Paris Shooting An Assault on Free Speech, Faculty Say

Experts on Islam, terrorism react to Wednesday's killing of 12

People in France show their solidarity after Wednesday's shooting. Photo by Dominique Faget/Getty Images
People in France show their solidarity after Wednesday's shooting. Photo by Dominique Faget/Getty Images

Wednesday's killing of 12 people at a French satirical magazine appeared to be more of an attack on free speech than it was about simply avenging Islam, Duke faculty experts said. 

"This attack is not about religion but about an ideology that claims religion in order to inhibit free speech, and that assaults or assassinates those who uphold it as a right in the democratic public square of urban communities, especially capital cities of Western Europe and North America," said Bruce Lawrence, a professor emeritus of Islamic Studies at Duke.

"To my mind, this is much less about religiosity than it is an assault on modern values of free speech and dissent, which fundamentalist ideologues reject, whether they reside in the Middle East or the West," added David Schanzer, a professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy.

Late Wednesday authorities were searching for three gunmen who reportedly wore hoods while bursting into the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The publication has a history of mocking Islam and other religions.

French President Francois Hollande said there was no doubt the killing was a terrorist attack "of exceptional barbarity," according to the BBC.

Schanzer said the shooting appears to be an act of terrorism. "In contrast to the recent incidents in Sydney and Ottawa, which appear to have been perpetrated by disturbed individuals lashing out violently, this incident has hallmarks of a much more planned and targeted terrorist attack," said Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, a collaboration between Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and RTI International.

Omid Safi, a professor of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, said the shooters' apparent claim to be "avenging the prophet" by killing magazine staff was misguided.

"Those who claim to defend the honor of the prophet would do well to actually study the life and teachings of the prophet, which put compassion and forgiveness of one’s enemies first," Safi said.

"Yes, this is partially about an ideological appropriation of religion and the issues of free speech, but it is free speech as applied disproportionately against a community that is racially, religiously and socioeconomically on the margins of French -- and many other European -- society. As such, to purely treat this as a freedom of speech issue without also dealing with the broader issues of xenophobia is missing the mark." 

Safi said the response to the Paris shooting should consist of not merely a "full-throated defense of freedom of speech," but also a renewed commitment to a robust and pluralistic democracy that encompasses marginalized communities.