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Murders in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo trials: republican laïcité and polarization

By Yasemin Ural

Tout ça, pour ça (all this, just for that) was the frontline of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, as it republished the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed on 2 September 2020, the eve of the trial against the alleged accomplices of the attacks by Islamist gunmen in 2015 in Paris. The fourteen people are accused of helping brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi kill eleven cartoonist staff and a police officer at Hebdo’s offices on 7 January 2015, and of aiding Amedy Coulibaly in the murder of four civilians at a Jewish supermarket a day later. The trial has already been declared a historic one by the main media organs, in not only France but also European countries such as the UK, Germany and Spain. Many foreign journalists have been observing and reporting directly from the trial, which is going to adjudicate on the charges against the fourteen suspects, three of whom are thought to have fled to Syria to fight with jihadists and already killed during or after the war. Started during the international crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the court has been suspended because some suspects have tested positive for the virus.

The question of the emotionality of ‘Muslims’ has hitherto been a central subject not only of public debates but also academic works concerning blasphemy and freedom of speech. Within this framework, much has been written about the Muslim’s emotional reactions to the caricatures in forms of rage, hate, feelings of injury or in certain cases indifference. Yet, often the focus is exclusively on the generalised affects of ‘Muslims’, while the role and consequences of emotional charges within the majoritarian discourse are neglected in the analysis. Here, I argue that there is also a growing affectivity cultivated on the side of the republican laic authorities in France that bares dangers of stigmatising and racialising ‘the Muslim’ as an essential other. Without refuting the affective dimensions of Islamic radicalisation in France, I will concentrate instead on the affectivity of the republic that feeds into a rhetoric of war and polarisation while redefining the contours of its founding principle of laïcité.

France has been witnessing a resurgence of extremely violent attacks since the beginning of the Charlie Hebdo trial. In the face of these increasing Islamist attacks, the discursive and material response of the French Republic has correspondingly sharpened. Following the knife attacks in Paris in September 2020, the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, gave a speech on the fight against “Islamist separatism”, declaring Islam to be in crisis in the entire world and promising to strengthen “laïcité and consolidate republican principles”.1 Macron acknowledged the difficulties of the colonial past, discrimination, ghettoisation, and promised economic investment in the education of the pupils as a practical solution to separatism, while also underlining the importance of making the distinction between radical Islamism and Muslims. Yet, he did not define the borders of what exactly is considered to be “Islamist separatism” and “real” Islam. The measures to be taken are supposed to include a new law that enables prefects, namely the regional governors, to intervene and suspend the municipal agreements that accommodate religious nutrition restrictions in the cafeterias or gender segregation within swimming pools in order to maintain public order. In addition, any association, including sport associations, seeking a grant from the government or a local authority, will be expected to sign laïcité contracts.

The turning point, however, occurred on 16 October 2020 with the brutal assassination of Samuel Paty, a middle school geography teacher who was decapitated by an Islamist for showing the Mohammed cartoons during his class on freedom of expression. This event triggered an affective surge of a rhetoric of war, similar to that of the Global War on Terror following the September 11 attacks. Immediately after the incident, Macron said, “They shall not pass!” (“Ils ne passeront pas!, aka ¡No Pasarán!”), alluding to the famous speech by Spanish Communist politician Dolores Ibárruri calling for an armed resistance against fascist Franco. “We are at war against Islamist ideology”, declared Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin, who defined Islamicism as a form of 21st century fascism.2 In a TV discussion, former president François Hollande also repeated that “in the face of Islamist terrorism, we are in a long war”.3 In an interview, former prime minister Manuel Valls declared, “we are at war and this war will be long, difficult, murderous”.4

File:Rassemblement Samuel Paty le 18 oct 2020 Place de la République Paris pancarte.jpg
picture by Siren-Com, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The reaction to the assassination of Samuel Paty was not only symbolically but also emotionally charged. His funeral took place as a state ceremony in front of the main building of the University of Sorbonne, a symbolically and physically central place of republican education. He has been posthumously awarded the French Légion d’honneur, the highest order of military and civil merit. In his speech, President Macron depicted Samuel Paty as the embodiment of the Republic, promised to perpetuate his spirit every day in the classrooms in republican schools, and added: “We will not renounce caricatures, drawings, even if others are backing down”.5

The French and, more broadly, the international press were flooded with images of the decapitation of Paty by Abdullah Azonov as he had posted the head of the teacher on his Twitter account before being shot dead by the police. Even though the images were removed immediately from social media, they were strongly reminiscent of the bloody images created during the Syrian war, reinforcing the omnipresent rhetoric of war. The debate is taking place in an atmosphere which is highly emotionally-charged, and themes — such as terrorism, Islamism, Halal food or headscarf — that are interconnected, yet distinct tend to merge, reinforcing the feeling of confusion. Many prominent voices within the French public sphere say France is at war without necessarily taking the time to clearly identify the enemy. This becomes all the more problematic as most people agree that the enemy comes from within. The discourse of war creates a “we” that is necessarily opposed to a “they”, whose contours are yet to crystallise.

