Charlie Hebdo, laïcité and Italy

Charlie Hebdo loves being in the news. After shooting to international prominence in January 2015 following a terrorist attack on its office in Paris, which killed 12 of its staff members, people around the world came to know more about the magazine. Initial reaction to the atrocity was one of horror, followed by solidarity -which led to je suis <insert persecuted entity here> becoming something of a meme- and yet another round of debates over the limits to free speech and expression. People also started reflecting over whether or not minorities and their cultural claims being disproportionately targeted for criticism made them victims to cultural bullying in unfamiliar lands. Nevertheless, Charlie Hebdo, by and large, captured media attention in all parts of the world. What was a small throughput French magazine read by probably a few thousand people in Paris became an internationally recognized satire magazine known for its irreverent satire and dark humor. When they made a comeback not long after the tragic episode, they were praised the world over for their bravery. This now means that Charlie Hebdo‘s readership has conceivably taken an upward curve in parts of the world where French is spoken and understood, apart from having its works being translated into different languages.

Amatrice, a sleepy town in central Italy, which was visited upon by a deadly earthquake late last month, leading to more than 280 deaths and many more injured, is in recovery mode, both physically as well as psychologically. The devastation of the event, along with the realization that you live in a seismically vulnerable zone, where at any time hundreds of lives could be lost in a matter of a few moments, is more than enough emotional load to get over. How does Charlie Hebdo look at the situation?

French satirical magazine …….. published a cartoon entitled: “Earthquake, Italian Style”, in reference to the magnitude 6.2 earthquake that killed more than 291 people and left a further 2,500 displaced.

The image depicted three people (sic): a bloodied man labelled “Penne, tomato sauce”, a charred woman labelled “Crustes penne” and a collapsed building with battered limbs poking out entitled “Lasagne”.


Quite naturally, people were enraged at this kind of characterization. Social media was abuzz with criticism directed at what was perceived by many as “heartless” and “distasteful.” Charlie Hebdo, feeling that they hadn’t driven their point home, doubled down:

In response to the outcry Charlie Hebdo extended the unpopular joke by writing a message on their Facebook page stating: “Italians, it’s not Charlie Hebdo that builds your homes, it’s the Mafia!”

The Facebook post featured another cartoon depicting a bloodied and battered woman in the rubble with the same message.

Allegations have in the past been made that administrative bodies and surveyors in earthquake-hit Italian cities were guilty of criminal negligence and corruption in planning with respect to minimizing damage should earthquakes happen. Harsh sentences were even sought against scientists -they were deemed to have committed manslaughter- who couldn’t accurately predict earthquakes that led to large-scale devastation of the Amatrice kind before better sense prevailed. Charlie Hebdo‘s “Mafia” jibe seems to have something to do with this alleged institutional corruption and negligence.

So, is Charlie Hebdo‘s unapologetic response acceptable? Is the mayoralty of Amatrice right in suing Charlie Hebdo over hurt sentiments of the people, of victims and beyond? Does Charlie Hebdo have a right to print whatever it wants without due consideration to the sensitivities of people? We will see. But first let us turn our attention to other developments elsewhere in France.

A group of suspected female terrorists allegedly belonging to ISIS has been arrested in Paris, and a terrorist attack they were planning has been successfully foiled. They had planned to attack the Notre Dame cathedral by blowing up a car which was filled with gas canisters. Here is how the story unfolds:

An abandoned car found Sunday with its license plates removed, its hazard lights mysteriously flashing and loaded with gas canisters set a frantic search in motion.

A woman identified by authorities as Ornella G, was the first to be arrested on Tuesday with a companion at a highway stop near the southern city of Orange. Her companion was freed, the prosecutor’s office said on Saturday. But Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said on Friday that Ornella G’s fingerprints were found inside the car. She was known to intelligence agents as someone who was looking to go to Syria.

The judge charged Ornella G on Saturday with association with terrorists to commit attacks and attempted murder in an organized group linked to a terrorist enterprise and ordered her jailed, the prosecutor’s office said.

On the heels of Ornella G’s arrest, police traced the person linked to the car to a house in the Essonne region south of Paris and descended on Thursday evening.

A confrontation with three women outside ensued, including the 19-year-old daughter of the car’s owner, Ines Madani. She was shot in the leg as she lunged at a police officer with a knife – after another woman, Sarah H, 23, attacked and wounded a plain clothes officer with a kitchen knife through the open window of his car, Mr Molins said on Friday.

The third woman, Amel S, 39, who lived at the house, also was arrested along with her daughter, about to turn 16 but potentially implicated in the “terrorist project,” according to the prosecutor. She was found in another Paris suburb.

Police found a handwritten pledge of allegiance to Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi inside the purse of Ines Madani. The note also stated that in answer to the call of the No2 Isis leader, killed in August, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, “I attack you in your lands to mark your minds and terrorize you,” Mr Molins said in an account of the arrests.

The probe took on a wider scope with the arrest of Sarah H. Investigators discovered she was to marry Larossi Abballa, the man who killed a police couple in June in their home in Magnanville, outside Paris, before being killed in a police raid.

She then was to marry Adel Kermiche, who slit the throat of the Rev Jacques Hamel, 85, during morning Mass in July in the Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, Mr Molins said.

