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Charlie Hebdo, Xenophobia, and France's Colonial History
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Massacre. The word is brutal and the actions it requires nearly incomprehensible. The massacre of staff at France’s media outlet, Charlie Hebdo, has offended the world, particularly the Western World. It is one depicted by many as an Islamic-inspired attack against free speech and freedom of the press. Two brothers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, attacked Charlie Hebdo’s office and killed staff members purportedly for depicting the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).[1], [2]

To define the attack on Charlie Hebdo as one in opposition to Western ideals of freedom is a simplistic understanding that fails to recognize France’s deeply engrained xenophobia that is the product of past colonial expansions around the world, particularly in North Africa. Intentional justifications for stratifying people into groups based on recognizable differences in skin color, religion, and geographic location facilitated the gross injustice that is colonialism. This same understanding that suggests distinct populations carry lesser value dependent upon Western perception allows xenophobia to flourish in France.

While acknowledging the attack on Charlie Hebdo as unjustifiable, the Roman Catholic Church’s Pope Francis noted that free speech has limitations. He said that undue provocations should expect reactions. “There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions...[t]hey are provocateurs.”[3] Author Jamil Maidan Flores states that Charlie Hebdo:

“…depicting Catholic nuns masturbating, the Pope wearing a condom and the Prophet of Islam in unspeakable poses isn’t satire. It’s malicious slander that should be legally actionable in any democratic society.”[4]

Regardless, the Kouachi brothers’ bloody massacre is a harsh response to an offense and the Pope’s words are not an attempted justification for the Kouachi brother’s massacre of Charlie Hebdo staff. However, the Pope touches on the Hobbesian concept that one’s freedoms are unlimited until they rub against or interfere with others’ freedoms.[5] Once one’s freedom is interfered with by another, an appropriate response becomes necessary in order to restore equilibrium. Such a response is justifiable because it protects one’s own freedoms and interests against the unwanted advances of another.

The Kouachi brothers infringed their victims’ freedoms by taking those victims’ very lives. This is unacceptable because it does not excuse the Koauchi brothers’ brutal acts. Indeed, their attack constitutes the ultimate infringement upon life in that their act rests upon the finality of taking others’ lives.

Nevertheless, the attack on Charlie Hebdo is more than a disproportionate response to the unrestrained use of free speech. It is the reaction to a xenophobia rooted in archaic colonial thought that conceptualizes French national identity as both white and secular, or at least not North African and Muslim. With this expanded understanding of the massacre, the Kouachi brothers become violent reactionaries to perceived restrictions on, or infractions against, their persons and their religious community’s freedoms. Pope Francis notes the offense precipitating the reaction as originating from “provocateurs,” namely Charlie Hebdo for overextending the use of free speech by inappropriately portraying the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh). In a recent interview, her Majesty Queen Rania al Abdullah of Jordan elaborated on this point:

“I cannot see the point or value of reducing a figure that millions of Muslims around the world hold so dear into crude caricatures. To what end? More cartoons of this sort only hurt, deepen mistrust and incite prejudice, at a time when we should be promoting tolerance and understanding. Surely there is a balance to be found between freedom of expression and protecting the dignity and sanctity of religion?”[6]

One does not have a right to unreasonable provocation. By finding elements of the Muslim faith irrelevant, Charlie Hebdo unnecessarily infringed upon the Muslim community’s freedoms, those freedoms from external impediments, that prohibit certain illustrations. Unfortunately, such infringements are not anomalies. The provocation by Charlie Hebdo is representative of the West, and more specifically France, in selectively applying freedom when it is convenient and supportive of Western attitudes. With xenophobia raging in France, Charlie Hebdo’s provocative illustrations targeting Islam fell within an acceptable range. In contrast, the Kouachi brothers’ attack did not because the brothers’ was an agenda rooted in a defense of non-white and Muslim populations.

France’s colonial history in Algeria is one marred by violence, inequality, and oppression; three outputs of colonialism. The 1966 film, Battle of Algiers, captures each output required for France to subjugate the Algerian population.[7] Violence, inequality, and oppression were the result of France viewing indigenous populations as wholly inferior, as unequal beings composed of lesser human value. The film perfectly depicts France’s condescending views. Present xenophobia in France demonstrates that these archaic attitudes have not been shaken.

