Last Wednesday evening, as a long day of class drew to an end, students, faculty, and visitors to the college gathered in Miller Lecture Hall for the long awaited and seemingly eternally postponed faculty panel on the attacks by two Islamic extremists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France. Though the attack were three months ago, Charlie Hebdo and the “Je Suis Charlie” movement has remained a major talking point in world politics. As Jefferson Adams, the organizer for the event and professor of European History said after the panel, “It’s actually better to have it [the panel] now instead of right after the attack happened. This way, we have hindsight and patience.”
Professor Adams enlisted the expertise of six other faculty to discuss these events including Dean of the College Jerrilynn Dodds, head of the French department Jason Earle, Middle Eastern history professor Matthew Ellis, and religion professors Kristin Sands and Glenn Dynner. Each panelist discussed specific political aspects and debates that developed in France before and after the attacks.
Dean Dodds began the panel with introductions and then a slideshow of images. Her theme was the “attitude towards images in a Western world.” She showed various slides depicting the Christ figure, the birth of Buddha, and depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Dean Dodds expertly took the audience through a brief history of religious imagery; the renaissance period, East Asian art, and the early images from the Arabic world were poignantly displayed in front of the audience. She then shifted to the Charlie Hebdo drawings and the cartoons published by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, stating that these were “more than just images, [and that they were essentially] an engagement with a culturally specific discourse surrounding images that respond to a very specific social, economic, and political moment…[which leads to] this bipolar opposition between freedom of expression on one hand and respect for a different attitude towards religion on the other hand.”
Following Jerrilyn Dodds, Professor Adams spoke about the American understanding of the French, and the present day political division plaguing France. He gave a summary of the right-wing surge in Europe, and explained that Le Front National (a right-wing political party led by Marine Le Pen) was taking steps to appeal to the votes of the youths, the workers and the blue-collar French – commonly a target for more liberal political parties.
Jason Earle prefaced his twenty-minute disquisition by stating that he “wasn’t a historian or an expert on French culture, but a scholar of French literature.” Though, as Professor Earle puts it, “French literature looms very largely in this story.” He then discussed at length the writings of Michel Houellebecq, “the bad boy of French literature.” Houellebecq’s latest novel Submission has been the top seller this year in France. He sets his story in a not-so-distant future where France becomes a moderate Islamic State under Sharia Law. Professor Earle explained, “Houellebecq is satirizing one vision of France’s future that is growing in circulation there.” Houellebecq is also prominent in the Charlie Hebdo story because he was on the cover of the satirical magazine, in an offish illustrated cartoon of himself when the offices of Charlie Hebdo were attacked.
Submission being the top seller of 2015 is by no means by pure coincidence, argues Professor Earle, since the top selling book of 2014 was Le suicide français (The French Suicide) by Éric Zemmour, which postulates France is entering into a long period of cultural suicide because of France “losing its true soul, because of emigration.”
Professor Earle focused primarily on describing Charlie Hebdo to an American audience, saying, “It’s less The Daily Show and more Mad Magazine. The closest thing Americans have to Charlie Hebdo is probably South Park. It routinely pushes the boundaries of what taste and humor mean in France, with La Belle Époque style cartoons. Their tagline was “bête et méchant” meaning “stupid and nasty.”
Kristin Sands, Professor of Islamic studies, then veered the conversation towards what she stated as “the extreme polarization between “Je Suis Charlie” and “Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie.” The two comparisons she drew were that of Salman Rushdie and his claim that “satire performs good deeds for society” versus the view of Pope Francis, who, after the attacks, spoke of the “limits to freedom of speech,” comparing the Muhammad figure to a mother figure in some ways.
Following Professor Sands, Matthew Ellis, a historian in modern Middle East studies, spoke about the relationship between the Middle East and France. “Ever since 9/11, the mainstream media has perpetuated the idea of a clash of civilizations between radical Islam and the Western world,” said Professor Ellis. But he alluded to this being false, and that there actually is a decline of radical Islam. “This way of looking at things...obscures some very crucial points.” Professor Ellis went on to point out the vast decline of political Islam’s role in Western world politics. “Political Islam is rather focused on changing society at home in the Muslim world.”
Glenn Dynner, the final panelist for the evening, followed Professor Ellis to discuss the state of anti-Semitism in Europe. He stressed the need to not overlook this problem in France, and compared it to the France of the 1930s. Dynner spoke of “the 7,000 Jews and their exodus to Israel from France. There have been hundreds of attacks on Jews across France and even into Belgium.” Dynner pointed towards parties like Le Front National, who hold somewhat anti-Semitic beliefs as a group, and that this awareness in France is very much needed.
After the panel, there was a Q&A discussing the events further. One key moment during this time came when Julia Schur (‘16) asked about the reason American news programs chose not to show pictures of the cartoons, but were instead willing to show video footage of the shootings. Jason Earle noticed that he too, he thought it seemed disconcerting that “violence in America could be shown on a loop on CNN, but you can’t show the cartoons that caused the violence.”
There was a mixture of reactions after the event from the student body. Fanny Cardin, one of the teaching assistants for the French department and Marielle Zieds (’16) a French exchange student from Sciences Po in Paris were critical after the panel. “I think in theory the panel was a good idea, but it didn’t have enough depth. There seemed to be a lot of stereotypes about France but they were very wrong. I think a lot of France’s suburban issues aren’t because of religion or race only. They [the panelists] didn’t address the economic or social problems enough,” said Zieds. Cardin added, “I really enjoyed hearing the point of view from Americans on the events. It was also nice that each professor had a different perspective. However, I felt a general lack of knowledge in the audience about the French social-economic situation in France. I would have also discussed their consequences, like the new debate surrounding the French ‘laïcité’, or the racism that the French Muslims have to endure more and more in our country.”
by John David Crosby '17