Charlie Hebdo: An International Conversation on Terrorism, Appropriation, and Free Speech

Update: I went home for winter break and am back in Rome now.   Right now, I am trying to get a sense of processes that might be involved in bias against disability and disease. At this stage I am doing psychological work, so I can use that to develop theories about what might be going on in the brain.


One of my most striking memories from Italy so far is the incident where the muslim man was struck, in the hospital. Also, in France I lived in a neighborhood where there were (based on women’s fashion choices) there were a lot of muslims. While the outfits women wore were clearly muslim, they didn’t fit with my idea of what that meant. Once I saw a woman with a matching tiger print hijab and kaftan and another time I saw a woman in a (again matching) purple hijab and kaftan, covered in rhinestone studs! Big hoop earrings that stuck out of the hijab, were also very popular.

This is despite the fact that headscarves are banned in schools and the work place. I read about these laws, before I came to France. From my American perspective the banning of headscarves seemed extremely intolerant and somewhat shocking. I can see how you might want to call attention to something important to your culture that has been repressed in your current country.

Something else I found extreme and shocking was the intensity of the anger at Charlie Hebdo coming from Pakistan. The headscarf ban and the muslim man in the Roman hospital made me wonder how much colonialism and oppression had to do with the level of anger. That may be true, but while looking into this, I learned a lot more…


In conservative Islam, visual depictions of human and natural forms are prohibited by Hadith or prophetic traditions. Sunni muslims believe pictures of important muslim figures should be prohibited and are particularly sensitive about pictures of Muhammad. Among Shia Muslims images of the Prophet are quite common.


Since I’m not French or Muslim, I asked some friends for help.

Friend from Pakistan

First is a friend from Pakistan, who is studying in Europe.

Why do people have to exercise their freedom by hurting?… From my point of view, there should be a law against Islamophobia and [phobia of] other religions too. 

Me: “I’m looking for information on how moderate and liberal muslims see visual portrayals Mohammed of the in the west. I am wondering if it might be like a white person wearing a Native American headdress in the states…” I also asked him to comment on French laws that negatively affect muslims, like the ban on head scarfs.


On the French Government. “You have to pay a big fine, if you are wearing a head scarf.  For me, it’s simply horrible… The french government [limits]… mosques in the french territory. Why is that so? Where is the freedom of speech now? [see also]”

On blaming all muslims for terrorism. “There are 50,000 terrorists in this world and the number of muslims in the whole world are something like 8 billion. Is it fair to blame everyone for crime they never committed?”

On free speech. “As you already know that Holocaust has been given official status in many countries. It means that you can’t say anything about it else you will end up in jail. I truly believe that we should accept the reality of holocaust as it was the tragedy… Denying it hurts the Jews.”

So why do the people really have to draw the cartoons of our beloved Prophet (P. B. U. H). The muslims are not allowed to draw or even compare our Prophet (P. B. U. H) with any other human beings. Its our religious belief. Why do people have to exercise their freedom by hurting? From my point of view, there should be a law against Islamophobia and [phobia of] other religions too.”

Ethnically French friend, whose family lives in Switzerland

What we call “free speech” concerns the tradition we’ve always had to say everything we want even if you’re mocking someone/something

Me: “I’m trying to figure out what free speech means to the French…I’ve heard Charlie Hebdo criticize US news organizations for inhibiting free speech, by not showing the images of Mohammed, saying that they were inhibiting free speech, but this makes no sense from an US perspective, because these organizations are private not government-owned. Also would you consider the laws that banned head-scarves in schools an infringement on free speech?”

Friend: “First of all, in France we don’t rely on “law amendments” to define how things are, it’s more cultural. What we call “free speech” concerns the tradition  we’ve always had to say everything we want even if you’re mocking someone/something…

The ban of head scarves is a different thing. The French state is secular. So at school (public institution) you are not supposed to show any sign of partnership to a religion. Private schools on contrary can do whatever they want.”

Cambodian Second Generation French Friend

I agree, pictures or drawings of the Prophet are forbidden in Islam so satiric cartoons representing the prophet can be considered offending for Muslims. But it is satire, right?

Me: [Same as what I wrote to my ethnically French friend, whose family lives in Switzerland].


