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University News

Teach-in explores freedom of speech

Panelists discuss race, religion, French identity, history of satire after Charlie Hebdo attacks

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2015

“Dig below the rather simplistic media headlines describing Charlie Hebdo,” said Maud Mandel, professor of history and Judaic studies and dean of the College, capturing the essence of “France’s 9/11?,” a teach-in yesterday that aimed to address the complexities of the Jan. 7 shooting at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine.

Around 100 community members attended the packed event, which was organized by the Department of French Studies, the Department of Middle Eastern Studies and the Watson Institute for International Studies.

“Why is the world paying so much attention to these events rather than other terrorist attacks that happen in other places every day?” asked David Wills, professor of French studies and moderator of the event, in his opening statement.

The attack was a symbol that “hit the heart of what many French thought was special about them: their liberal values and freedom of speech,” said Beshara Doumani, professor of modern Middle East history and director of Middle East studies.

Since the 1960s, Charlie Hebdo has played a role in France’s “long history of satire,” said Youenn Kervennic, senior lecturer in French studies.

Part of the name of the magazine, “Charlie,” came from the combination of Charles de Gaulle, former president of France, and Charlie Brown from Peanuts, encapsulating the magazine’s multifaceted political identity , Kervennic said. The main topics on which the magazine’s cartoonists comment include religious cults, popular culture, Islam, extreme Right politics and Judaism, he added.

Charlie Hebdo has confronted financial difficulties for its liberal use of freedom of speech. The magazine’s executives refused to accept funding from private donors or advertisers, granting the staff full reign over its content, Kervennic said.

Before the terrorist attack, the magazine was selling 30,000 copies a week — hardly enough issues to stay afloat, Kervennic said. But the first edition after the attack sold seven million copies, he added.

Rather than focusing on the history of satire, panelists Mandel and Ourida Mostefai, visiting professor of comparative literature and French studies, shifted the discussion’s focus to historical and contemporary relations between the ethnically French population and those who have immigrated to France over the last few decades.

The recent terrorist attacks are “deeply entangled in France’s colonial history,” Mandel said. Many of the Muslims and Jews in France today are of Algerian descent, she said. During the decolonization of Algeria, France granted citizenship to the Jewish population of Algeria but not the Muslim population, leading to two “extremely different” paths of integration into French society, she said.

Looking to the future, Mandel expounded on the probability that these attacks will influence France’s foreign policy going forward. If previous reactions to this kind of violence are any indication of a future response, Mandel said she is not “overly optimistic.”

“There is a true confusion in France between the relations of race and citizenship,” Mostefai said. The main difference between the events of January and Sept. 11 is that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was carried out by citizens rather than by the country’s outsiders, she said.

Anne-Caroline Sieffert GS, who is studying French, said she appreciated that Kervennic provided a history of the magazine. 

“It frustrates me that many people informed by only five covers of Charlie Hebdo are having a debate about France’s freedom of speech,” she said.

Paula Martinez Gutierrez ’17 said the most interesting part of the discussion was the question of Islam’s compatibility with the Republic. In relation to this question, the panelists broached the topic of France’s 2004 ban on wearing conspicuous religious symbols in schools — a law that has stirred heated debate concerning the Muslim veil, or hjiab.

The conversation on the veil bolstered the quality of the teach-in, Martinez Gutierrez added.

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  1. Yeah, right. The Muslims shot journalists in the head because of colonialism. Isn’t that brilliant!

    That must be why Muslims shoot Buddhist monks in the head in southern Thailand too.

    And that must be why Muslims killed one million Animists in Sudan too. It’s those damn Animist colonialists who are to blame.

    And that must also be why Muslims are ethnically cleansing Hindus from the Hindu ancient homeland now known as Pakistan. It’s those damn Hindu colonialists who are to blame.

    You understand now. It’s never the Muslim’s fault even though they blow up the village markets, burn Nigerian women to death, throw acid in the faces of school girls, and behead international aid workers.

    Now I get it. Thanks for the brilliant insights…No wonder they say those who cannot do teach instead. (Can I write this or is it too controversial for a liberal campus – everything goes kind of place – like Brown?)

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