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The Risks of Siding With French Secularism

The National Front's defense of 'Charlie Hebdo' should make the mag's progressive American defenders wary

PASCAL GUYOT / Getty Images

In the past few weeks, the American literary elite have divided into two camps over the PEN America Center’s decision to give its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly whose staff was massacred by Muslim extremists in January. The battle features plenty of clashing literary egos, but at its heart is the question of free speech versus hate speech. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau, of "Doonesbury" fame, set the tone for the debate last month in The Atlantic: “Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it's just mean. By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence." 

That is, the Hebdo debate stateside had been framed by privilege theory well before PEN members began publicly debating the award (which it gave to Hebdo at Tuesday's gala). In the eyes of the award's supporters, the protesters were cast as hypersensitive social-justice warriors who are incapable of taking a joke, some of them oblivious as to think the Hebdo staff was massacred for racial stereotyping and not blasphemy—a not entirely unfair criticism. Some protesting the award have engaged in feelings journalism by imagining how French Muslims would react to the cartoons. Deborah Eisenberg, for instance, speculated, “To a Muslim population in France that is already embattled, marginalized, impoverished, and victimized, in large part a devout population that clings to its religion for support, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.” And in N+1, Keith Gessen based his assessment of the cartoons’ offensiveness on the reaction of “a young black writer from New Jersey who’s been living in Paris since 2009.”

While the award itself strikes me as appropriate, some of the award's supporters, supporting free speech above all else, are expressing naiveté of their own. After all, the problem with inscribing American culture wars onto those of another country is that they don’t quite line up. The American center-left, and increasingly the far-left, is losing patience with “privilege” rhetoric specifically and outrage politics more generally. But in taking their vehement stance, the award’s progressive supporters risk aligning with the French extreme-right. Not because Charlie Hebdo is on the far-right—it’s not—but because promoting French secularism isn’t a politically neutral stance to take at this point, now that the far-right has embraced it. 

There’s nothing especially controversial about a group of writers in the U.S. promoting secularism and protesting religious fundamentalism. In this country, secularism is associated with the left or libertarianism, and it isn't—permit me the generalization—particularly linked with racism. It’s not that controversies never arise, but they’re unusual and generally involve the far-left taking on the not-quite-as-far-left. The right in this country has its issues with fundamentalist Islam and even just regular Islam, but is hardly anti-religious more broadly. In France, meanwhile, secularism (laïcité) is embraced, at least in principle, by the far-right. Yascha Mounk explained this well in Slate, back in January: 

To court mainstream support, the far right has cleverly repackaged its disdain for immigrants and religious minorities as a defense of liberal values like gender equality and freedom of speech.... [M]ost of the same people who attack Muslims on the grounds that they are unwilling to accept liberal values are themselves unwilling to accept that most basic of liberal credos—that somebody should be able to become a full member of the nation irrespective of his skin color or his creed.

Later that month, the New York Times ran an op-ed by the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, which demonstrated that even if Charlie Hebdo doesn’t like the National Front, the National Front is happy to come to its defense. The Times followed up in February with a long magazine piece on the far-right party’s role in France following the attacks. In it, Susan Dominus carefully laid out the ways the party both claims to support secularism and race-blind politics while actually promoting a white, culturally Catholic France. She noted that the far-right’s approach to secularism is to some extent shared across the political spectrum:

 Citizenship in France is supposed to confer complete equality, but the National Front, and many French all over the political spectrum, believe that privilege comes with the expectation of strict assimilation — no head scarves in school, no race-based interest groups, no questioning of the baby Jesus in the galette, no balking at the school’s lunch of roast pork. When it comes to laïcité, the differences between those on the left, the right and the far right are sometimes most apparent in the varying hostility with which they deliver remarkably similar views. 

In a Times op-ed, Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Nossel—the PEN American Center's president and executive director, respectively—acknowledged anti-Muslim bigotry in France, but seemed to think it could be kept separate from the issue at hand: “The distressing absence of broad respect toward Muslims in France does not undercut Charlie Hebdo’s bravery in defending the right to be disrespectful.” Along those lines, Katha Pollitt argued in The Nation that “Charlie doesn’t mock Muslim people—the shopkeeper who runs the corner store, the woman working in a call center, the boys hanging out in the street. It mocks fundamentalism—the narrow, bigoted, superstitious version of Islam that lies behind actually rather a lot of violence against writers.” In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik made a similar point when distinguishing between Charlie Hebdo cartoons and anti-Semitic ones: “‘Your religion is ridiculous’ is as different a message as can be from ‘You are a degenerated race, you want to rape our daughters and steal our goods, and we will do away with you.’ An insult to an ideology is not the same as a threat made to a people.”

But can one make such a neat divide? Perhaps it’s not just lefty hypersensitivity and “feelings” empathy in America that makes even an expert like Arthur Goldhammer question whether the cartoons, in their mockery of fundamentalist Islam, were actually making life better for French Muslims. From Voltaire on, French anti-Jewish bigotry has long been an impossible-to-disentangle mix of religious, “racial,” and cultural hatred. The January attack on a Paris kosher supermarket has been generally understood—and rightly so—as anti-Semitic violence, not just an attack on those who choose to keep kosher. Religious institutions and pious individuals spread values different from—and, at times, strongly opposed to—those of the secular West, but they also serve as stand-ins for the broader ethnic and cultural groups of which they are a part. This doesn’t mean minority religions can’t be criticized for excesses. What it does mean is that such criticism can very well end up insulting moderate and secular members of the group in question. 

But it’s not just the far-right and its thinly veiled racism-as-secularism that might serve as a warning to those who nobly refuse to add any caveats to "Je suis Charlie." As the Times’s Alissa J. Rubinjust reported, France is taking some extreme-sounding measures in its own new War on Terror:

At a moment when American lawmakers are reconsidering the broad surveillance powers assumed by the government after Sept. 11, the lower house of the French Parliament took a long stride in the opposite direction Tuesday, overwhelmingly approving a bill that could give the authorities their most intrusive domestic spying abilities ever, with almost no judicial oversight.

Rubin notes that Charlie Hebdo’s editor disapproves of the bill. But "Je suis Charlie"has long since taken on a life of its own.