by Isabel Togoh 

2015 was undeniably a test of France’s resillience. January’s Charlie Hebdo massacre and the spate of attacks which followed, are well-lodged in most people’s minds. 17 people were killed including cartoonists, journalists, a policeman and woman, a janitor, and shoppers at the Hyper-Cache supermarket. Emotional wounds had barely healed before being ripped open at the realisation that Paris had been struck again on November 13th, by proponents of the same deadly cause.

Yet, in the midst of threats and violence against the foundational aspects of today’s France: seen as a largely tolerant and diverse society, it was these very ideals which dominated the conversation in the days that followed. When IS branded the attendees of the ‘Eagles of Death Metal’ concert ‘apostates’, France, the UK and all who condemned the attacks pumped harder our fists of freedom and diversity into the air. Parisians and empathisers around the world were quick to reinforce the plurality of French society. We stood defiant and undeterred. Bruised, but unbroken.

In early January one year on from the shootings, Charlie Hebdo published a commemorative cover which depicts a God-like figure splattered with blood, and a kalashnikov slung across his body. This time around, the villain has come to be identified as religion. Not IS, but religion. The caption beside the cartoon reads ‘One year on, the murderer is still on the run’.

That labelling of a practice followed by billions around the world, and millions in France, is now a point of departure for the magazine is worrying. Calling out entire doctrines for the sake of reinforcing the importance of secularism is divisive and unproductive. It demarcates between believers and non-believers, throwing each category into the binary of good versus evil, a process, which is reminiscent of the very divisions envisioned by IS.

Unequivocally, the actions of IS are brutal, barbaric and senseless, but the scapegoating of the secular, the non-religious, the ‘evil’ from their extremist perspective, is born out of the division which the January Charlie Hebdo cover enforces. A viewpoint which sees their ‘ideology’ as superior and more worthy of acknowledgement than others.

In a country where the plurality of society was so heavily celebrated and upheld as a shield of societal freedom against the terrorism inflicted by IS, the narrative has now been flipped to exclude all those who believe in one God or many, or adhere to a religious way of life. It is worrying that such an unproductive debate and further fragmentation can be drawn through this cover.

Many will condone the democratic and journalistic right of the publication to produce the cover, and I do, too; after all, what is journalism if it cannot at least provoke illuminating and – sometimes painful debates. In that same vein, freedom of speech is one of the vital signs of any democratic society. However, perhaps we need to rethink how ‘free’ it really is, when it begins to incite hatred and violence.

Riding on the tail of that cover, the abominable cartoon which speculates what might have been of drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi displays a brash insensitivity to the victim’s family. Depicting Kurdi, whose death nudged at the humanity of Europe’s leaders, as a Cologne-style molester drew widespread criticism *at last*, including from Queen Rania of Jordan. Any doubts that satirical and ethical lines have been crossed by the publication, were suddenly erased. The cloak of infallibility has fallen. Simply put, it isn’t satire. It is racist. It is ugly.

Ways of defining ‘free speech’ in relation to Charlie Hebdo’s satire had been debated at length, whereby the question of just how ‘free’ the media could and should be in a plural society has been raised. Many have – and will – maintain that the unbridled expression of any and all ideas should not be stifled. However, a dose of social and cultural awareness should not be considered a ‘tarnishing’ of the values of free speech, nor is it censorship-lite. It should rather widen the parameters of free speech by encouraging those with marginalised voices to participate. Free speech cannot be such if it unfairly excludes a group of people in a society and insults their humanity, especially if they are marginalised or have limited agency with which they can rebut injustices against their identity.

The deaths of several Charlie Hebdo staff were not in any way warranted or justifiable, that is indisputable. The publishing of the cartoon of Prophet Mohammed last January in the name of ‘satire’ was also not justified. It mocked the beliefs of many Muslims, who on the totem-pole of social influence and respect as a community in France sit quite low. This is due in part to the amalgamation made in public and private discourse between the extremist beliefs and practices of IS, and the majority of Muslims who condemn its existence.

Over the past year, Charlie Hebdo has become further embedded into the arms and hearts of much of French society, and empathisers and upholders of democracy around the world. Its circulation has ballooned, with 1 million copies printed for the commemoration issue. Its identity as a bastion of free speech has been cemented. Its agenda is also unambiguous: it is a staunch advocate of secularism and condemns religious dogma as irrational. Yet in doing so, it highlights the divisions between religious and non-religious, good and evil, stupid and intelligent: the very boundaries which IS also seeks to uphold. February’s new edition fast approaches and as consumers we must be careful not to buy into this binary. The lines are not so clear and religion, unlike a Charlie Hebdo cartoon, is not one-dimensional.

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Isabel Togoh is a recipient of the Guardian’s Scott Trust Bursary for 2015/16 and has written for and edited thelondonglobalist.org, and eastlondonlines.co.uk. She is of Ghanaian origin and was born in Paris, and lives and studies in the UK. Find her on Twitter @bissieness.

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