Debating “Blasphemous” Cartoons

Montreuil, 20 October 2020. “Secularism”

On Saturday, Farhad Khosrokhavar, a retired professor of Sociology at the prestigious School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris published an op-ed in Politico Europe which was given the title “France’s dangerous religion of secularism”. The piece generated an immediate storm, with high-profile journalists like Caroline Fourest, Bojan Pancevski, David Harsanyi, Noam Blum, Ian Dunt and indeed even Politico Europe’s own Florian Eder weighing in to express their horror.

The next day, Stephen Brown, the editor in chief, withdrew the article, stating, “It does not meet our editorial standards.” Though, as I will make clear, I do not agree with the op-ed, I find it difficult to imagine which standards it infringed.

What freedom of expression?

Withdrawing it following the controversy also seems counterproductive in light of the subject matter—freedom of speech, and the related value of academic freedom. It feeds into a dangerous narrative whereby academics like Khosrokhavar are accused of “islamo-gauchisme”, including recently by Blanquer, the French Minister for Education and in a controversial letter published in Le Monde and signed by around a hundred academics in France.

Khosrokhavar opened with a question: Why is France targeted much more than, say, England, Germany, Italy and Denmark by violent extremists?

This is an empirical question. A sociological one. Anyone who cares about terrorism in Europe may wonder the same thing.

As a sociologist, and someone specialized in domestic French terrorism, Khosrokhavar seems well placed to try to answer the question. He offers the following thesis: the reason is that “France’s extreme form of secularism and its adherence to blasphemy… [has] fuelled radicalism within a marginalized minority.”

Khosrokhavar immediately gives context. “Radical secularism” involves Charlie Hebdo republishing “blasphemous” cartoons of Mohammed to mark the start of the trial against those charged in the terrorist attack on their offices in 2015. He then goes on to call it a “civil religion”, with “priests” (government ministers), and a “pontiff” (the President).

This makes it clear that Khosrokhavar is not (merely) thinking about the “blasphemous” cartoons themselves, or their publication. He is thinking more specifically that the French State promotes religious “blasphemy”, with the support of intellectuals.

Besides stating it, Khosrokhavar does not give any detail on the supposed causal relation between “radical secularism” and the increasing Islamist terrorism in France in his op-ed. Perhaps he is wrong. Perhaps not. I’m not a specialist. But he certainly is.

If one wanted to form an informed opinion about this empirical question, one would need to read the experts. Khosrokhavar’s 600-page tome Le nouveau jihad en Occident (the new Jihad in the West), published in 2018, would seem to be one of the good places to start.

Many of the critical comments I read about the article focused on the op-ed “victim-blaming”, but considering the context—a respected sociologist specialized in the domestic causes of terrorism in France commenting on the causes of terrorism in France—this seems misguided.

From these brief empirical comments, Khosrokhavar moves on to a normative argument.

He first makes a conceptual distinction: “It is one thing to protect the freedom to blaspheme and another to enthusiastically urge blasphemy”. In other words, the fact that we have (and want, and defend) freedom of speech doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to insult a religious minority. This is perfectly true. Nothing substantive about the value of any particular speech act follows from the principle of freedom of speech.

A double ration of french fries to replace pork

Is it the case though that senior members of the French government immoderately and enthusiastically urge people to publish and distribute “blasphemous” cartoons of Mohammed? This is what Khosrokhavar implies, but he gives us little evidence.

While Darmanin has said some strange things about religion—like expressing shock that halal and kosher food have separate shelves in supermarkets—and Sarkozy famously instructed Muslim and Jewish kids to take a double ration de frites on days their school canteen serves pork, these surely don’t amount to praising “blasphemous” cartoons.

Indeed, Macron said in his recent interview on Al-Jazeera that he “understands and respects” that Muslims can be shocked by these cartoons. Macron even said he thinks that in society we need to cultivate mutual respect, implying perhaps that he too considers some of the satirists’ work “immoderate”. But Macron also insists it is out of the question to curtail the satirists’ right to freedom of speech, as that would involve installing a moral or religious order in France, which would be unacceptable.

On the other hand, less senior politicians in France have acted in a manner that could be interpreted in light of Khosrokhavar’s notion of “radical secularism.” Carole Delga for instance, president of the Occitanie region, had Charlie Hebdo cartoons projected on regional council buildings in Toulouse and Montpellier last month. In a similar vein, Renaud Muselier, president of the PACA region, is organizing a book republishing anti-religious and political cartoons to be distributed in every high school in France. Perhaps Khosrokhavar is focused on these and similar cases, and his reference to Macron as pontiff and government ministers as priests is mostly rhetorical.

Khosrokhavar goes further than criticizing the French government, though. He also thinks French intellectuals should be more reserved in praising the cartoons and defending the “unequivocal” right to freedom of speech. According to Khosrokhavar, the way these cartoons are used in France (“immoderately”) undermines public debate, stigmatizes and humiliates even moderate Muslims, and contributes to the “nefarious cycle” of provocation and counter-provocation.

A cycle of deleterious violence

Note what Khosrokhavar does not say. He does not say that drawing “blasphemous” cartoons should be illegal. Rather, he says that it’s not a good idea to praise such speech, nor should freedom of speech be unlimited. And that these things (the widespread praising of “blasphemy”, its promotion by the government, and the support of “unequivocal” free speech) contributes to a harmful cycle of violence.

It is hard to guess what Khosrokhavar means by unequivocal freedom of speech, or whom he thinks supports it. Certainly, freedom of speech in France is not legally unlimited. Hate speech, holocaust denial, incitement to violence, defamation, even insult are or can be illegal.

Perhaps Khosrokhavar is also wrong that praising “blasphemous” cartoons of Mohammed contributes in a significant causal way to the cycle of Islamist terrorism in France. But before forming a strong opinion on Khosrokhavar’s empirical claims, one should probably read his academic work to examine the robustness of his evidence and methodology.

Finally, Khosrokhavar’s normative claims do not simply follow from his empirical ones. It could both be true that praising “blasphemous” cartoons contributes to a cycle of violence and that there is nothing morally wrong with praising them.

All that notwithstanding, publishing and then withdrawing Khosrokhavar’s op-ed is really quite ironic. The academic’s right to freedom of speech should be defended equally as the cartoonist’s. If sociologists can no longer put forward plausible hypotheses about domestic causes of terrorism along with moderate if controversial practical proposals it seems the debate has become both hyper-partisan and anti-intellectual.

We need not agree with all his arguments—indeed, I marched for Charlie in 2015 and would do so again. But there is nothing horrific about suggesting that a moderate approach to disseminating images many find insulting would be wise.

Not publishing Khosrokhavar’s article would, of course, have been perfectly commonplace. Publishing it and subsequently withdrawing it I find difficult to justify.