most well-known Islamophobic, racist writers including Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front (now known as National Rally) and Renaud Camus whose theory of Great Replacement inspired the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand that killed 50 Muslims.

Even the European New Right or Nouvelle Droite (ND), which repackages racism as blood and soil ethnonationalism, originated in France in the 1960s. Prior to this is the country's history of committing atrocities in Algeria and during its colonial era is well-known.

Two years before Charlie Hebdo would print these controversial caricatures of the Prophet of Islam, France had in 2004, already banned the Islamic headscarf in public. A year after the 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, it had banned the burkinis.

France has always wanted those not ethnically 'French' to reject their past, including their culture and beliefs, and be secular in the truest sense possible, so as to integrate with 'mainstream' society. For some, however, this only represents a new form of intolerance.

With inputs from agencies

Also See: Teacher in Paris suburb beheaded for discussing caricatures of Prophet Muhammad; Macron terms it 'Islamist terrorist attack'

France to take part in 'national cohesion' rallies following beheading of teacher in Paris

French govt claims two accused in teacher's beheading had issued 'fatwa' against victim; police raids 40 locations

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