‘After Charlie Hebdo: A Public Forum on Religion, Freedom and Human Rights’

Trinity College Dublin hosted ‘After Charlie Hebdo: A Public Forum on Religion, Freedom and Human Rights’ on February 16th last.

The aim of the event was to counter simplified narratives on questions around religious fundamentalism,  terrorism and freedom of speech by facilitating thoughtful and respectful public discussion of some of the under-explored dimensions of the Paris terrorist attacks with experts from the School of Law, the Department of History and the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies. It was attended by a diverse and engaged audience of over 300 people, many of whom had an opportunity to contribute their opinions and query the perspectives of the speakers.

On opening the discussion, the Chair of the event, Professor Juergen Barkhoff, Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, noted how the tragic events in Copenhagen had superseded the discussion and ‘were a grim reminder of how acute and important the topic of ‘religion, freedom and human rights’ really is to open democratic societies’. He acknowledged that the questions that need to be considered were manifold and complex. The forum was an attempt to create a space for public discussion to tease out various perspectives and draw out the larger issues to help contribute to greater understanding and tolerance.

In his contribution, Professor of Modern European History,  John Horne, Director of the Centre for War Studies and an expert on French history and French contemporary society, explored the French Republican ‘model’ for integrating minority communities and the experience of the ‘banlieue’ (suburbs); the Algerian legacy in the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks; and French understandings of freedom of speech and the values of the Republic and how French society responded to the attacks. He noted that the French attacks were not specific to France. Their key components of violence in the name of religious fundamentalism and a growing anti-Semitism, in which Jews were targeted precisely and only because they were Jews, which were tragically repeated in Copenhagen that weekend, had implications and significance for all in and beyond Europe and required our solidarity and vigilance.

 Pictured on the occasion of the lecture are Professor Horne, Dr Fazaeli, Professors Barkhoff & Cox.

In terms of the rising anti-Semitism and how we counteract it he argued that it was ‘not a question of freedom of speech but the security of, and our solidarity with, our fellow Jewish citizens not just in France and Denmark but across Europe and here in Ireland’. Addressing the large population of 4.7 million Muslims in France, he pointed out that it was important to note that the majority did not condone the attacks. There seems to be a deep crisis within Islam, which one sees in a country like France, which requires our understanding. He suggested that the position of Islam in Europe had in a curious way taken over from or dovetailed with the position that Jews have often felt themselves as being in, as the other, the minority group in European societies. It was important to recognise the ways in which people from many immigrant backgrounds in France and in many European countries, particularly non Europeans, face discrimination. He noted that European society offers many of these minority groups a freedom of religion, speech, and security not available to them in many societies outside Europe and this implies the reciprocal understanding of all citizens in that society that they have the same freedom to accept criticism as well as to criticise, to be satirised as well as to engage in satire. How we find ways of expressing freedom of belief without unnecessarily offending others is a general question across Western societies.

He concluded: ‘In a society in which everybody’s right to express their beliefs is accepted it is impossible to accept that any one truth has a monopoly and therefore since all assertions of truth have the capacity to be used in a tyrannical fashion in support of authority all have to be open to criticism and that is a very a particular French belief which goes right back to the French revolution and to the origins of the republican tradition and though it’s manifested in a particular way there it seems to me that it’s a much more general value across Western societies’.

Dr Roja Fazaeli, a specialist on Islam and Human Rights from the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies in the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, examined the construction of dichotomies within current debates on values and identities in Islam and Europe, including differing attitudes towards representations of Mohammad. She spoke of the sadness that continues to linger after the event, sadness for the lives lost at and around the Charlie Hebdo offices and at the Kosher supermarket in Paris and sadness for a state of affairs in which this kind of violence has precedent and in which there was future expectation or fear of more to come as evidenced in Denmark that weekend and as recently as today at the Jewish cemetery in Alsace. In this context the need to speak about ideas of freedom was important as were the hate claims, identity politics, rooted in one form or other, real or imagined, of Islamic traditions as well as the social, physical and intellectual conflict spurred by deferring understanding of Islamic traditions. She emphasised that Islam is not a uni-vocal religious system and that no one person could speak for Islam. ‘When viewed in the light of historical context I would submit that discussions about Mohammed’s cartoons fit better within the framework of the freedom of speech rights rather than being understood or misunderstood as sacred transgressions across a rigid religious superstructure’.

