The inconsistencies of ‘Je suis Charlie’

The French now know what 21st-century war will be like for them: no foreign army trying to take control of the country, no nuclear apocalypse, but homegrown terrorists, trained abroad and killing in the name of their religion.

The massacre of the editorial staff and cartoonists of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo was symbolic: The newspaper had repeatedly lampooned Islam via its editorial cartoons, and this was payback. To be honest, however, Charlie, self-identified as a “beastly nasty newspaper,” has poked fun at all religions, and above all Catholicism, ridiculing churchmen even more assiduously than imams. Cops, politicians and all institutions also had been favorite targets. After all, it is an old tradition in France to make fun of everything, and holding nothing as sacred has been admired since at least the abolition of the monarchy of divine right and of the laws against blasphemy.

Redefining ‘sacred’

There is an irony here. The day after the Jan. 7 newspaper killings, the message was everywhere in the media: “Je suis Charlie/I am Charlie.” For better or worse, this message of solidarity also implied: “I identify with those iconoclasts. You can’t slaughter us all. The freedom of speech is irrepressible. Democracy will survive bigotry as it has prevailed over fascism, etc.” But few people are aware of the inconsistency of declaring something “supreme” while maintaining that anything can, and even should, be derided. Indeed, it is the same subversion of language as the “smart, nice brain trust” behind Charlie used while joyfully producing a “beastly nasty newspaper.”

What freedom of speech remains, though, when words mean their opposite and when speaking your mind becomes impossible in the public square? How could this fail to trigger frustrations? While the label “sacred” is declared obscene, the right to ridicule what is dear to others has no limits. Now, the unchallengeable “right to desecrate” could be called “sacred,” so that the thing still exists but now upside down and no longer able to be named.

In his novel “1984,” George Orwell had foreseen that totalitarianism implied the destruction of words in order to narrow the range of thought. Of course, secularized France is not ruled by Big Brother. But the process of her undoing and surrender is underway because of her weakness for what can generously be called “humor.” In effect, this is actually a means to substitute uncontrollable laughter for the rational talk that is the foundation of civilization.

Further inconsistencies: When watching the police besiege and shoot the killers live on television on Jan. 9, one couldn’t help remembering Charlie’s savage caricatures of low-brow helmeted riot squads. Those, too, who staged a mass demonstration in the streets of Paris on Jan. 11 to identify with Charlie, had forgotten that they had declared similar rallies meaningless exactly two years ago, when the goal was to protest same-sex unions, which contribute to disintegrating language and civilization by redefining marriage.

The role of religion

As France looks to heal and move forward, two big questions remain. The first: What place is French society ready to give to religion in general? The separation between church and state in 1905 was painfully conflictual. A number of empirical compromises have been found since, but the problem remains to determine what the religious neutrality of the state implies and whether the freedom of thought and speech includes the right to express religious beliefs publicly.

Most secularists — and they are becoming more numerous — tend to see faith as a strictly private affair, believing that it is bound to disappear earlier than anyone fears or hopes, and that any official recognition would amount to artificially prolonging moribund life and go against the “sense of history.”

They are also convinced that religion is just a polite name for fanaticism, that belief in any absolute or transcendence turns disputes into wars and that the world will be at peace only once it has become religion-free. On the other hand, believers argue that there is nothing shameful or antisocial in their faith and that the neutrality of the state does not require the neutralization or repression of what the individual considers as personally vital.

Nowadays, the secularity of society is no bone of contention for French Christians, who know to differentiate between God and Caesar. But ideological secularists would definitely like believers of all kinds to be silenced and become invisible until they vanish as expected. In the meantime, these same secularists claim the right not only to express their views unopposed but also to brand publicly those who do not share them as ridiculous, spiteful obscurantists. Progress can and should be made in the acceptance and respect of religious communities within the nation.

The role of Muslims

If a lack of reciprocity in tolerance can be dealt with by Christians — since Jesus was crucified before rising from the dead and the Church has undergone worse persecutions — it is much less easy for Muslims.

This is the second big question, and not just because of the prophet’s teachings. Rather, it’s because they find themselves in France in a situation probably without precedent in their tradition: that of a minority that has no chance of becoming a ruling majority in the foreseeable future (this is pure fantasy); and that of a faction that is not openly oppressed (even if it is discriminated against for both its ethnic — mostly North African — and its religious specificities) and is even invited to play by the rules of democracy, the freedom of speech, etc.

This means not simply the right to express and practice their faith, even to win converts, but also the duty of respecting others. How can European Muslims adjust to these requirements? No one can help from the outside. We can only share our experience that Christianity has grown and survived many trials not by imposing itself militarily or politically (although this was occasionally the case, as Islam did generally), and not by confronting centrifugal heretical movements (Islam has gone through this), but by taking up the challenge of the criticism of its sources and its spiritual, as well as theological, developments.

The ugly events in Paris may still give way to a salutary crisis for Islam and all the countries with Muslim populations.

Jean Duchesne is secretary general of the French Catholic Academy and a longtime special adviser to the archbishop of Paris.