By Guillaume Levrier

On the 7th of January 2015, two French gunmen killed most of the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly French satirical magazine. Armed with AK-47 assault rifles, they hit the heart of Paris with violence and murder. The same day, one of their accomplices, also French, killed a policewoman in Montrouge (in the near-suburbs of Paris), and later ended up killing four more French citizens before being shot by the police. In response to this terrorist attack, many organizations and individuals across the world adopted the “Je suis Charlie” slogan (literally “I am Charlie”). At the same time, many online commentators attacked this slogan, indicating that condemning the murders should not be confused with supporting what they considered as being a racist and offensive publication. This debate can easily be resolved, as Charlie was obviously neither.

Pencil distribution during the Paris unity march, January 11, 2015

Pencil distribution during the Paris unity march, January 11, 2015 | Photo credit: Guillaume Levrier

Charlie Hebdo was stormed by terrorists because it embodied a national tendency to caustic secularism. Its cartoons often depicted religious leaders and/or prophets in absurd and indecent situations. This was well accepted by some believers (read the tribute to Charlie in the Jesuit publication Études), but condemned by others (namely a faction of radical Muslims, who derive from their tradition that their prophet cannot be represented). Nevertheless, one must remember that these cartoons target the idea of religion, and not the believers themselves. And the great majority of French Christians, Muslims and Jews know that they are not the targets of Charlie’s cartoons. From a foreign perspective, this can be hard to understand, and might require explanation.

“We have to refuse everything to Jews as a nation,
and give them everything as individuals”

Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre in Against discriminations
towards executioners, 
actors, Protestants and Jews,
December 1789

There are two conceptions of “the nation”. The Germanic theory used to describe it as a community sharing a language, a culture (religion or tradition), and a similar ethnicity, whereas the French concept implies that the simple will to participate makes you a member of it. This definition entails that there is only one community on the French territory, the community of people wanting to live together in France, regardless of origin, birth, wealth, race or religion. This is a major difference with most of the rest of the world, as there is no such thing as French “multiculturalism”. All individuals, French or foreigners, living on the French territory, are individuals entitled to rights (universal medical coverage, for example) and duties (paying taxes, eating cheese, and so on). However, while having a religious belief is protected by the highest law (both in the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen and in the Constitution), it does not mean that the state or society account for such things as “Muslims”, “Christians” or “Jews”.

A community is a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. Most French Muslims, Christians and Jews share nothing more than a part of their beliefs, and cannot be considered as homogenous communities. This is particularly true of Muslims, who are extremely heterogeneous in terms of ethnicity (Caucasians, Arabs, sub-Saharan Africans, South and South-east Asians), wealth, spoken languages (in addition to French), cultures and even religious practices. What commonalities exist between the few French Muslims from Mali in favor of excision (most of them are strongly opposed to it) and French Muslims from Indonesia whose practice is much more “mystical” (combined with ancient pagan rites)?

One could argue that preventing people from forming a distinctive group is against the religious dictates or precepts in itself. Religion has the same Latin source as the French word “relier”, which means to bind. Religion binds people together, as well as it binds every individual to a designated idea of god(s). Isn’t severing even part of these links an attack on religion? It is. France is one of the last remaining nations, after the fall of the USSR, to promote a universal model of what mankind should be. Identically to great monotheisms, it claims a monopoly of truth. While religions proclaim that men and women’s value depends on a hierarchy derived or inferred from (or conferred/imposed by) the Scriptures (believers/infidels, priests/disciples, men/women…), France claims that all human beings, at all points of space and time, are born and shall remain equal. In those terms, there seems to be a confrontation between French secularism and major religions.

It is now easier to perceive why many believers didn’t feel attacked by Charlie Hebdo, and jumped to their feet to profess “Je suis Charlie”. Obviously, you can believe in God, in one way or another, and also believe in French universalism. French priests, imams and rabbis have learned to expunge from their traditions ancient, irrelevant and barbaric rites and beliefs that now belong to History. French citizens who believe in God are building their faith on humanist values, and they denounce crimes against humanity committed under the pretext of religion, just as Charlie Hebdo did. That is why they are Charlie, and why you might also want to be.

Featured Image Credit: Guillaume Lévrier