The religious and the secular came to a head at the offices of the newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris when Saïd Kouachi and Chérif Kouachi, French citizens of North African ancestry, armed with Kalashnikov rifles opened fire, killing 12 people and wounding 11 in an Islamist terror attack.
The attackers were heard shouting “Allahu akbar,” and “the Prophet has been avenged.” Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper published weekly, produces satire in the form of caricatures, scrappy opinion pieces and jokes from a left-wing perspective.
Among the targets of its brand of satire are the three Abrahamic faiths: Roman Catholicism (Christianity), Islam and Judaism. The caricatures published in Charlie Hebdo quite often consist of crude representations of religious figures such as Pope Benedict and Mohammed. Not surprisingly, this offends many people and generates controversy.
The publishers of Charlie Hebdo were prepared to die to defend their right to freedom of expression; whereas, the Islamist attackers were prepared to kill to defend their faith. In the aftermath of the terror attack, differences of opinion concerning the right of freedom of expression and of religious liberty came to the fore. What was it that motivated the publishers of Charlie Hebdo and the Islamist attackers that resulted in this atrocity?
The French sociologist, Émile Durkheim, advanced the theory of the sacred and profane dichotomy in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, published in 1912. In short, Durkheim asserted:
Whether simple or complex, all known religious beliefs display a common feature: They presuppose a classification of the real or ideal things that men conceive of into two classes—two opposite genera—that are widely designated by two distinct terms, which the words profane and sacred translate fairly well. The division of the world into two domains, one containing all that is sacred and the other all this is profane—such is the distinctive trait of religious thought. (as cited in New Dictionary of the History of Ideas)
Durkheim viewed religion as purely a social phenomenon, that is, religion is not defined by the supernatural. Religious experience and practice is perfectly natural. Therefore, in Durkheim’s view of religion, as Robert Launay noted, “anything might be classified as sacred. What mattered was the social act of separation from the profane.” (New Dictionary of the History of Ideas)
French secularism, championed by the publishers of Charlie Hebdo, stems from the French Revolution. Prior to the revolution, the Roman Catholic Church was the largest landowner in France, and had taxing power in that it had the legal right to collect tithes. The Church was one of the institutions of the Old Regime and as such the revolutionaries set out to sweep it away along with the monarchy and the aristocracy.
Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) is the most recognizable figure associated with the Reign of Terror. Robespierre drew from the ideas of the Philosophes: Voltaire (1712-1778) and Diderot (1713-1784) are notable examples. While Voltaire was highly critical of the Church, he favoured religious tolerance, stating, “of all religions, the Christians should of course inspire the most tolerance, but until now Christians have been the most intolerant of all men”; whereas, Diderot asserted, “men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Robespierre was decidedly anti-clerical. Robespierre wanted to rid French society of Christianity and replace it with a civil religion he called the Cult of the Supreme Being.
In the present, religion remains part of French society, but Laïcité is enshrined in law. What this means, in brief, religion and the state are separate in French society, and all religions enjoy equal status in law. In 2004, in an effort to add clarity to laïcité the French government enacted the following legislation:
loi no 2004-228 du 15 mars 2004 encadrant, en application du principe de laïcité, le port de signes ou de tenues manifestant une appartenance religieuse dans les écoles, collèges et lycées publics” (literally “Law #2004-228 of March 15, 2004, concerning, as an application of the principle of the separation of church and state, the wearing of symbols or garb which show religious affiliation in public primary and secondary schools) (Wikipedia)
The law prohibits wearing of religious symbols in state schools. This includes the following: the yarmulke, turban, hijab, and wearing necklaces with Christian Crosses or Stars of David.
Secularism, freedom of expression and religious liberty is guaranteed in French law. In keeping with Durkheim’s understanding of the social act of the separation from the profane, it is in this context the publishers of Charlie Hebdo publish their scathing satire of religion and religious figures. They value secularism and freedom of expression, just as Islamists revere their Prophet and the truths they believe were revealed to him.
Some critics of Charlie Hebdo maintain their brand of satire goes too far, that it is an abuse of the right to freedom of expression and irresponsible. Indeed, in 2012 the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius criticized Charlie Hebdo for its provocation of Muslims, stating at a news conference, “we have to call on all to behave responsibly.” (as cited in the National Post) In response, Stephane Charbonnier, speaking on behalf of Charlie Hebdo, fired back: “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawing. I live under French law. I don’t live under Quranic law.” (as cited in CTV News)
Personally, the satire found on the pages of Charlie Hebdo does not suit my tastes. I find the caricatures crude and grotesque and not especially funny. That said, my response is to ignore them. Another suitable response for those who disapprove of their brand of satire is to criticize, even condemn them publicly, but frankly, those who disapprove of Charlie Hebdo are free to censure, but not censor its content.
If they think the content of Charlie Hebdo is libellous, they can take the publishers to court. In the last analysis, my sympathies rest with the publishers of Charlie Hebdo. They did not abuse their right of freedom of expression and to those who maintain they acted irresponsibly, the fact remains there is nothing to gain in trying to appease Islamists.