France failed to recognize Algerian demands for independence until 1962. Yet, Algeria’s overthrow of tyrannical colonization did not end relations with France. Post-1962 immigration has persisted to the present day. Indeed, the Kouachi brothers’ own lineage traces to Algeria.

Analogous to U.S. angst in addressing Mexican immigration at its southern border, secular France continues to wrestle with immigration from its North African neighbors. Previously colonized states including Algeria and Tunisia continue to produce large percentages of immigrants to France, due in part to geography but also due to the colonial legacy. Twenty years after Algerian Independence, [l]es Maghrébins représentent en 1982 38[.]5% de la population étrangère,” or translated, “North Africans in 1982 represent 38.5% of the foreign population.[8], [9]

In 2012, France’s immigrant population was composed of 7% Algerian and 7% Tunisian-born immigrants.[10] Both Algeria and Tunisia remain highest in this category for non-European nations. Ninety-nine percent of Algerians are Muslim.[11] This matches Tunisia’s population, which is 99.1% Muslim.[12] There is irony in that France invaded Algeria and must now contend with unwanted Algerian immigration into France. It is this continual stream of non-white immigration that necessitates France and Le Vieux Continent confront the consequences of their colonial sins.[13]

Allowing North African immigration is no act of reconciliation. French law aggressively pursues legislation that isolates Muslims while simultaneously charging Muslims for failing to assimilate. In a highly publicized crackdown, two French women were fined for wearing traditional Muslim dress that covered their face. The penalty for going in public dressed as such was “...a fine or a citizenship class.”[14] To add salt to the wound, the law precipitating the crackdown received the direct support of the European Court of Human Rights.[15]

For the religious, face coverings are especially meant to be worn in public. This demonstrates the legislation’s intentionality in targeting Muslims. As Shadi Hamid notes in his The Atlantic article, “...it is undemocratic and illiberal to ask European Muslims to be as religious as they want at home but to keep their Islam out of public view.”[16] The great cultural chasm that Muslim immigrants are asked to cross is made wider by the French government.

“[President] Hollande has done very little to address the problems experienced by Algerians living in France, including growing Islamophobia. He refuses to reverse measures like the burqa ban and has highlighted his opposition to halal meat and praying in the street because of a lack of mosques. Anti-discrimination laws are way down his agenda, despite the fact that stigmatisation is likely to increase as the negative social effects of economic austerity polices become more apparent.”[17]

The so-called burqa ban captures French secularism that demands Muslim constituents refrain from openly practicing Islam and thereby circumventing freedom of religion. Yet, when French “provocateurs” liberally utilize freedom of the press in an antagonistic manner, the undermining of Muslims’ freedom of religion is found mutually exclusive. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is a product of France limiting freedom of religion when it does not support France’s conception of “proper,” Western religion. The freedom of press and freedom of religion are intrinsically connected for they are both expressions of humanity.

Colonialism was ultimately justifiable only when viewing colonized populations as inferior. This stratifying based upon skin-color, religion, and other key differences perpetuated colonial attitudes while creating easily identifiable indicators for prejudicing and segregating. Today, this archaic and inequitable world view lives in the xenophobia openly exhibited in 21st century France. Europe’s xenophobia is the evolution of inequitable world views that justified colonialism.

In his article “Does Immigration Mean ‘France Is Over’?,” American author Justin Smith discusses his experience visiting France:

“[Prejudice] is also written into the procedure at French immigration offices, where all foreigners must go to obtain their residence permits, but where the Malians and Congolese are taken into one room, and Americans and Swedes into another. For the former, the procedure has an air of quarantine, and the attitude of the officials is something resembling that of prison guards; for the latter, the visit to the immigration office feels rather more like a welcome ceremony, and everything about our interaction with the officials bespeaks a presumption of equality.”[18]

Support for Charlie Hebdo’s absolute disregard for religious feelings illustrates the delineation between “French” and “other” where the former is intertwined with ideals of freedom of the press and freedom of religion while the latter stands unable to tap into the richness of these principles while on French soil. For North African and Muslim constituents, immigrant or French citizen, they remain in a position where freedoms are not equitably applied.

