By Katie Ellington, Contributing Writer
To many Americans, it was just another headline. To the French people, it was an attack on one of the things they cherish most.
On Jan. 7, two masked gunmen entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, and killed 12 people, including eight magazine employees and two policemen. The massacre was a response by Islamic terrorists to an offensive cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad that the magazine had published.
At a panel discussion held in the student center this past Thursday, sophomore Naomi Friedman, who was born and raised in France, said that the shooting was especially devastating for the French people because it was an attack on freedom of speech, a right they have fought many years to obtain.
According to fellow panelist Dezirae Shukla, one of Asbury’s French professors, freedom of speech was very limited in France prior to the French Revolution in the late 1700s. Although it was made an important item in the French constitution, the press was once again greatly restricted following World War II. Stringent government censorship continued through the fifties and sixties, eventually prompting a student revolt in 1968.
During the panel discussion, which was sponsored by the Office of Intercultural Programs and Allelon Student Council, moderator Joshua Kulah asked the panelists how the attack related to the United States and the 9/11 attacks. Friedman said that like Americans, the French were definitely taken aback.
“France has not been affected by terrorism much in the past,” she said. “This was definitely a shock.”
She also likened the symbolism of the attack on the World Trade Center to that of Charlie Hebdo. The World Trade Center was a symbol of prosperity and capitalism—ideals Americans take great pride in. When the symbol of American success was struck down so suddenly, it left the country feeling vulnerable. Similarly, the importance of freedom of speech and expression to the French made the attack all the more troubling.
The panel discussion also touched on issues that further contextualize the attack—from the globalization of news media to the cultural tension between native French citizens and immigrants (many of whom practice Islam). In addressing an audience member’s question about the difference between freedom of speech legislation in France and the United States, journalism professor David Wheeler referenced a controversial French law passed in 2010. The law, passed under President Nicolas Sarkozy, prohibited citizens from concealing their faces in public. Shukla added that though the law appears to be motivated by security concerns, Sarkozy consistently took an “anti-immigration” stance and that the law may have been designed to target Muslim citizens.
“I thought it was very informative,” said sophomore Kayla Sheeran, a student who attended the dialogue. “I was not fully aware of everything behind the terrorist attacks in France. I thought the comparison between freedom of speech in France and the United States was interesting.”
Although only 7.5% of French citizens are Muslim, the influx of immigrants into the country makes it difficult to achieve cultural unity in France. Friedman, who had many Muslim friends growing up, said that most non-Muslim citizens try to be tolerant and open but also seek to preserve French culture and history, in which they take great pride.
“If we are supposed to accept everybody their own way, why don’t they accept us?” she asked.
Despite these ideals, the French government is currently pursuing a measure that will hold websites like Google and Facebook responsible for extremist content and hate speech posted on the Internet. In an effort to reduce panic, it has also prohibited filming intense action scenes such as car chases in the city of Paris and is reviewing French immigration laws.
“The government has been doing a good job keeping people from overreacting or stigmatizing certain groups,” said Shukla.
“Freedom of speech is complicated,” said Wheeler. “Everyone is in favor of free speech right up until you say something that offends them… And so the real test of freedom of speech is can you tolerate and accept speech that offends you, that you hate, without having a violent reaction, without stamping it out and censoring it.”
In closing, panelists encouraged the audience to be informed and explore the news beyond their Facebook newsfeeds.
“If you encounter speech that you don’t like, don’t try to censor it,” Wheeler concluded. “Try to come up with better speech. Fight speech with speech; let the best idea win.”