by Keith Trivasse
from Signs of the Times  No. 58 - Jul 2015

Between 7th and 9th January 2015, Parisians witnessed an attack upon the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo and attacks upon two Jewish establishments; seventeen died, including ten journalists, two police officers, one a Muslim, a member of the Jewish community, and three gunmen. The gunmen were Muslims.

I work in Bury, Greater Manchester. Much of my work is with my local Muslim communities. As I write this I feel the need to add my voice to the rituals of condemnation of the attacks; these condemnations are all but obligatory. However, I am also quite clear that I share in these condemnations, and I recognize that there is absolutely no justification for these murders in classical Islam. Quite the opposite: as the Quranic tradition states, 'the killing of one is the killing of all'.

Satire is Charlie Hebdo's raison d'être. Some cartoons mocked the Prophet (peace be upon him); others ridiculed the Virgin Birth. Charlie Hebdo is completely egalitarian in its attacks. The killings of the journalists were seen to be attacks upon free speech and French culture, and drew sympathy and support from many sources. In Paris and across France, on the weekend following the killings, more than two million marched in solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo journalists.

But there are hidden meanings in the Charlie Hebdo killings. Firstly there is the location of France's Muslim communities. North African heritage Muslim communities are marginalised, relegated to bleak banlieus situated outside - geographically, economically, socially and politically – the hearts of the major cities.

This isolation has been exacerbated by corrosive debates over the presence of Muslims within France. These debates have been focused upon the wearing in public of religious insignia, in particular veiling by women. Although the laws on religious symbols are written as if they are about all religious insignia, including Christian and Jewish symbols, in reality the laws have been focused upon Muslim and Islamic practices. One cartoon attacking these laws notes that public nudity is acceptable; it is illegal to be clothed. The debates over the hijab and other forms of women's veiling have served to emphasize how unacceptable Muslims are in French society.

The Charlie Hebdo cartoons were seen by many to have crossed lines from attacking what were religiously important yet secondary and to have directly attacked the bearer of the word of Allah. Central to Muslim self-understanding is the role of the Prophet, both as the bringer of the Qur'an and also the key example of how to live the righteous life. Anger generated by the racist actions of white French society, deepened by the strife over the right of Muslims to be publicly Muslim fed into the murderous activities of the Charlie Hebdo killers.

The French religious settlement following the 1789 Revolution (known as laīcité) relegated religion (implicitly Christianity) to the private sphere while providing some funding for religious institutions. Christian communities found ways of working within this settlement. However, laīcité has not taken into account how to work with a religion that does not accept the division between the private and the public and has not accepted relegating the religious to the private alone.

Indeed, the conflict over women's veiling has reflected heightened elements within laīcité. As the veiling debates progressed, French disquiet about the (perceived) Islamic challenge to laīcité led to a fundamentalising of free speech. This process can be seen in the outpouring of grief over the Charlie Hebdo killings: there have been no reported recognitions that the Hebdo cartoons might be offensive; there is no recognition that there should be some kind of respect for views other than a secularised universe.

This secular fundamentalism can be seen in the writings of Jacques Derrida (d.2004). Derrida is one of the central figures in western philosophy. He explicitly opposed oppressive practices and institutions and spoke out for the powerless. Oppression was essentially rooted within religious traditions; laīcité was one of the means of contesting such oppression. Derrida could not conceive at all that laīcité was also a 'religious' register and could be oppressive. The social location of the French Muslim communities and the debates and laws over veiling and the ridicule heaped upon the Prophet were all oppressive acts.

One of the difficulties of laīcité is that there is no critical friend to provide a proper critique to the settlement. There is an assumption that laīcité is the social good and that all must, are, obliged to work within that settlement. Laīcité can then be seen to be inherently dictatorial.

I would suggest that if secularism is to be true to its self-perception of openness and benevolence, secularism needs a strong religious critical friend. Our role, as people of religion, should be to critique and underscore the frailties of laīcité (and settlements such as in the UK) and to suggest ways through.

From my perspective this would embrace two forms of unity. The first is with our co-religionists across Europe. Back in 2001, Peter Pelz and Donald Reeves journeyed through Europe down to the Balkans (the seat of armed Islamic response) and noted the weakness of institutional and organized Christianity (chronicled in A Tender Bridge). I have seen little to suggest a deepening in pan-European solidarity.

Our second point of unity is with the dispossessed and the poor. Muslim communities across Western Europe are under strain because of their social marginalisation and the Islamophobic opprobrium heaped upon the heart and soul of Islam. If we have a bias to the poor, then we should be working with our brothers and sisters of the other religions, including and especially with our Muslim co-theists.

But above all we need to laugh. As Jim Cotter said, in the depths of God there is a well of laughter, very deep. That laughter may rejoice when we know that all of our certainties are fragments of what may be true.

And in that knowledge, then we can find a true perspective on all of our positions that seem so absolute.