Ni Dieu, ni maître

Olivier Tonneau attempts to explain to his Anglophone friends that it doesn’t work to just read all the French things through Anglophone lenses, any more than it would the other way around. Hell, many Americans are baffled by Monty Python and that’s not even a different language (mostly).

Three days ago, a horrid assault was perpetrated against the French weekly Charlie Hebdo, who had published caricatures of Mohamed, by men who screamed that they had “avenged the prophet”. A wave of compassion followed but apparently died shortly afterward and all sorts of criticism started pouring down the web against Charlie Hebdo, who was described as islamophobic, racist and even sexist. Countless other comments stated that Muslims were being ostracized and finger-pointed.

As a Frenchman and a radical left militant at home and here in UK, I was puzzled and even shocked by these comments and would like, therefore, to give you a clear exposition of what my left-wing French position is on these matters.

Firstly, a few words on Charlie Hebdo, which was often “analyzed” in the British press on the sole basis, apparently, of a few selected cartoons. It might be worth knowing that the main target of Charlie Hebdo was the Front National and the Le Pen family. Next came crooks of all sorts, including bosses and politicians (incidentally, one of the victims of the bombing was an economist who ran a weekly column on the disasters caused by austerity policies in Greece).  Finally, Charlie Hebdo was an opponent of all forms of organized religions, in the old-school anarchist sense: Ni Dieu, ni maître! They ridiculed the pope, orthodox Jews and Muslims in equal measure and with the same biting tone. They took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza. Even if their sense of humour was apparently inacceptable to English minds, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo also continuously denounced the pledge of minorities and campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. I hope this helps you understand that if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies.

And not, as so many are thinking and saying, racist enemies.

Of course, freedom of speech has its limits. I was astonished to read from one of you that UK, as opposed to France, had laws forbidding incitement to racial hatred. Was it Charlie’s cartoons that convinced him that France had no such laws? Be reassured: it does. Only we do not conflate religion and race. We are the country of Voltaire and Diderot: religion is fair game. Atheists can point out its ridicules, and believers have to learn to take a joke and a pun. They are welcome to drown us in return with sermons about the superficiality of our materialistic, hedonistic lifestyles. I like it that way. Of course, the day when everybody confuses “Arab” with “Muslim” and “Muslim” with “fundamentalist”, then any criticism of the latter will backfire on the former. That is why we must keep the distinctions clear.

I’ve been seeing a lot of sarcastic scare-quoted invocation of “Islam is not a race,” followed by groans about Dawkins and Harris and Maher. I get that the phrase is used to justify a lot of stupid Twitter outbursting, but all the same, there is a distinction between race and religion, and Tonneau reminds us of it handily.

The rest of the article is an interesting analysis of the possible reasons for the lure of fundamentalism; I recommend it.


  1. Arnaud says

    I was actually going to send you that link! (I cannot help but wonder if you came to it by the same way I did!)
    I will merely add that when I left France all those years ago (14 years? Really?) I had friends of North African origin, beurs. Not as many as I should probably have had, in retrospect. But I didn’t have actual Muslim friends. Indeed, when I moved to the UK and a few days later met my first Muslim friend here, I was actually surprised to learn he was praying five times a day. For me, it was actually one of the first intimation of the ‘exoticism’ of London life!

  2. says

    I saw it because Tehmina Kazi posted it in the British Muslims for Secular Democracy group on Facebook. Then after that, and just after I’d blogged about it, Helen Dale posted it on my FB wall.

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