France Attacks: Questions No One’s Asking on Religion & Secularism

Can freedom of critical enquiry and speech not be exercised in ways that are not hostile towards any one community?

5 min read
 Image of French Flag and secularism symbol used for representational purposes.

The recent attacks in France, in the wake of the republishing of controversial cartoons of Prophet Muhammad by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, have polarised opinions in France and beyond. Two public remarks in this context stand out.

One, the remarks by Canadian PM Justin Trudeau (arguably one of the first nations to officially enunciate multiculturalism as its State policy), who, while defending freedom of expression, also admitted to one of its limits – acknowledging the hurt that many Muslims had felt (due to the cartoons). Second, are the words of the Archbishop of Toulouse, who viewed those caricatures as insulting not only for Muslims but also for Christians alike. At the same time, non-Muslims joined Muslims in protesting against the caricatures – as hashtags like #honour, #insult, #pride trended on social media.


Moments like these bring to mind how, after the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, while many media houses were republishing those cartoons in protest to defend the free press, all the newspapers in the UK, while condemning the attacks, chose to not republish those cartoons. Also, during The Satanic Verses controversy, while no media house or political party was able to understand why Muslims were hurt, many Christian religious figures in the US and the UK did not defend the book, while the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations opposed the book’s publication.

Can Secularism & Religion In Public Sphere Not Go Hand-in-Hand?

Now, two things surface from the chain of incidents, in the past and in the present moment. First, that the debate around secularism continues to be far from settled. The very concept of secularism and its relationship with religion is not dichotomous at all. More often than not, secularism is being understood as throwing religion out of the public sphere altogether.

Again, this is only one way of understanding secularism and certainly not the most feasible one, given that every nation has its own history and culture, wherein cultural-majoritarian biases are imminent and State ‘neutrality’ is but a sham.

Second, there is more at stake than what meets the eye. Framing this debate in terms of freedom of expression on one hand and the question of blasphemy on the other hand is not enough to provide us with the complete picture. Hence some unsettling and uncomfortable questions will have to be posed


‘Why Does Aggression In God’s Name Shock, And Killing In The Name Of Democracy Doesn’t?’

Even as Muslims and non-Muslims alike have condemned the France attacks, Muslims are feeling compelled to apologise on behalf of the attackers. The cultural anthropologist, Talal Asad, says: “Why is it that aggression in the name of God shocks secular liberal sensibilities, whereas the act of killing in the name of a secular nation, or of democracy, does not?”

This brings out another angle which we might have missed in regular debates. In the modern world, the nation-states have come to be seen as the final arbiter of justice and we are letting our inter-community relationships be configured in a way that privileges the nation-states to decide the terms of relationship for us.

This is similar to what once was the role of the religious authority in pre-modern times. It is here that, while the debates around secularism and freedom of expression find themselves strongly rooted within the tradition of liberal tolerance, one must at the same time remember that it is this tradition which also sets the limits as to its working.

Can Freedom Of Expression Not Be Exercised Without Hostility Towards A Community?

The Muslim charge that the cartoons embody a form of racism, cultural racism to be precise, and Islamophobia, should not just be understood as a form of ‘intolerance’. However, the charge that the cartoons in this case were ‘racist’, is being dismissed as an expression of fundamentalism – and in the words of theorist Saba Mahmood: “The matter is being cast into one that is of choice between Islamist terrorism and spirit of open debate. In other words, it becomes a conflict between secular necessity and religious threat” – which is a misleading way of looking at the entire debate.

Another uncomfortable question would be to ask that while the intention behind producing such caricatures was to (perhaps) inflict moral injury – would not the display of the same exacerbate the perpetuation of the atmosphere of hate, leading to the racial profiling of a section of people?

Even if for the sake of an argument, let us assume that the cartoons were displayed in the spirit of critical enquiry, the question arises, can the freedom of critical enquiry not be exercised in ways that are not hostile towards a community?


Honest Questions & Need To Understand Why Muslims Were Hurt By Charlie Hebdo

The final point then becomes about the need to develop an understanding between communities about issues important to them – and it is here that another aspect is missed out in understanding what is it that hurt the Muslims. That is the aspect of ‘relationality’. For Muslims, the Prophet is not “simply a proper noun referring to a historical figure”, but a relation that binds the Muslims to the Prophet in a sense of veneration, defining one’s identity and existence.

The sense of moral injury here is quite distinct from the one that the notion of blasphemy encodes. This relationship and the moral injury are difficult to translate in the secular language of law, politics and street protests.

The consequence therefore of assessing the cartoon controversy in terms of blasphemy and freedom of speech, as observed by Saba Mehmood, is the immediate resort to juridical language by both sides. However, just resorting to juridical language will not provide an enduring solution because of the structural constraints intrinsic to the secular liberal law that panders to the majoritarian cultural sensibilities – making it difficult to translate this moral injury.

This is an overview of the nuances that are generally overlooked, as one fears posing uncomfortable questions, given the general atmosphere of hostility and hate. Yet these are the questions that are going to stay with us in the long run, and any attempt to resolve these tensions will have to come only through an honest engagement with questions of these kinds.

(Sana is a research scholar at JNU. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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