To be or not to be Charlie. That is no longer the question. More than four months after the January 7 demonstrations, two sides are confronting each other to say what Charlie really is. For one side Charlie is a republican, defender of secularism and the right to commit blasphemy. For the other side Charlie is an Islamophobe hiding behind the Republic to stigmatize a section of the population (the thesis of the demographer and historian Emmanuel Todd in his latest essay). In her latest book “Eloge du blaspheme” (In Praise of Blasphemy), recently published by Grasset, the essayist Caroline Fourest, who worked for several years at Charlie Hebdo, responds to the accusations of Islamophobia brought against the drawings and warns against the perversion of secularism for cultural identity purposes.
You defend freedom of expression. Why has it become almost blasphemous to say “I am not Charlie”?
It is not a question of banning or censoring those who refuse to support the liberty of tone of cartoonists or the journalists murdered by terrorists, the meaning of “Je suis Charlie”. The question is: do we have the right to respond? It was already difficult enough, before the attacks, to hear people distorting the intention of the drawings, denying their context. But after the attacks it became extremely painful. I felt the need, a crazy urgency, to arm with words those trying to act as a shield against this confusion, and which can lead to murder.
The book begins with a sort of classification of the various ways of refusing to be Charlie. Not everyone shares the same motivation. There are some who, in good faith, failed to understand the importance of Luz’s cover “All is forgiven” one week after the massacre. There are artists who felt that it was “throwing fuel on the fire”. And then there are the adversaries, real and ideological, of the right to commit blasphemy and of secularism whenever it is a question of standing up to Muslim fundamentalists. People claiming to be anti-racist solely as an excuse accuse of racism those who defend the freedom to laugh at terrorism, on the pretext that Muslims are a minority in France. Except that these drawings do not make fun of Muslims. They make fun of those who persecute and deform Islam in order to dominate, intimidate and kill.
Wasn’t there a sanctification of Charlie after the attacks? Emmanuel Todd referred to January 11 as a “totalitarian flash”, Régis Debray spoke of a risk of “democratic Maccarthyism”…
These intellectuals have intellectualized the complete turnaround of the world today. Their clever words, sprinkled with theoretical snobbism, have led to a total reversl of responsibilities between the killer and the victim. Those who defend freedom in a pacific way are today the violent perpetrators, and those who seek to censor them or find extenuating circumstances for the killers are victims of intellectual terrorism, unbelievable. I admired Emmanuel Todd for his book le Destin des immigrés (1) (The Fate of Immigrants). But today I am wondering if his methodology, even back then, was reliable.
Instead of hiding behind a flawed scientific methodology, Emmanuel Todd should take responsibility for his controversial positions. Especially as we, on our side, do not have equal coverage to present our opinions in this debate. It is not these intellectuals who accuse the others of “Islamophobia” who need police protection. It is those who defend the right to commit blasphemy who have to work with a gun to their heads.
You indentify two anti-racist left wings, one of which is anti-secular…
Since September 11 2001, a certain left– sometimes referred to as the “Islamo-left” – has begun to view the world solely in terms of the risk of anti-Muslim racism, preferring to ignore the reality of fundamentalism and denying the rise of anti-Semitism. This left, either radical or confused, spends its life accusing those who defend a balanced vision of secularism, hard on fanatics and hard on racism, of being “Islamophobic”. These two dangers exist in our society and must be confronted. It is not by finding sociological excuses for those who become fanatics or terrorists that we shall reduce racism. Quite the opposite, this miserabilist talk pushes the French into the arms of Marine Le Pen. The only way to hold them back is by defending a left which is clear, unambiguous and not scared of calling a spade a spade.
Doesn’t your concern with the dangers of fundamentalism blind you to the reality of anti-Muslim racism?
If I were blinded by my work on fundamentalism I would not have resumed my work on the identitarian far right. Nor would I have denounced the xenophobic Front National’s power grab of secularism, nor pointed my finger at their racism in all my books and films.
I have always warned against misappropriating the concept of secularism to attack Islam, so much so that I have become a hate figure for groups like Riposte laïque (Secular riposte) or denounced as “Islamophile”, because I am against banning the veil in the street, banning veiled mothers from accompanying their children on school outings, or because I support the right to choose between vegetarian or meat menus in school cafeterias. I have never presented the danger of Muslim fundamentalism as an “invasive” danger nor given credence to an Islamist power grab in France. What does worry me, however, is that the actions of the Islamist far right are facilitating a nationalist, fascist and racist political power grab, because people are sickened by the cowardly double speak on fundamentalism and terrorism.