On Free Speech. “Newspapers got freedom of the press -> “liberté de la presse” in French. In addition, every citizen has freedom of thought -> “liberté d’expression”… French schools are neutral toward religion. The exact term is laïcité (freedom of belief). That means equal treatment of every religious belief in school. There is also freedom of opinion: liberté d’opinion et de croyance (everyone is free to have or not have any religious opinion).

I agree, pictures or drawings of the Prophet are forbidden in Islam so satiric cartoons representing the prophet can be considered offending for Muslims. But it is satire, right ? This humor is provocative, by definition. As good satiric journalists, I guess they knew where to draw the line between humor and offense. If people could overcome race and nationalistic prejudices, then the world would breathe more freely.”

On head scarfs. “A massive cross necklace or a yamaka would be banned too… School is a neutral place towards religion… So it’s normal to me that pupils should remove their headscarves in school… The tricky point is that the students may consider that wearing theses headscarves is a right given by their freedom of belief. Therefore, forcing them to remove it in school is violating this right. That’s tricky.

Generally, if the headscarf is not too visible… the teacher will make no comment about it… A similar kind of controversy happened on pork-free meals for school meals at the cafeteria. Normally, it’s not something the school should take care of. But in reality, they often offer an alternative.”


We all come to these conversations with our own set of cultural biases (myself included). My friend from Pakistan sent me sent me this article from Israel. It stuck me how offense was taken at cartoons mocking “fundamentalists”. To me the term “Fundamentalist Islam” is synonymous with terrorism. As a very liberal Christian (Christian and Buddhist path Unitarian Universalist to be exact), I am not threatened by slurs against Fundamentalist Christians, so this was confusing. However, I’ve never been oppressed for being a Christian. Slurs about fundamentalist muslims are related to oppression of muslims.

The Israeli article my friend sent me ends with a call for free speech and rational criticism. The idea that criticism and censorship are not the same is familiar to feminists. It’s possible to condemn the attacks in Paris and suggest that the west isn’t the most welcoming place for muslims.

On the US’s Martin Luther King day, in Germany, 18,000 attended rallies organized by “Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization” (essentially an anti-muslim immigrant hate group) in Dresden. That’s scary! Meanwhile, in france an eight year old was arrested and as of January 20th over 100 anti-muslim incidents were reported within just 12 days.

My French friend of Cambodian extract also had this to add:

As a French girl from foreign origin, I know that in France I will never be considered equal as a French girl with French roots. If I apply for a job, for example. The exact term is “chauvinisme” (derived from the Latin word for bald ) But I will be treated equally because I’m a French citizen.

In 2011, Anders Breivik a far right Zionist Norwegian Christian, with an islomophobic agenda, set off a bomb amid government buildings in Oslo and then gunned down dozens of people in Utøya.  Recalling this incident a recent guardian article says of the Charlie Hebdo shootings:

Vengeance and hatred directed at Muslims as a whole serves Islamic fundamentalists well. They want Muslims to feel hated, targeted and discriminated against, because it increases the potential well of support for their cause. Already, there are multiple reports of attacks in France against mosques, and even a “criminal explosion” in a kebab shop. These are not just disgraceful, hateful acts. Those responsible are sticking to the script of the perpetrators. They are themselves de facto recruiting sergeants for terrorists.

The Guardian also correctly points out that most victims of Islamic extremists are Muslims. Including Ahmed Merabet, the officer killed at Charlie Hebdo.

After the Norway attacks the Norwegian Prime Minister said “Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity”. Also on this past Martin Luther King day,  10,000 people attended counter protests in Germany. When a bunch of islamophobic bus ads appeared in San Francisco someone went around defacing them with images of Marvel muslim superharoine Kamala Khan. The point of this isn’t to say “not all westerners” to  recent islomophobia. The point here is that western countries can do better.

Further Reading:

Hook-nosed Jew vs. Mohammed cartoons: What’s the difference?

Muslims React to new Charlie Hebdo cover

France’s Prime Minister: “Ethnic Apartheid a reality in France” 

Muslims in France: “They say we’re not French”

Charlie Hebdo: Norway didn’t give in to Islamophobia, nor should France

When schoolgirls dream of jihad, society has a problem. Look at France.


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