Wednesday night,a panel presentation from University of Rhode Island professors and students led to cultured discussion about the Jan. 7 Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris and the terrorist attacks that followed around the city over the next few days.
Panelists included URI professors Leslie Kealhofer-Kemp, Katrin Jomaa, Matt Kemp and Lars Erickson. Student panelists were sophomores Ian Kanterman and Andrew McBride, and junior Alyssa Pietraszek, all of whom were in Paris during the attacks.
Erikson and the students opened the discussion with their first hand experience protesting the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
On Jan. 11, Erickson remembers getting an email from the U.S. State Department advising them not to take part in any public gatherings, but he recalled his students were “adamant about participating.”
“We didn’t realize it was taking place until we picked up a newspaper with the headline ‘ensemble’ on the front. The event in itself was riveting,” said Kanterman. “It went from slow walking and reflection to everyone celebrating life.”
McBride said he felt “like I was a citizen … it made me really proud of France. In a time of crisis, people came together like this, it was amazing.”
Each faculty panelist brought a different perspective to the Hebdo discussion before it was opened up to the floor. Kemp analyzed the massacre through “the lens of the French integral model” or its religious secularity.
“In France, minorities are not recognized as categories … all citizens are equal to the law,” Kemp said, adding that in order to be a French citizen, assimilation into the French culture is required under the “LaÃ¯citÃ©” standard, which protects French “liberty, equality and fraternity.”
“Religious expression is to remain in the private sphere” in the eyes of the French, meaning that Muslims who wear signs of their religion, like hijabs or burqas, are not typically accepted by the general French population”, he said.
“Muslims feel like they are French or Muslim, not both,” Kemp said. “The feeling of marginalization is a natural consequence.”
Kealhofer-Kemp expanded on her point, adding that this “did not happen in a vacuum” but has been going on for nearly 25 years. It started in 1989 during the “headscarf affair” when a principal in a French middle school suspended three Muslim girls for wearing headscarves during the school day, in violation of “LaÃ¯citÃ©.”
Debates over the headscarf continued and the controversies continued to spike over freedom of expression, as newspapers like Charlie Hebdo printed cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad.
“In 2007, the first lawsuit was filed against Hebdo,” she said. Several muslim organizations sued Hebdo for its offensive caricatures about the religion, but over 75 percent of these cases resulted in favor of Hebdo.
Kealhofer-Kemp explained that these rising actions were examples of tensions already stirring between Muslims and the rest of France leading up to the Hebdo massacre.
Jomaa, a practicing muslim, explained the Hebdo attacks from the muslim perspective. She clarified the muslim beliefs surrounding war and expression, emphasizing that “Islam is a religion based on knowledge, not ritual.”
“Life is sacred in Islam,” she said. “When anyone goes and does something in the name of religion, it’s not really about religion. This is about a power dynamic.”
Jomaa further explained that the French “specific rules for integration” are making it difficult for Muslims to freely express and practice their religion.
“This is where I see discrimination and oppression. People don’t need religion to commit violence,” Jomaa said. “[It is] a disenfranchised community that is being attacked. These are the seeds of radicalization.”
As the discussion was opened to the public, much discussion surrounded issues revolving around freedom of speech. One attendee asked whether the panel felt the comic was needed, or if it was just insensitive towards muslims for the sake of poking fun.
“In an interview, a cartoonist for Hebdo said, ‘Absolutely yes, it is needed. Islam needs to get to a place where they can put up with that’,” said JoAnn Hammadou, an audience member.
Ella Leah Brown, freshman, said she felt she understands why people feel upset about publications who satirize or make fun of their religion, despite freedom of expression.
“Religion is part of the person, part of the culture,” Brown said. “When you make fun of the practices, you’re making fun of the people.”
Many people agreed, adding that to more discussion is necessary even in such a secular society to overcome these differences.
“The answer is not shutting down newspapers,” Assistant Director of Communications David Lavallee said. “It’s more speech, not ending speech. The best journalism goes after the power. I’m not sure if Charlie Hebdo is the best, but I’d rather see them in publish than not.”