This story appeared in the March 2015 of our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
At the time, it seemed like a beautiful moment of clarity. I looked around and realized that I was one of more than 1,000 people standing in front of the municipal building in Dieppe, a small city on the coast of Normandy, the day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. It seemed as if the whole town was there, including students and teachers from the high school where I have worked as an English language assistant since September, when I ditched my job as a political reporter in Madison, Wisconsin, to move here.
As I found myself wondering how the word about the gathering had spread so quickly, I remembered that I was in France, a country in which protests are so frequent that people refer to “the streets” as the third branch of government. But this demonstration was different. I witnessed the massive protests against then-President Sarkozy’s policies when I was a student in France. Those marches featured an interesting blend. However, this gathering was utterly solemn. If there was any ire that day, I couldn’t detect it from the crowd or the speakers, including Dieppe Mayor Sebastien Jumel, who recalled receiving a congratulatory cartoon shortly after his election from “Charb,” the director of Charlie Hebdo and a fellow communist who had been the terrorists' principal target.
Nor did I detect any anger at the subsequent rally that weekend, which was even larger—an estimated 4,000 strong, an impressive turnout in a city of just over 30,000. Again, the crowd was largely silent as it walked through the seafront town, but a couple of people successfully sparked a rendition of “La Marseillaise” once the procession culminated at a memorial to fallen members of the French Resistance. “Vive la France, Vive Charlie Hebdo,” shouted one guy as the anthem concluded.
Like any successful demonstration, the rallies displayed strength behind a simple message. While there was undoubtedly going to be future disagreement among the participants over the many ways in which the government responds to the terrorist attacks, at the very least the French citizenry appeared united in paying homage to freedom of speech and its martyrs at Charlie Hebdo.
If only things were so simple.
While almost four million people turned out for similar rallies across the country that day, photos of the demonstrations showed a group of people far whiter than the general population. The nearly all-white demonstration was not remarkable in the overwhelmingly white Dieppe. But similarly homogeneous rallies in Paris and other large French cities have become a cause of concern.
The reason was not hard for me to discover.
“We’re not for the attacks, but we’re not for Charlie either,” explained Sirouan, a proprietor of one of Dieppe’s many “Kebabs,” ubiquitous takeout joints across France that serve gyros, french fries, and other deliciously fatty foods. Although there are not many immigrants in Dieppe, virtually all Kebabs are immigrant-run, which allowed me an easy way to find members of the city’s small Muslim population.
Sirouan, an Iraqi Kurd, moved to France eight years ago as a young man and speaks fluent French, with only a slight accent. A fellow employee, Khoshnau, also a Kurdish immigrant, came to France recently via Britain. Although both described themselves as “believers,” neither is particularly devout.
“I mean, I drink,” volunteered Khoshnau. He also described losing family members to religious extremists in Iraq.
“That’s not Islam,” he said, describing ISIS and other radical Islamic movements. “Those are terrorists.”
Sirouan added: “They have no respect. They rape women, they kill people.”
Why would two mostly secular men adamantly opposed to religious violence describe themselves as “not Charlie”?
“When you insult our prophet like that, it hurts,” said Sirouan. “There’s liberty of expression but leave religions alone.”
Another Kebab store owner, Muhammad, struck a similar tone. “We respect everybody; everybody loves their god. You should respect everybody’s god.” He is married to a native French woman; they each practice a different religion.
Although none of the men said they felt unwelcome or discriminated against in France, Sirouan said he thought Muslims were subject to different standards than other ethnic or religious groups in France. He cited the law passed in 2004 restricting the wearing of religious insignia in public schools, ostensibly aimed at banning the increasing number of Islamic veils in the classroom, as well as another law that barred the wearing of clothing that obscured one’s face, also clearly aimed at the tiny population of French Muslims who wear burkas that cover their entire face.
“Nuns wear veils,” he said, “but nobody says anything about them.”
The comparison is not entirely appropriate, since nuns aren’t present in public schools and their garb doesn’t hide their faces. It is true, however, that many French people are not reluctant to express dismay at the presence of veiled Muslim women, whereas other openly religious people—particularly the increasingly rare Catholic nuns—are viewed as a harmless relic of times past. When only 7 percent of self-described Catholics attend mass at least once a month, it’s hard to view the first estate as much of a threat to secular society anymore.
But the Muslim population in France is largely secular as well, with only 41 percent of Muslims in France described as “practicing” in a 2011 poll.
“I have no link with Islam,” said Alish, a shop owner of Kurdish descent who was raised in France. “So the cartoons [of Muhammad] never bothered me.” In fact, Jean-Pierre Hadjab, a middle school English teacher of Algerian descent with whom I work, grew up reading Charlie Hebdo, whose depictions of Muhammad never struck him as an attack on Arabs.
And yet, reports that recent immigrants and younger generations are embracing religion and religious fundamentalism at greater rates than their forebears have been freaking out French people for years.
Last month, I ate dinner with an old friend in Paris, a veteran of the French feminist movement who worried that the centuries-long fight to free France from sexism, anti-Semitism, and other oppressive forces sanctioned by the Catholic Church might be in vain if the same ideologies came back via Islam.
The woman, a sixty-year-old Parisian whose parents had come to France after fleeing Nazi persecution in Eastern Europe, cited a notorious stoning of a young woman in Marseille ten years ago, as well as the influx of business interests from the Persian Gulf, as evidence that French secular society was threatened.
The concerns voiced by this woman, a lifelong supporter of the Socialist Party, were echoed by Charlie Hebdo, which, in keeping with the anti-clerical spirit of the French left, viewed religion as a threat to democracy and saw demands to respect religious beliefs as the first step toward theocracy. When asked why he continued to publish representations of Muhammad in 2012, “Charb” responded, “I live under French law. I don’t live under Koranic law.”
Ironically, such statements on the left are remarkably similar to the rhetoric of France’s far-right party, the National Front. Although originally founded forty years ago by a coalition of former Nazi collaborators and ultraconservative Catholic anti Semites, its current leader, Marine Le Pen, has recognized that shifting the party’s focus from anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, as well as from traditionalist Catholicism to secularism, offers her a chance at real power.
And of course, as the far right has ascended, mainstream parties on the center-right have reacted by similarly voicing concerns about Islam, immigrants, and other threats to “national identity,” lest voters believe they are not serious about protecting secular culture.
Anti-Islamic rhetoric had already provoked a heated debate on free speech before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, with many Muslims wondering why French speech laws, which forbid a number of provocations, were not imposed to stop the frequent attacks on their culture and religion. If one could be prosecuted for denying the Holocaust or burning the French flag, why could one not be punished for denigrating a symbol dear to Muslims?
While the French, like Americans, believe freedom of expression to be one of the basic tenets of their democracy, their definition of free speech is a tad different from ours. U.S. courts, at the urging of free speech advocates including the ACLU, have consistently ruled that everything from flag-burning to neo-Nazi rallies are protected speech. But France has long outlawed certain speech it deems dangerous.
Some laws are specific, such as the 1990 law that barred Holocaust denial, while others are more open-ended, such as one that bars statements that “incite racial hatred.” Sometimes these offenses are prosecuted criminally, while other times ethnic or religious groups seek damages in civil actions.
Two Muslim organizations brought a lawsuit against Charlie Hebdo in 2007 in response to the magazine’s reprinting of cartoons of Muhammad published by a Danish newspaper. While the trial was ultimately decided in the cartoonists’ favor, the judge justified his decision by arguing that the specific representations of the prophet (with a bomb on his head) were not intended to offend all Muslims, but rather to make a point about Islamic extremists. Such a justification would be entirely superfluous in the United States where one has a First Amendment right to be openly hateful.
To most Americans I know, particularly journalists, the concept of a judge drawing the line between speech that is legally critical and that which is illegally hateful is absurd. Plenty of French people criticize their country’s speech laws, but what is surprising is how many view them as entirely logical. Hence the recent statement from Prime Minister Manuel Valls: “Racism, anti-Semitism, and terror apologism are not opinions, they are crimes.”
The same day that millions marched in honor of Charlie Hebdo and free speech, Dieudonné, a comedian who promotes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, was arrested after posting a Facebook status that appeared to express solidarity with both Charlie Hebdo and Amedy Coulibaly, who killed five shoppers at a kosher market.
Sirouan said that Dieudonné’s remarks were stupid, but believes the comedian was pointing out a contradiction in French society. “Jews have more freedom in France than Muslims,” he said. “They are favored.”
That such perceptions might translate into anti-Semitic hatred and violence is a grave concern, particularly in light of reports that Jews have been leaving France by the thousands in recent years for Israel.
The morning after the attacks, I walked into an English class that I teach to a group of adults of various ages training to be nursing home attendants. One woman was in tears, claiming that another had referred to Arabs as “a dirty race.” “You know,” she said, “my mother was Jewish, and it hurts me to hear you say such racist things.”
“Jews aren’t Arabs,” responded the other woman.
“That doesn’t matter,” she said. “Some of my best friends are Muslim!”
“Me, too,” said another student.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear another student, who I’d previously heard express support for the far-right National Front, intervene to say, “The attacks have nothing to do with Muslims.”
Ironically, the apparently racist woman appeared to be comforted throughout the class by the only person of color in the group, a young woman from the Ivory Coast. After class, the latter informed me that her friend had known somebody killed in the attacks. Indeed, behind hate often lies a tragedy.
The entire class went to lunch together after class, as usual. One student later told me, “She didn’t mean what she said.”
Let’s hope not.
Jack Craver is spending the current school year as an assistant English teacher in France, where he lived for several years as a child. He previously worked as a political reporter in Madison, Wisconsin.