Charlie Hebdo and the one True Faith: Laïcité

There are few more tedious experiences than listening to a Frenchman lecture – it’s never a discussion, and almost never a Frenchwoman – on the nuanced difference betweenEnglish ‘secularism’ and French ‘laïcité’.

I’ll be superficial. To its French adherents, laïcité is progressive, its purpose to move society away from religion and neuter the influence of religious institutions. In contrast, Anglo-Saxons think secularisation is about protecting religious freedom by excluding the state from matters of faith, in effect ‘privatising’ them.

The Anglo-Saxon concept is enshrined by the US First Amendment, protecting freedom of religious belief alongside freedom of speech. But for the French, religion is not under threat, it is the threat. It’s freedom that needs protection from religion.

I’m tired of being told by the French how to interpret Charlie Hebdo’s application of race. I don’t agree with it, but I understand the argument: Charlie’s so-called ‘racism’ has a complex and measured French context, so it is incumbent upon me as a non-Frenchman to shut up about it.

To shut up about, as Teju Cole writes, Charlie’s claim to “the freedom to draw everyone who is Muslim, or comes from a Muslim family, or is connected to North Africa, or ‘looks’ Arab, into one big universal blood guilt that makes them literally responsible for the horrors perpetrated by a few maniacs. The desire to have this hatefulness lauded as courage.”

Hideous though it is, I’m not convinced that the hatefulness runs deep. It’s gouaille, “an anarchic populist form of obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred or powerful,” as French translator and author Arthur Goldhammer describes it.

Yes, Charlie Hebdo is racist, but casually so: it selects racially offensive imagery only to spice up its satire, fearing that without it it would fail in its intent to offend. There is something spiteful, not hateful, about Charlie’s weekend online editorial, defiantly nailed to the door of the English-speaking Web like a latter-day cyber-Luther.

Spiteful for calling out people who won’t demand French Muslim bakers serve bacon as well as tuna baguettes, or won’t challenge French Muslim women on the street about hijabs, as cowards. Yes, Charlie routinely and negatively homogenises entire races for its political purpose. Yes, that’s racism at worst, bonehead stereotyping at best. But all of it is subordinate to its true cause. That cause – to neuter religion’s influence and assert secular authority over French society – trumps all.

Cole’s criticism of Charlie’s agenda-setting editorial is right. It’s reasonable to draw analogies with historic European anti-Semitism. I think that the dangers of being seen as the secularist version of the Nazi journal Der Stürmer have not escaped Charlie’s merry crew either. But Charlie subordinates this risk, along with the protests and interests of French black and Arab citizens, to what it considers a higher need. Call it the War on Incense if you like.

Charlie has with this editorial, like George W. Bush did to similar purpose, raised his war to existential struggle without end. You are either with us or with the terrorists. With us, or with the Mullahs.

The English author Martin Amis once suggested something similar, some form of collective punishment of British Muslim families until they brought their bomb-toting sons to order. Later he apologetically rowed back, describing it as an ‘adumbration’, a half-developed creative idea.

There’s nothing half-developed about Charlie’s creative idea. It’s fully baked. The savage cruelty their team has endured, as has France as a whole, militates in favour of hate. Hate, not only for the killers, but also for those who lack faith in the strategy Charlie chooses for the fight back. We are either with them, or with the terrorists.

I’m not so concerned by Charlie’s racism, or otherwise. I am concerned that an atmosphere is being created where people read criticism of racism, sexism and homophobia as a threat to free expression.  There’s a kind of  attack on art that thinks it is a defence, writes Rebecca Solnit, that “all art is beyond reproach, and we have no grounds to object to any of it, and any objection is censorship.”

Laïcité is not a faith, much less the True one. It’s open to dispute. I have read elsewhere that true Laïcité does not deny anybody the right to express their religious beliefs, “but it aims to found society on a political contract that transcends religious beliefs which, as a result, become mere private affairs.” I suspect this may have been true once, but as of Charlie’s latest editorial it is no longer just that.

Charlie has gathered laïcité’s true believers, and with them their contempt for laïcité’s agnostics, heretics and apostates. It has raised high its holy scriptures, in the pages of Charlie Hebdo, guiding texts that its acolytes are coming to believe are beyond question.

Good for them. Faith can be an inspirational thing. But unchallenged it can be dangerous.