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After Charlie Hebdo: Faculty Discuss the Challenge to Freedom of Expression

jesuis charlie

A sign of solidarity at Duke's Center for French and Francophone Studies.

Expressing solidarity with those killed at France's Charlie Hebdo magazine and the aftermath is an easy step. More challenging, Duke faculty say, is making sense of these events, and figuring out what to do next to protect free speech and change the transition from alienation to violence.

Are the attacks a sign that French Arab and Muslim youth are so cut off from the principles of social critique, public order and religious community that they target people representing these principles? Was the French outrage a desperate response to the unequal value of Muslim lives in France and elsewhere?

Duke faculty and students joined a visiting French scholar and members of the public recently for a panel discussion last week sponsored by the Forum for Scholars and Publics. The pain of the Charlie Hebdo attacks remains palpable, but the vigorous debate explored many layers of the tests facing France and policymakers worldwide in the aftermath.

Leading the discussion were Helen Solterer, professor of Romance Studies and director of Center for French and Francophone Studies; Omid Safi, professor and director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center; and Céline Flécheux, professor of Visual Studies at the Université de Paris VII-Diderot.

Phillippe Lancon

One of Duke's own was shot in the Charlie Hebdo editorial room earlier this month.  Literary critic Philippe Lançon had been a media fellow at the Sanford School's Dewitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy on campus, and was invited back in the spring of 2010 to teach “French Short Fiction” and “Literature and Politics” in the Department of Romance Studies. 

Lançon survived the attack, and his Duke colleagues mobilized to express their support for him on the Website of the Center for French and Francophone Studies.  The course: "Franco-American History of Free Speech," taught by center director Helen Solterer, which began the day after the attack, was dedicated to him.

A week after the attacks, Lançon wrote in his newspaper, Liberation: “I wanted to tell you just this: if there’s one thing this attack has taught me and made me hold onto, it’s the reason why I work for these two papers: in a spirit of freedom and the desire to show it, in information and drawing, in good company, in every possible way, even in ways that don’t work. … It’ll take me a little time, and some rehab before I laugh again – my jaw is more fragile than my heart, but I’ll get there.” 

Flécheux was in Paris during the attacks and spoke to the deep pain felt throughout the country. She showed a variety of creative responses from the march that mobilized millions, including the now famous declaration of identity – “Je Suis Charlie” and a crying Charlie Brown, the cartoon character who had inspired the French journalists.   Flécheux discussed how Charlie Hebdo – even in its over-the-top style, was a deep part of childhood for many in France.  It was difficult to explain to her young children why people would want to kill cartoonists, she said.

Charlie Hebdo is part of a distinctively French tradition, Flécheux added.

"In France there is a political tradition of cartoon in journalism," she said. "It is an important way of countering all types of power in the state.  This is an Enlightenment heritage, and its core principle of tolerance, including religious tolerance."

Solterer, who is teaching a class on free speech, focused on the value of "critique" as a baseline of free expression. A country that battled theocracy for centuries to establish a secular republic, France believes deeply in the critique of religion. 

Charlie Hebdo’s provocative style has triggered anger for years. 

“But this is equal-opportunity offensiveness,” Solterer said.  "The magazine lampoons aspects of Catholicism and Judaism, as well as of race and gender just as frequently as those of Islam.  Its cartoon characters spoof ideas rather than the individuals representing them."

Solterer spoke of the French concept of “laïcité,” which provides a framework that supports the journalists’ right of critique since the separation of church and state became French law in 1905.   "A political practice and a state of mind, the French brand of secularism goes a long way in explaining why identity politics doesn’t work there," Solterer said.  "Identities in the public sphere are understood not as an expression of citizenship, but as a compromise or even resistance to it.  In order to respect all identities in the Republic, all religious ones for example, none is given a place in the public domain."

But Solterer also pointed to the difficult position of many French Arabs, West Africans and immigrants from former colonies.  Their living and working conditions are poor; their rates of incarceration high. 

“This situation demands our attention and critique,” she said.

At the same time, she underlined the tragedy of young men taken by an ideology that perverts religious terms to authorize self-destructive violence – what Franco-Lebanese writer, Amin Maalouf, calls “murderous identities.”

Safi denounced the killings but asked the audience to raise questions about what he felt was selective outrage. The same week as the Paris shootings, 37 Yemeni civilians were killed by an armed group and Nigerian rebel group Boko Haram swept through rural communities, killing as many as 2000 people. Neither attracted demonstrations from world leaders. 

Satire is not foreign to Arab or Islamic culture, which has a long legacy of political humor that often puts its,artists at great legal or personal risk. This is heroic work, he said. The difference from the Hebdo cartoons is that too often the French artists directed their humor at stereotypes that supported the marginalization of Arabs in French culture.

"Good satire is in unmasking power," Safi said. "When satirists target the disenfranchised or people of color, I find it to be bullying." 

The "Je Suis Charlie" exasperated the tension by forcing Muslims not just to support the right of Charlie Hebdo to free speech but also to live with the offensive cartoons, he said.

"Muslims will support the right of the artists to do this," he said, "but don't expect them to support the contents of the cartoons."