The brutal assassination immediately created national and international solidarity, demonstrated on the streets of Paris as well as on social media under the slogan “Je suis prof” (I am a teacher), referring to the famous “Je suis Charlie” slogan that emerged in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacres. Along with this solidarity mobilisation, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons have been projected onto governmental buildings in Montpellier and Toulouse. This projection, which Macron declared not to be a government policy later, led to an international crisis between France and Muslim countries, which castigated France for allowing such a move and called for a boycott of French products. People organised demonstrations in front of French embassies in many Muslim countries. The President of the Turkish Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, accused Macron of Islamophobia, saying, “he needs treatment on a mental level”.6 Following these incidents, Charlie Hebdo published a cartoon depicting Erdoğan in underwear lifting up the clothing of a hijabi woman to stare at her naked bottom while commenting on the Prophet. The incident sparked a diplomatic crisis between Paris and Ankara which has not completely ceased to this day. Nor have the knife attacks and random killings of civilians in France in the name of Islam. The most recent incident occurred in October in Nice, where a man murdered three people with a knife, beheading one, in the Notre Dame Church.

At the centre of all these events lies the virtually inexhaustible debate on the limits and conflict between the freedom of speech and the freedom of conscience, between secular and religious values, the sayable and unsayable, critique and insult. The questions surrounding the freedom of expression, art and blasphemy have a long history, not only for religious minorities but also within majoritarian religions. The intensive discussions on freedom of speech and blasphemy exclusively involving Islam, however, have a rather recent history, dating back to the Rushdie Affair in 1989. Although the three decades since have seen much ink (and blood) spilled on the topic, we seem to be living through an intensified déjà vu with a belligerent discourse that feeds into an already existing global war on terror. Yet, the omnipresent denomination of “war”, that reigns among not only politicians but also many journalists and public intellectuals, does create an atmosphere that demands an affective attachment to the republic and its “non-negotiable values”, without really defining its limits. The question of whether demanding separate hours for different sexes in swimming pools or Halal food at university cafeterias is already part of “Islamist separationism” remains open. Symbols merge, such as the caricatures on French flags during demonstrations. One is then either for or against the caricatures of Charlie Hebdo, which become an ultimate incarnation of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression for which already too many lives have been sacrificed. Within this framework, French Muslims are frequently appealed to publicly denounce the assassinations, this very appeal presupposing a possible sympathy for the murderers. Exceeding the borders of Muslimness and Islam, any critique addressed to the limits of freedom of speech becomes suspicious and inacceptable, reifying the borders between ‘us’ and ‘them’ on the one hand, and blurring the ones between nation and laïcité on the other.

picture by Siren-Com, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Especially anti-nationalist, left-wing politicians and intellectuals slip easily into the ‘them’, as they are frequently accused of flourishing anti-republican sentiments of Islamists. In an interview right after the assassination of Samuel Paty, Richard Malka, the lawyer of Charlie Hebdo, criticised the French people for having passed from republicanism to indigenism in the name of Islamophobia, which he described as “a weapon of mass destruction”. His rhetoric of war also reversed a formula originally employed by George W. Bush accusing Iraq of possessing “weapons of mass destruction” with the aim of justifying the Iraq War as part of a global War on Terror in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Malka also declared, “one cannot be Charlie and Obono at the same time” referring to the public controversy around a black member of the parliament, Danièle Obono. Obono came under harsh public attack after declaring in 2017 that she felt sorrow and devastation for the human beings assassinated during the Charlie Hebdo attacks but did not cry for Charlie Hebdo. We are, therefore, witnessing a strong politics of emotions that comes with an obligation of their public display.
picture by K.Suckz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The recent brutal killings create an atmosphere of constant suspicion and fear, where literally nobody thought to be in security and anybody can potentially be or become a terrorist. Yet, this potentiality of “could be victims” and “could be terrorists” is not distributed equally among citizens, and the perpetual demand to justify one’s loyalty to the republican values, especially laïcité, gains an emotional character. Within this affective turmoil, new terminologies gain prominence and acceptance such as Islamo-leftists (islamo-gauchistes), pointing to an alleged political alliance between leftists and Islamists. Islam gains such a central and determining role that the political polarisation reigns between those accused of Islamophobia and those accused of Islamo-leftism, rendering a thorough and constructive debate nearly impossible. Drawing on the current conjuncture, the right-wing spectrum of politics — not only in France but also in other European countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and UK — also benefit from these controversies that fit perfectly to their political agenda.

The deepening of the political cleavage, in a discursive form of a war between civilisations, benefits not only the nationalists and right-wing European politicians such as Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, or Geert Wilders but also nationalists and right-wing governments and politics in Muslim countries. Geert Wilders posted on Twitter one of the most (in)famous depictions of the Prophet, with a bomb on the head, within the Danish cartoon controversy from 2005 (the initial images reposted by Charlie Hebdo in 2012), while replacing the face with the face of Erdoğan entitled “terrorist”. The depictions by Charlie Hebdo and Geert Wilders of the Turkish president comply completely with the reigning rhetoric of Neo-Ottomanism that privileges an amalgam of nationalist and religious sentiments in Turkey. The hostile depictions feed into government narratives claiming that the Muslims are inherently different from the ‘Western World’ and remain the ultimate subalterns of the ongoing civilisational battle. They can be in power but they still are not able (İktidar olup da, müktedir olamamak), goes the argument. Within this discourse, the restoration of sovereignty is only possible through a complete rejection of foreign European moral values, particularly secularism, while turning to the origins of an imagined Turkish-Islamic cultural past.







On 11 december 2021 Yasemin Ural took part in a  discussion titled Islamist terror and police brutality: can France stop the cycle of viloence in the program To the point of where she further elaborated on the topic of her commentary: