Charlie Hebdo and the Problems with Laïcité

In its most recent editorial, Charlie Hebdo has demonstrated major flaws in the French doctrine of laïcité, or stringent secularism, by using hyperbolic language regarding secularism supposedly “being forced into retreat.” The signs of this regression are seen everywhere, with malevolent Muslim propagandists, niqab-clad Muslim women, and even halal bakers signifying a worrying trend. We are even told the Brussels Attacks occurred not because of foreign policy or social marginalization, even when conceded “experts” acknowledge such factors, but rather due to the inability to criticize religion, and that such attacks mark “the last phase of a process of cowing and silencing long in motion and on the widest possible scale.” Of course, to the extent that experts are contradicted and bakers are deemed blameworthy, we can confidently state Charlie Hebdo is mistaken.

Whilst the victims are mourned, we are warned about Tariq Ramadan, the noted Islamic studies professor, and believing Muslim, who recently spoke on Islam at Sciences-Po. For Hebdo, this is similar to  a “lecture by a Professor of Pies who is also a pie-maker”, as if the only people qualified to discuss Islam are non-Muslims. When a Muslim attempts to provide some clarity amidst confusion, it must be viewed with cynicism. Their criticisms of extremism appear to matter less. The Hebdo piece claims: “His task, under cover of debate, is to dissuade people from criticising his religion in any way.” Yet when Ramadan was asked about the insulting of Prophet Muhammad in an episode of South Park back in 2010, he did not call for censorship, and simply urged Muslims to “take a critical distance”. The day after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, he made it clear on Al Jazeera that the attacks were to be condemned, and expressed no support for censorship. Of course none of this applies, for Ramadan is taken to be duplicitous, and his success in sneakily undermining Europe is inevitable, for the: “political science students who listened to him last week will, once they have become journalists or local officials, not even dare to write nor say anything negative about Islam.” If that was the actual case, then one would need to explain why Marine Le Pen and the Front National enjoy a notable degree of support in France. If anything is made clear with the example of Ramadan, it is that attachment to strident secularity produces needless fears of a religious takeover, and religious communities by extension.

The editorial proceeds to highlight women who wear the niqab. It is suggested that these women are essentially oppressed in their separation from society, yet pointing this out remains prohibited. In reality, one might suggest that mention of the niqab is made far too often, and almost always in the context of being paradoxically banned in a supposedly liberal environment. Judgement is passed in a sarcastic tone: “So why go on whining about the wearing of the veil and pointing the finger of blame at these women? We should shut up, look elsewhere and move past all the street-insults and rumpus.” Hebdo appears to think that women who wear the niqab perform only one function apart from domesticity, which is to remind us of how religion must be unfairly protected from criticism. As we are told: “The role of these women, even if they are unaware of it, does not go beyond this.” Suffice it to say that Muslim women would give a different assessment of their situation. They would likely condemn a belligerent secularism which exhibits prejudice and excludes them. They would accept that engagement with French society is necessary, but that it must be willing to accept them also. If Muslim women are to be more visible in the workplace, for example, then the phenomenon of job discrimination toward Muslims would need to cease. Then comes the baker. He dares to pray and grow a beard as a Muslim rather than a hipster, which probably would have been fine. The fact that customers love his sandwiches is largely irrelevant on the basis that bacon and ham are off the menu. Hebdo cannot abide the prospect of Ramadan advising them to accept such a spectacle, though he probably would have emphasised the abundance of bacon/ham sandwich-selling bakeries instead. These continue to exist despite the presence of religious sentiments in France, and notions of declining secularity will appear exaggerated until reports emerge regarding the widespread Muslim takeovers of such establishments.

A flash of insight finally occurs when the editorial returns us to Brussels. Quite rightly, we are told about the typical terrorist aspirant who, for instance, has “never looked at the Qur’an in his life”, which is certainly a familiar tendency. Yet despite the ignorance of religion on the part of terrorists, Hebdo still holds that religion is a threat, and one that remains serious because of: “The fear of contradiction or objection. The aversion to causing controversy. The dread of being treated as an Islamophobe or being called racist.” At this point, the Hebdo piece becomes truly convoluted. If terrorists are not associated with religion, they why is it a threat? Because of women who wish to wear the niqab? Because of complimentary Muslim bakers? Is it Tariq Ramadan because of his opposing terrorist ideology whilst encouraging mutual understanding? One might add that in doing so, he routinely expresses the kind of criticism Hebdo claims is under threat. This also applies to Muslim scholars who condemned the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the Paris Attacks, and the most recent atrocities in Brussels. One could go further. What of the French journalist Nicolas Henin? He continues to speak against ISIS after his captivity, whilst offering valued insights in doing so. Lastly, what of the barrages of anti-Muslim abuse one can find both online and, regrettably, within France itself? According to the French organisation CCIF (Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France) there was a 500% increase in physical abuse against Muslims in the months following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but also a 100% increase in verbal abuse. Clearly expression is alive and well  in greater and lesser forms, both socially acceptable and legally invalid.

The Hebdo editorial is truly representative of the problems with laïcité as a doctrine. It produces reactionary and hyper-sensitive attitudes towards religion in the public sphere, such that even harmless displays of religiosity become unacceptable. Under the auspices of this same type of thinking, we hear of rising anti-Muslim sentiments and aversion toward refugees not only in France, but also across Europe. Irrespective of such a passionate ideology, we must remember that Muslims are not asking for much. A harmless niqabi here, or an affable baker there, or even a peace advocate somewhere else, should not be a cause for annoyance.

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