Charlie Hebdo, Freedom of Expression and Its Limit

G20gdb3The January 7, 2015, attack on the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdoand the killing of eleven people has raised questions about universal values of human rights and freedom of expression, as well as religious blasphemy, since the attack was based on what some Muslims and others consider the mocking of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence, the questions about the French tradition of laïcité, which has a long history, as identity becomes significant to the discussion. One significant question is whether or not this tradition should be embodied in immigrants’ identity for them to be part of France. Following the attack, there is a movement supporting total freedom of expression as represented in the satirical cartoons found in Charlie Hebdousing the catchphrase “Jesuis Charlie” (I am Charlie).

In response to the movement, a French writer and long-time resident of Indonesia, Jean Couteau wrote a column entitled “Jesuis Charlie! Yes, but…” in a national newspaper, Kompas. Hence, Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies invited him to speak about it at its regular Wednesday forum on February 18, 2015.

Couteau explained the intellectual history of Charlie Hebdoto show how itis characterized by harsh criticism of social and political phenomena and how immigrants tend to oppose it. “Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine the purpose of which is to criticize any ‘power’ in social context, which really represents French tradition. It tends to be opposed to government, colonialism, religious intervention, and modern capitalism. It can be classified as at the far left of the political spectrum,” he explained. Its readers are multi-ethnicin background, such as French, Maghreb, and Jewish. However, this magazine is often sued in the court by Christians, Muslims, and members of the Jewish community, but it has always won. Then he came to the question, “Why is this magazine supported? Who supports it?” He contends that it is all about the freedom of expression, which is so much related to French intellectual history and that of Europe as well.

j8aZ9LpDiscussing those questions, he explained the intellectual history of Europe. There was a period when religious absolutism existed in Europe in the sense that the church became an absolute power at that time. It decided everything regarding people’s lives. People were treated differently based on religion, ethnic, and race. However, the subjective-individual non-normative interpretation of the Bible emerged in 16th century, since printed media started to be used. It contributed to the Protestant reformation and Wars of Religion, until both the Catholics and Protestants reached a modus vivendi, leading to the emergence of “free choice” as a concept, in 17th century. Furthermore, in France between 1789 and 1799, the resistance towards Catholic hegemony emerged to free the individual from religious absolutism. Thus, the concept of citizenship based on nationality was constructed, the special right and discrimination based on social status, race, ethnicity, and religion were no longer accepted as inevitable or natural. The Declaration des Droits de l’Hommeet du Citoyen of 1789 declared certain rights as universal, contributing to the recognition of equal rights for minorities, such as Muslims, Jews, and others.

As Couteau contended that this action against religious absolutism was what led minorities in French to be equally recognized as citizens, there is no systematical discrimination as what happened before the revolution. He added that if there was no revolution, there would be no minorities in France. This is the root of French tradition embodied in the way in which Charlie Hebdocriticizes certain powerful ideologies and figures. “You can attack the opinion and idea, yet you cannot attack a people,” he said. However, the immigrants coming in the next centuries are not ready for this tradition, leading to cultural misunderstandings. They presume Charlie Hebdo is attacking the people, when it sees itself as, in fact, attacking ideology. They presume Charlie Hebdo’s satire on religious ideology, which often includes negative representations of the Prophet, means attacking Muslims.

berBernard Adeney-Risakotta of ICRCS raised the question whether the West can construct universal definitions of freedom and of blasphemy. It is very important since we live in a pluralistic society where our neighbor might see what we do as blasphemy. The more our society is plural, the more we need to listen to other views, he said. What we call freedom of expression always has limits. In reaction to this, Couteau emphasized that the meaning blasphemy changes shapes from time to time based on the context of society. He then took an example of a sewage hauling company in Bali fifteen years ago that was named “Vishnu” like the Hindu god. This would not happen nowadays, because it would be considered blasphemy. “So where does blasphemy come from?” he asked. It is shaped over time based on context. “We are witnessing things, including identities, changing over time,” he added.

Moreover, this discussion raised the question of identity. Hary, a CRCS student, asked whether French tradition of laïcité and critical opposition to religious absolutism must be embraced by the new immigrants to France or does to be part of France mean to embrace this tradition? If not, will the immigrants take the risk of being excluded from France? Couteau explained that neither ethnic origins nor religious identity of immigrants are counted in the census. One concept that has been negotiated is the notion of communitarianism, meaning that the immigrants should embrace the values of the French republic in order to integrate into French society. He further explained, as an example, why religious symbols are banned in public schools. In short, each cannot show his or her religious identity since we live with different people. If we do show our differences, it will lead to disintegration because each sees the other as different. In the Indonesian context, he explained, you cannot emphasize either Muslim or Hindu identity because the country will not survive. If national identity comes first then the country survives.


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