Understanding the historical context of French satirical culture and its dysfunctional relationship with religious freedom.
Addressing the politico-religious unrest in France
After the beheading of Samuel Paty by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee for sharing cartoons of Muhmmad to his classes; many French citizens stood in solidarity with the school teachers goal of teaching freedom of expression and condemned the heinous act by projecting the same images onto buildings and using the hashtag #JeSuisSamuel (echoing the sentiment of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015 with #JeSuisCharlie). Many Muslims around the world were horrified to learn of Macron’s defence of this teacher’s statement for freedom of expression even if it included cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. It is important for Muslims to avoid revering the Prophet ﷺ in a God-like way as it was customary in amongst polytheists in medieval Arabia with images and statues which Islam was trying to separate itself from. There is only one unforgivable sin which is associating partners with God or attributing qualities of God anyone/anything other than Him.
So why does it appear that France and a significant part of its populace been stubborn in condemning the actions of such satire if they have caused such outrage in the Muslim community? Why have violent attacks been attributed to the ideals of the wider Muslim communities? While it is easy to say the answer is just Islamophobia, this does not capture the complex relationship of the colonial history of France with the Middle East and their political traditions.
The importance of satire in popular French culture
(1831 depiction of the French king as Gargantua – a giant who steals from the poor to enrich the upper classes)
France’s satirical culture is a centuries-old tradition and according to Remi Piet a research associate on foreign policy at the Florida University is often misunderstood outside of the hexagon:
“Was Charlie Hebdo excessive? Absolutely. But political and social satire is in itself excessive and Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists have proudly waved this excess as their coat of arms in the typical French tradition dating back to even before the French Revolution.”
Satire and poking fun at people in power or religious figures has been a tradition in France since the Middle Ages and Renaissance playwrights and poets who upheld these narratives are studied in detail making up a distinct part of French literature. They are admired for pushing boundaries and attributed to fuelling the success of the French revolution and taking down the bourgeois of Paris through the mockery of their lavish lifestyles while the rest of the population lived in poverty.
Modern satire continues to have a profound impact on modern French popular culture with shows like Les Guignols going very far in how they challenged and caricatured public figures. They presented the current President of France often as a baby or a young man with a lisp who is controlled by an authoritarian mother who is meant to be his wife and former school teacher Brigitte Trogneux.
“Satire, whether portrayed by Charlie Hebdo, Le Canard Enchaîné or the Guignols de l’Info, is perceived in France as an enjoyable and much-needed counter-power. Through playful, simplistic drawings, they contribute to the democratic game and the healthiness of society, criticising multinational corporations’ abuses and US foreign policy, and indiscriminately taunting all ideologies and religions.”
However, it is also important to consider how France has been at the forefront of disputes between Christian Europe and Islam for almost 1300 years. The victory of Frankish military leader Charles Martel against the Umayyad Caliphate and its leader Abd al-Rahman al-Thaqafi in the Battle of Poitiers is still celebrated today; all French students are taught its history in detail. The defeat impeded the spread of Islam into Europe and began driving it out of the continent. As a result, there is a strong awareness in the French conscious that the boundary between Muslim and Chrisitan Europe was drawn in their very own country. Thus a sense of cultural and political conflict with Islam along with the fear of Islamisation remains at the forefront of French minds when it comes to managing Islam both in domestic and foreign policy. This conflict has only grown since with the French conquest of Algeria which has been reframed as genocide by many historians. In Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide from Sparta to Darfur by Ben Kiernan; he argues that within three decades of the French conquest of Algeria in 1830 war, famine and disease had reduced its original population from three million to around one million.
(The Battle of Poitiers, Eugène Delacroix 1830)
Collective punishment of French Muslims and the wider Muslim community
So when you mix a strong tradition of satire, despite their colonial legacy, there is a very little foresight when it indeed comes to publishing such extreme caricatures like drawings of the Prophet ﷺ. While the line seems clear cut in Islam, it isn’t for the French. At the end, when violent attacks ensue, Muslims are often treated as a monolithic group and punished for it whether that be an absence to acknowledge the rise of alt-right groups or the sensationalising and double standards of violent acts carried out by Muslims. This isn’t anything new and Macron himself in a recent interview with Al Jazeera acknowledges this:
“Of course this is a problem for Islam because Muslims are the first victims...More than 80 per cent of the victims of terrorism are Muslims, and this is a problem for all of us.”
More comprehension, enough conversations
Macron also clarified how the sentiments of the cartoons do not reflect those of the French government and he is simply protecting the rights of his citizens to protect freedom of expression, France nonetheless has a lot of blood on their hands, especially of Muslims. While contextualising does offer some insight it lacks empathy towards the millions of still displaced Muslims and the struggling economies of North African countries as a result of French colonialism. Jeering at a religious culture that they have systematically destroyed as a nation takes away their right even as independent journalists to poke fun even if it is to prove the healthiness of their democracy. Global leaders like Erdogan are indeed advocates of such a stance, supporting the worldwide boycott of French products. The French economy like many others are suffering as a result of the pandemic however have seemingly shrugged the boycotts acknowledging that they’re short-lived as they were in 2015 with Charlie Hebdo. Arguably the Muslim community lacks consistency but we are not the only ones. Many social movements on sites like Twitter and Instagram are hyped and spread like wildfire and soon fade into background noise. While a boycott of products did seem strategic it is not long till another crisis grabs our attention and we seem to forget the previous. But what has not changed is the spending power Muslims have globally especially within the Middle East and this has entered the consciousness of Muslims it maybe is a matter of time when this is expertly employed to tackle Islamophobia.