Charlie Hebdo’s September 19 edition cover was emblazoned with a cartoon depiction of the prophet Mohammad pushed in a wheelchair by a rabbi, under which were speech balloons reading ”mustn’t laugh (faut pas se moquer).” The weekly French satirical newspaper, victims of a November 2011 firebombing incident at its Ménilmontant headquarters in Paris for a similar taunt towards Mohammad, faces both global notoriety and ignominy. Many French schools and embassies remained shuttered on Friday in fears of a virulent response by adherents to a staunchly conservative vein of Islam currently gaining traction in many North African and Western Asian nations.
This incident and the subsequent maelstrom reflect the tenuous and devolved nature of the French contemporary debate on secularism and Islam. Beginning in the early 1980’s, Islam has become an expedient political tool for many politicians in the center and far right political parties, particularly Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen’s Front National. Antagonizing recent Muslim immigrants was initially seen as a way of attracting political support in the post-industrial, Post-Fordist metropolitan suburbs.
Immigration and Islam remain deeply connected to the politics of identity in France, exemplified throughout the contemporary period by violent outbursts in the French metropolitan suburbs, the banlieues, in 1995, 2005, 2007 and this summer in the northern city of Amiens. Scapegoating Islam for these riots offered an oversimplified view of the deep inconsistencies in the aspirational, Enlightenment rhetoric of Voltaire and Rousseau and the contemporary reality of widespread unemployment and political underrepresentation in Muslim communities.
Attempts to promote secularism and Islam together have been mired in inconsistencies. The administration of Nicolas Sarkozy banned religious headwear in public places, sparking immense debate and public protests. However, in 2010, Muslims prayed publicly in Montmartre’s Rue Myrha to protest the dilapidated conditions of their local mosque and community center. Marine Le Pen declared it equivalent to a Nazi occupation.
Globalized and globalizing France faces a real challenge. Its nearly all-white political establishment remains seemingly cloistered from reality, regardless of political party. In fact, fears of a more prevalent Islamic community in France unite nearly all major French parties in disdain and dread. As France seeks to adhere to its own very strict laws regarding state secularism, it creates conflict with a radicalized and fundamentalist global Islam.
France cannot account for these violent and uncompromising adherents. However, the French state will some day need to incorporate the voices from marginalized Muslim communities into its own political establishment in order to quell fears of a violent takeover. The saga at Charlie Hebdo illuminates the exclusion many French Muslims still feel within France’s borders. To many in the Muslim communities of France, this an attempt to further delegitimize and marginalize an already excluded and underrepresented community. While pithy provocateurs cite freedom of speech and press and extol the benefits of living in a free society, many Muslims believe they have yet to share in this egalitarian and inclusive France. At the very heart of it, this collision between two world-views of the very nature of the French nation, whether benevolent or oppressive, will create instances of civil strife and further protests until the marginalized communities unequivocally believe they belong to the same nation of Voltaire and Rousseau.