As it exists today, has secularism adjusted to the changes in society?
On the legislative level we have reached a fairly thorough and balanced form of secularism, but we must guard against regulating all debates over social issues with new laws. Since defending the law on religious symbols in schools in March 2004, it is now important to establish a compromise between what is asked of pupils and what is asked of parents, between what I referred to in La Dernière Utopie (2) (The final utopia) “les lieux de contrainte” (spaces which impose obligations), such as schools, and “lieux de liberté”, (free spaces) such as streets or businesses. On the streets, at home or in restaurants secularism cannot be invoked to impose a way of life, except in cases of public disorder such as the full face veil which hides a person’s identity. I am aware that some politicians are tempted to misappropriate the spirit of secularism and turn it into kind of ready-made dogma, but I fight against this.
Some consider that blaspheming against Islam humiliates the weak..
This is the reasoning put forward by a certain left wing, namely the “minority against the majority”, according to which it is only the religious majority in France which poses a problem of fundamentalism, for instance Christine Boutin, la Manif pour tous (Demonstration for All) and Christian fundamentalism. But as soon as fundamentalism comes from Islam, their rhetoric changes completely, and some on the left close their eyes. This practice of reducing Muslims to “society’s weak”, even when they are fundamentalist and want to dominate (women, homosexuals or Jews), is not only an exotic form of paternalism dripping with good intentions, but a form of essentialism which incorporates progressive Muslims (like an indigenous population which has to be protected) and the far right into the same “community”. For an anti-racist like myself, this is shocking. I judge people according to their way of thinking and not their religion.
As for the right to commit blasphemy, it is a right which protects us all, believers and non-believers alike. Without this right, religious taboos take precedence over everything else, the expression of a minority creed can be considered “blasphemous” by the majority religion, as in the case of Pakistan. Any debate then becomes impossible and we end up having to renounce our secularist democracy.
Compared to the rest of the world, France is in the minority in her defence of the right to commit blasphemy. Isn’t this a sign that the situation must evolve?
156 countries have laws against blasphemy. But just because we are in the minority does not mean we must refuse to defend our example. In today’s globalized world the most insignificant drawing or word can be taken out of context, its intention traduced, and delivered up to hysterical mobs on the other side of the world, mobs who don’t understand the language nor the sense of humour and most often haven’t even seen it! Does this mean we should stop speaking, drawing or fighting for more contextualized journalism?
We must work towards establishing regulations which provide a framework for the uncontrolled globalization of information. The giant information networks like Google and Facebook apply American criteria. In principle everything is authorized, but in reality they censor the slightest image of a breast or religion orientated drawings for fear of upsetting the leagues of virtue. On the other hand though, they incitation to race hate, homophobic hate, anti-Semitic hate to proliferate. Contrary to DailyMotion which regulates its content, there are videos on YouTube praising the Kouachi brothers. The major American social networks are in part responsible for the increase in verbal, and therefore physical, violence we see today. Even if it is a minority position, and still very French, I advocate total freedom for blasphemy, but not for incitation to hate or murder. That is the difference between Charlie Hebdo and Dieudonné.
Precisely, where is the limit between blasphemy and incitation to hate?
The difference is between making fun of terrorists and laughing along with them. Making fun of religion, fanatics, Al-Qaeda and ISIS, as Charlie Hebdo does, is part of the debate. In fact it provides the oxygen which allows us to distance ourselves from physical violence. But making fun of the extermination or a terrorist attack relativizes the horror of physical violence, which is the complete opposite. When Dieudonné makes fun of the Shoah, while deploring that journalists with Jewish names escaped, when he creates a party with a national socialist who makes an inverted Nazi salute in front of places where Jews were murdered, that is not comedy but far right incitation to race hate. We have to explain that to young people, who do not always understand the difference. One of the objectives of this book is also to provide teachers with arguments. Theirs is a huge mission, they must assist a generation in passing from an attitude of scepticism which can lead to conspiracy theories to a critical way of thinking, i.e. the spirit of the Enlightenment. Nothing is more urgent than this.
(1) Emmanuel Todd, “le Destin des immigrés”, (The Fate of Immigrants), Seuil, 1997.
(2) Caroline Fourest, “la Dernière Utopie”, (The Last Utopia), Grasset, 2009.
Anastasia VÉCRIN (Libération, 20 May 2015)
ELOGE DU BLASPHÈME (In Praise of Blasphemy), CAROLINE FOUREST aux éditions Grasset 17 €.