Dr Fazaeli drew attention to how essentialism, ossification and a narrow institutionalization of Islam could be terrible tools for violent extremists, but also cause a backlash against Muslim minority communities. This is one of the reasons why open debates within Muslim communities were as important as their agreement that Islam must be open to change and reform. She argued that this openness by the Muslim community to change aspects of Islam in order to be represented in Europe as Muslims needs to be paired with a serious discussion in Europe about what it means to be European and what secularism in Europe means for religion in general and Islam in particular. She queried whether discussions of Islam in Europe would be handled through a kind of didactic democracy or authoritarian intervention or could there be better ways of using democracy to explore new forms of commonality. In terms of the politics and discourse of Islam in contemporary Europe, she drew parallels to American anti-Catholic nativism which emerged in the 1840s in reaction to the arrival of masses of poor Irish Catholics who were considered as unassimilable and hostile to the Protestant values of the new American republic. Progressive immigration of people from Catholic countries whether religious or not became the embodied representation of the dreaded Catholicism. In contemporary times Islam she argued had been constructed as an essentially fundamentalist, anti-democratic, anti-modern religion and civilisation in a sense replacing Catholicism as ‘the other’ of modern liberal Christian secular western Europe. Since the 1990s immigrants from majority Muslim countries have been increasingly identified by the religious marker of Islam than by other national or ethnic identities, while immigrants from Catholic countries such as Poland, the Philippines etc are still identified according to nationality. The conflation of Muslim immigrants into a homogenous group is problematic and complicated by the fact that Muslims themselves are now starting to identify themselves as Muslim which is contributing to the re-emergence of a global imagined community of Islam.

Professor Neville Cox, an expert on blasphemy laws and Islamic laws, from the School of Law, considered the reaction of the western world to the attacks and assessed the fundamental principle of free speech which is allegedly undermined by the kinds of cartoon published in Charlie Hebdo by reference to the difference between blasphemy and defamation of religion.


Professor Cox noted how puzzled he was by the global reaction to the French attacks compared to the response to the series of awful acts of terrorism and slaughter in Pakistan, Nigeria, and Sydney in the days and weeks before which had rightly elicited condemnation but had not generated the same spirit of solidarity from the international community. There was a perception that something was under threat which people needed to stand up to and be counted in defending and that something was perceived to be the freedom to publish these cartoons as this was apparently the source of the attacks.

In trying to establish what the precise nature of this freedom to publish was he looked at the nature of the cartoons themselves and found that the French and Danish cartoons fell under two categories of law explained by reference to the distinction, which a lot of commentators had missed, between the crime of blasphemy and the concept of the defamation of religion discussed by the United Nations between 1999 and 2011 at the behest of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

He explained that blasphemy laws have always targeted irreverence or impiousness or moral inappropriateness on the basis of a moral commonality. What is always protected by a blasphemy law is the sacred – not the religious organization – whether protecting religious sensitivities or religious creed as part of the law of the land. The sacred aspect of ideology is protected by such laws from impiety.

Defamation of religion as it plays out through UN resolutions is entirely conceptually different. The target in the resolutions was speech which was xenophobic, and specifically targeted was speech linking Islam with terrorism. This is especially a post 9/11 phenomenon – the notion of negative stereotyping of an entire religion which is close to a quarter of the world’s population by reference to the actions of a few.

Regarding the cartoons, he suggested that some were blasphemous, without being defamatory of religion, in so far as they treated the prophet in an irreverent fashion as the most sacred figure within Islam. On the other hand, some of the French cartoons and all of the Danish cartoons linked the prophet with terrorism and in doing so made an inescapable statement in his view that the religion created by the prophet had inherent links to terrorism. What was at stake was not mere religious sensitivities, but individual rights – the rights of individual Muslims who were being racially profiled as minority and majority states, those who are facing discrimination and destruction of property and so forth. Where a blasphemy law protects religious sensitivities, the UN resolutions about defamation of religion exist to protect fundamental human rights and is useful as a promoter of social and global harmony.

What then he asked was the principle in respect of which people joined in solidarity? Is it the freedom to be grossly offensive? Yet Human Rights law can restrict freedom of expression in the interest of public morality and there are a number of restrictions on free speech because certain states regard certain things as unsayable. How can we speak of a freedom to defame a religion if we are allowed to restrict speech to prevent an individual being defamed? The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation is the second largest body in the world, after the UN, of nations, joined together on the basis of religion. How can we construct a global international norm of free speech which simply ignores their views? What about the cartoons which did link Islam with terrorism – what freedom are we talking about there – freedom to be xenophobic or engage in hate speech….or is it a general freedom or that satire must always trump where religion is at stake?

‘This is my difficulty and I don’t know the answers. We have lots of rules within European and global society which allows restriction of free speech when what is at stake is something which targets a group through the process of negative stereotyping and in doing so leaves individuals open to threat. On that basis pourquoi je suis Charlie? ….What is this principle and what does it say about free speech and especially the relationship between western liberal secular orthodoxy and Islam?… Are we simply looking at a situation where what we are asserting is our own inability to understand an ideology which has different types of claims on people, which is intangible and which is growing?’

This public forum on the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks was the first event of a new series, ‘Behind the Headlines’, organised by Trinity’s Arts and Humanities Research Institute, the Trinity Long Room Hub, which aims to offer background analyses to current issues by drawing on expert analysis from within the Arts and Humanities. As the Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, Prof Juergen Barkhoff noted:

‘This new format was conceived out of a desire to use the insights from Arts and Humanities research to highlight and help explore the layers of complexity associated with some of the major crises and issues facing our society in the here and now. The issues we research are often at the heart of discussions on what a society we want to live in and what we, as individuals and groups, can contribute. It is part of a wider Public Humanities Initiative of the Trinity Long Room Hub and its partner Schools that aims at strengthening active citizenship, a sense of our shared humanity and ethical responsibility’.

A full podcast of the discussion including questions and answers is available at the following link: