Like most people I know, I was absolutely horrified by the Charlie Hedbo killings earlier this week. Killing journalists for what they publish violates fundamental democratic commitments.
But you won’t see me posting any variation of the “Je suis Charlie” meme.
The years I spent living in Paris with dark skin, a recognizably Muslim name, and an interest in feminist politics taught me a lot about Islamophobia in France and the ways progressive political causes can be used to foment it. My point is not that Charlie Hebdo was itself a racist publication—though here is a post that argues just that.
I want to say something more specific about why, even as I support free speech rights, I do not want to be associated with the specific politics of that magazine—or the political agendas that defenses of it are likely to advance.
There is a strong tradition in the last twenty years of French politics of selective alliance with progressive causes. Mainstream French support for some of these causes pretty reliably tracks whether they are associated with Muslims and/or blacks. This was apparent in the French headscarf ban in public schools; suddenly everyone was a feminist when it was an opportunity to stigmatize Muslims. (Not that this is specifically French–remember Laura Bush’s speech about Muslim women immediately after September 11?) As Joan Scott persuasively argues, mainstream discussions of veiling made clear that patriarchal dress practices engaged in by white French women—high heels, for instance—were impervious to criticism, veiling became the symbol of patriarchy par excellence. If you expect the Charlie Hebdo case not to bring up right-wing nationalist sentiment in France, I invite you to consider the fact that Marine LePen is already asking for a referendum on the death penalty.
Underpinning this selective support for progressive causes in France is also a certain way of framing the importance of women’s rights, rights to free speech, rights to education, and so on. Another name for France is “le pays des droits de l’homme.” According to this framing, human rights are part of (white) French culture. Attacks on human rights are attacks on French culture, and those who do not have French culture are opponents of human rights. This makes the slip from “those who oppose freedom of speech are our enemies” to “cultural others are our enemies” all too easy to make.
The fulcrum in this argument that “others” are opponents of human rights is religion. As French opposition to immigration has swelled, so too has the popularity of arguments from laïcité. These arguments say that religion—especially public displays of it—are inconsistent with support for human rights. Displays of religiosity that are part of white French culture are not recognized as such—it’s fine to have a public Easter vacation and to wear a “small cross” to school. But French Muslims are often seen as attacking human rights by virtue of having a religion, and having one that many of them seem intent on visibly marking their adherence to.
What that allows, in a nutshell, is for arguments against religion to serve a racist function. If Muslims have a religion, and white French people do not, then mocking religion plays into the hands of those who would portray Muslims in general as a threat. A number of viral posts right now are arguing that Charlie Hebdo’s politics were not racist because they criticize religion. I think those posts are missing a reality of the French context—criticisms of religion function to stigmatize Muslims without ever having to say the word. (Much as, in the United States, the word “welfare recipient” immediately conjures up an offensive image of a woman of color without having to mention race.)
So, even if I stand in favor of freedom of the press, I’d prefer to do it without identifying myself with a publication that participates in stigmatizing Muslims. And part of my reason for declining to identify with Charlie Hedbo has to do with other democratic values—like commitments to treating others as equals. I’m in favor of freedom of expression, and I’m in favor of democracy, but je ne suis pas Charlie.