France’ colonial history does not necessitate some form of reparations to non-white immigrants. However, as a state having previously colonized, France must burden the responsibility of recognizing xenophobia as stemming from colonialism. The Kouachi brother’s attack on Charlie Hebdo was a disproportionate response to xenophobia exhibited in Charlie Hebdo’s portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), but a response nonetheless. The selective support of some freedoms over other freedoms is incongruent to all facets of freedom and only serves to isolate and criminalize non-white, Muslim populations. France must reconcile its colonial past by challenging xenophobic provecateurs in the media, in the government, and elsewhere. Until this occurs, the chasm between “French” and the “other” will continue to birth aggression on both sides.

Timothy Aderman graduated from Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri, USA in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science/Pre-Law. He has written on foreign aid, U.S. foreign policy, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings. Timothy plans on beginning law school in 2015 and hopes to one day receive a PhD in Political Science researching post-colonial theory.


[1] With respect to Islamic tradition, “pbuh” is a traditional expression standing for “peace be upon him” that is used after invoking the name of a prophet. In Arabic, “salla allahu alayhi wa salaam.”

[2] Higgins, Andrew and MAÏA de la BAUME. (January 8, 2015). Two Brothers Suspected in Killings Were Known to French Intelligence Services. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/08/world/two-brothers-suspected-in-killings-were-known-to-french-intelligence-services.html?_r=0.

[3] Winfield, Nicole. (January 15, 2015). Pope Francis On Charlie Hebdo: ‘You Cannot Insult The Faith Of Others’. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/15/pope-francis-charlie-hebdo_n_6478104.html.

[4] Flores, Jamil Maidan. (January 12, 2015). Who are the real heroes of press freedom? The Malaysian Insider. Retrieved from http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/sideviews/article/who-are-the-real-heroes-of-press-freedom-jamil-maidan-flores.

[5] Hobbes, Thomas. (Published February 25, 1982). Leviathan. Penguin Classics.

[6] Al Abdullah, Rania. (January 21, 2015). Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah’s interview with the French publication L’Express (In English). Queen Rania Al Abdullah. (Interview). Retrieved from http://www.queenrania.jo/media/interviews/her-majesty-queen-rania-al-abdullahs-interview-french-publication-lexpress.

[7] Pontecorvo, Gillo (Producer). (1966). Battle of Algiers. [Motion picture]. Algeria: The Criterion Collection.

[8] Marranci, Gabriele. (Date unknown). Some Aspects of Algerian Immigration in France. Paragraph 6. University of Maryland, Baltimore County: Music & Anthropology. Retrieved from http://www.umbc.edu/MA/index/number5/marranci/marr_1.htm.

[9] Translated using translate.google.com.

[10] SudOuest.fr. (November 28, 2014). Qui sont les nouveaux immigrés qui vivent en France ? : Principaux pays de naissance (en 2012). Sod Ouest. Retrieved from http://www.sudouest.fr/2014/11/28/qui-sont-les-nouveaux-immigres-qui-vivent-en-france-1751452-705.php.

[11] Central Intelligence Agency. (2014). Algeria. The World Factbook. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ag.html.

[12] Central Intelligence Agency. (2014). Tunisia. The World Factbook. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ts.html.

[13] “The Old Continent,” a reference to Europe.

[14] Chrisafis, Angelique. (April 12, 2011). French veil ban: First woman fined for wearing niqab. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/apr/12/french-veil-ban-woman-niqab-fined.

[15] Radio France International. (July 1, 2014). European Court upholds French full veil ban. The BBC News Europe. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28106900.

[16] Hamid, Shadi. (August 16, 2011). The Major Roadblock to Muslim Assimilation in Europe.  The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/08/the-major-roadblock-to-muslim-assimilation-in-europe/243769/.

[17] Ramdani, Nabila. (December 19, 2012). French-Algerians are still second-class citizens. Paragraph 7. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/19/french-algerians-still-second-class.

[18] Smith, Justin E. H. (January 5, 2014). Does Immigration Mean ‘France Is Over’? Paragraph 4. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/05/does-immigration-mean-france-is-over/?_r=0.

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