Conflict Alerts # 158, 9 September 2020
In the news
On 2 September, the trial of 14 people began in Paris on charges of assisting the gunmen who attacked the weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket five years ago, leaving 17 people dead. Only 11 of the suspected accomplices have appeared in court who will be facing the charges of conspiracy in a terrorist act or association with a terror group while the other three who fled to territory controlled by ISIL (ISIS) in Syria or Iraq will be tried as absentee. On the same day, Charlie Hebdo reprinted in its issue the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad that stirred an outrage among many Muslim countries and is said to be the trigger for the attack.
French President Emmanuel Macron during his visit to Lebanon paid tribute to the victims of the attack and defended the weekly's republication saying "a president should never judge the editorial choice of a journalist because there is freedom of the press which is rightly cherished in France."
Issues at large
First, the republishing of cartoons renew debate on free speech and blasphemy. In republishing the decade-old cartoon, which was a satire on Prophet Muhammad shows Charlie Hebdo's resilience to the attack and a defiant statement in support of free speech. But at the same time, it could also be seen as a disrespect to the religious sentiment of a particular group. Charlie Hebdo has in 2011 and 2012 come under criticism for its satire-based print journalism such as depicting Muslims as terrorists and even continued publishing right after the attack. In today's digital journalism and personalized troll culture, Charlie Hebdo remains true to the cartoon culture that is meant to be critical and thought-provoking.
Second, a symbolic trial. It is the first time when acts of violence carried out under radical Islamist ideology will be put on trial in French judicial history. The attacks in 2015 and again in 2016 had created social boundaries amongst various groups, especially France's Muslim communities. However, then by taking recourse to judicial relief shows the deep-rooted trust of the society in democratic institutions. This trial will also be the first since 1985 to be filmed for a public hearing to "preserve the memory of atrocities." The trial, likely to continue till November 2020, will not only be a trial of the people who aided the Kouachi brothers but off those who have expressed several extremist ideas more uninhibited.
First, the republication of the cartoons by Charlie Hebdo should be seen in the light of sensitivity in journalism and the public cost of free speech. While cartoons, comedies and dark humour are well protected and cherished tools of free speech but so are respecting communities' culture and religious sentiments. In a society where minorities' group identities are increasingly marginalized on religious, race and cultural grounds against the majoritarian beliefs, a satire partial to the minorities' group identities can easily be interpreted as social exclusion and disrespect.
Second, the trial could either be interpreted as justice or as a provocation by different communities and extremist groups within France and outside. The transnational character of the radical religious ideologies could not be hindered through a few trials but will definitely be a step for acknowledging that problem lies within your own societies' minority-majority divide. The risk of the trial reopening the divide exists, but it could also be a chance to make one's democratic institutions more inclusive.