Terror attacks fracture France on freedom of speech and freedom of religion

By Anna Popnikolova

In early 2015, a French magazine called Charlie Hebdo printed a caricature of the Prophet Muhammed. It set off a series of terrorist attacks which ended with the deaths of over 200 people.

In September 2020, they did it again. The magazine published the same caricatures and jump-started another group of terrorist attacks, including the battery of two people near the former offices of Charlie Hebdo, where an 18-year-old immigrant from Pakistan was arrested on the charge of stabbing and wounding two people with a knife. The offender had not been previously identified as a possible Islamic extremist.

One of the most prominent of the Muslim attacks was the beheading of a French schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, 47, by a young Muslim, Abdoullakh Anzorov, 18, for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed in a class debate on free speech. A week after beheading the teacher, Anzorov was gunned down by the police.

Another attack, this time in Nice, France, took place when an assailant with a knife killed three people, “including a 60-year-old woman who was nearly decapitated, and a third victim died after taking refuge in a nearby bar,” according to the New York Times, in an article titled “New Terror Attacks Leave France Embattled at Home and Abroad,” by Norimitsu Onishi and Constant Méheut.

In 2015, the slogan “Je Suis Charlie”, which translates from French to “I am Charlie.” was used as a symbol of unity for the country. Those who supported freedom of speech and freedom of the press would use the line, both to defend free speech and mourn the victims of the terrorist attacks. It brought groups from all around the world together, to defend France and Charlie from terrorist attacks, which were brought on by angry Muslim extremists who felt wronged and disrespected by the printed material.

However, due to the most recent attacks and controversy, the country of France has seemingly been split into two sects. Those who “are Charlie,” who defend the newspaper and free speech, and those who are “not Charlie,” who do not support the printing of the caricatures and do not condone the anti-Islam print. Citizens who support “Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie,” may not necessarily be against the idea of free speech, but support the idea that there should be a difference between free speech restrictions and hate speech restrictions—it is a slogan more popular on the liberal left. Likewise, supporters of “Je Suis Charlie,” which is more popular on the right, may not be showing particular agreement with Charlie’s islamophobic publications, but are rather standing for free speech and free press and wishing to represent the victims of the attacks. 

The terrorism in France at the moment has become more of a political debate than an issue to handle. The two opinionated sides of the argument continually present their thoughts, and it seems as though the French president, centrist Emmanuel Macron, sides with “Je Suis Charlie.” He has taken to the news and papers to express his support for the right to free speech and condemned terrorism, adding that Islam was in need of an Enlightenment, which evoked both support and opposition.

For example, the President of Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, commented in a speech that “Macron needs mental treatment… What is the problem of this person Macron with Muslims in Islam?” Countries such as Turkey and Bangladesh are participating in a boycott of French goods. In the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, about 40,000 people were part of an anti-French rally, which included burning an effigy of the French President, Mr. Macron. 

The prime minister of Pakistan also publicly denounced Mr. Macron, by saying that, “This is a time when President Macron could have put healing touch and denied space to extremists rather than creating further polarization and marginalization that inevitably leads to radicalization… by attacking Islam, clearly without having any understanding of it, President Macron has attacked and hurt the sentiments of millions of Muslims in Europe and across the world.” Along with many other country leaders, and other countries partaking in a boycott of French products.

On the contrary, hundreds of people supported the “Je Suis Charlie” movement and led widespread demonstrations of alliance with the newspaper in 2015. Candlelight vigils and rallies were seen in European capitals – Madrid, London, and Brussels, as well as cities in Portugal, Thailand, Italy, and the United States. Groups wanted to show their disagreement with the terrorism and express their sympathies for those who were victims of the attacks and the victim’s families. 

Most recently, in Paris, 14 people were convicted of aiding the attacks which ended with the deaths of 17 people in January of 2015. The sentences ranged from four years to live imprisonment. Many were charged with aiding Mr. Coulibaly, who was the main suspect in the Montrouge shooting of the 2015 terrorist attacks and is now deceased. Some of the defendants were childhood friends or former prison-mates of Mr. Coulibaly. Other perpetrators from the 2015 attacks are still being searched for, and others are still being identified.

Paris is expected to enter several other trials related to the 2015 attacks, as well as a trial for the 2016 Nice attack. The police forces and government are looking at more than 8,000 people in France for Islamic extremism and potential terrorism threats, and are worried about the current situation. A New York Times article by Aurelien Breeden and Constant Méheut, titled Trial Over January 2015 Attacks Opens in Paris.” quoted Gerald Darmainin when he gave a speech in France’s domestic intelligence agency as saying “We must maintain the utmost vigilance, even if the French have shifted their concern to the health crisis, economic worries, and daily insecurity,” And said that the terrorist threat level was still “extremely high.” 

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