Secularism, Islamophobia and free speech in France
in The free speech wars
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This chapter discusses how the initial media response to the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015 was framed in terms of an absolutist interpretation of the Republican value of free speech. In such an absolutist interpretation, free speech is perceived as an end in itself, sacred, undivided, uncompromised, and does not and should not yield to ethical responsibility. However, Charlie Hebdo itself does not subscribe to an idea of absolute freedom of expression. For Philippe Val, editor from 1992 to 2009 and responsible in 2006 for the publication of the Muhammad caricatures, freedom of speech is synonymous with democracy, achieved thanks to the joint efforts of civil society in overthrowing blasphemy laws. Caroline Fourest, a Charlie Hebdo journalist, likewise posits that the absence of any blasphemy laws in France enables debate about religion, and maintains that in a secular society all beliefs are equal, or in other words there is no one religion or faith that is more sacred than another. Laïcité in this sense establishes a certain equality of treatment that is overseen by the Republic. This chapter argues that the question of Islamophobia in France is intricately and deceptively linked to the issue of laïcité, and that an absolute understanding of free speech is not compatible with laïcité. Furthermore, this chapter demonstrates how Charlie Hebdo itself weaponised and constrained laïcité, while itself becoming a tool for free speech absolutists.

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