Kermiche and another attacker were shot to death by police. Sarah H. was subsequently to marry Mohamed Lamine A, known to be radicalised and the brother of a man jailed in the Magnanville murders.

It reads like an intriguing plot. One can only imagine the extent of damage that could have been done had these three women been successful in carrying out their “mission.” This has given rise to a new debate in France: Does ISIS have any strategy behind employing women to carry out terrorist attacks, especially considering how they believe women belong solely in the domestic sphere and in service to menfolk? Girls are getting radicalized in greater numbers than ever before, and no explanation has been found as to why. People tend to point towards the fact that ISIS does pretty well on the propaganda parameter and their use of social media and encrypted messaging services like Telegram. But that still fails to explain why women would join ISIS of their own volition, even when the terrorist organization puts shackles on a woman’s freedom. But the real question is, what does the word “freedom” mean? Is it unconditional and context-free? Or are there limits that vary from context-to-context?

To explore this issue, it might help to take into account the recent brouhaha in France over the ban on “burkinis”, an alternative to the bikini for beach-loving yet conservative Muslim women in a few coastal French towns. The highest court in France shot down the idea that burkinis were a potential threat to public safety, stating that the argument didn’t hold much water, especially in absence of evidence that it could be a threat, and that the proposed ban was in contravention of the constitutional guarantee to all citizens of freedom of expression. The decision, coming as it did in the aftermath of several terrorist attacks in France over the past couple of years or so, is welcome since the ban made no logical sense. The farcical episode did raise an important question, however. Does freedom mean anything if it has to be enforced? Because the popular idea is that people in the West, especially women, have more freedom than women in more conservative societies do. The fact that many Muslim women, in particular, have to wear “modest” dresses is seen as patriarchal and medieval, among other things. France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls even claimed that “naked breasts represented France better than a headscarf.” He might belong to a minority in expressing his opinion, but it does again raise questions as to what freedom really means, which France, and in extension, the West, is apparently all about. Is it a license to bully the minorities just because they are different from the mainstream and have different cultural beliefs? Is it a license to dismiss the minority viewpoint so that the majority one monopolizes a “free” society? Has anyone cared to ask the Muslim woman who wears the burkini -supposedly because patriarchs in her milieu demand so of her- how she feels in it? What if she is more comfortable exposing less, something that the bikini is not designed to do? What if the view that the bikini is essentially a commodification of the female body designed to entertain the male gaze has some validity? What if some beach-loving women, regardless of whether or not they are “Western” choose to expose less skin? Should they be perceived as “oppressed” and a “security threat”? Isn’t freedom supposed to be about diversity? Doesn’t seem it is that way. Instead, we have what used to be a mentality of the paranoid fringe dictating policy that is ruled by a cocktail of fear psychosis and xenophobia. If nothing else works, the excuse of “security threat” is almost sure to work, given how edgy an in-emergency France is. Does this particular interpretation of “freedom” surreptitiously not seek to take away a woman’s agency and defeat the whole point of the virtue?

How “free” were the three women who were planning to carry out a terrorist attack in Paris? It’s difficult to tell exactly without further information, but it can be reasonably implied that they were the followers of a cult, whose leader is decidedly male, and the cult revels in ideology which is patriarchal to the core. The oldest woman of the lot, Amel S, was probably looking for a male anchor to her radicalized reality by being married to an ISIS terrorist. They were being directed by a male ISIS agent. But they were made to feel as if they had agency. The ISIS terrorists were successful in harnessing their hatred towards France and her people -supposedly fueled by the continued deaths of their heroes- and using their services to try and wreak further havoc. By creating an out-group, and a perception that the in-group was being continually subjected to injustice, they successfully created essentially free agents out of people who would otherwise be in a subdued relation to the male adherent of the ideology. That can be a powerful motivator. This was to be further aided by the fact that law enforcement usually overlooks the threat women might present as terrorists. So it seems that the concept of freedom works only when agency of the individual is seen as valued. It’s a fundamental need all humans have. That is why freedom and responsibility are inseparable.

Which brings me back to Charlie Hebdo. In France, the magazine has the right to express its views in any way it wants, no matter how offensive they might be deemed to be. Islam has been one of Charlie Hebdo‘s favorite targets, mainly because it’s a low-hanging fruit and makes very little sense. But we know all this because of what happened to Charlie Hebdo in January last year. It became a symbol of freedom of expression, rightly or wrongly depending on your point of view, and the price that we have to pay for it. Had that not happened, its latest cartoons mocking the victims of the Amatrice earthquake would probably not have made media rounds. Probably most people would have ignored it. People have heavily, and rightly, criticized the magazine for producing a very insensitive and inappropriate cartoon that amounts to mocking the victim, but that’s where it should stay, if not stop. It is important not to miss out on the proportion of things. What Charlie Hebdo does influences nobody’s decisions, and their body of work is a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. Just as they feel they have the right to publish anything they want, people have the right to criticize them in harshest possible terms, or ignore them entirely, if they want. While I cannot imagine what the people of Amatrice are going through and hence cannot decide how justified the town’s administration is in feeling aggrieved over Charlie Hebdo‘s shenanigans, one feels that it is somewhat unnecessary to drag them to court over it.


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