Charlie Hebdo conversation stimulates campus discussion

Brett Klein

Faculty, students and others from the University community gathered in the Speakers’ Corner of Falvey Memorial Library on Jan. 29 to discuss the recent attack on the offices of the “Charlie Hebdo” satirical magazine in Paris. On Jan. 7, two gunmen killed 12 people inside the office in response to the magazine’s portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad.

“Où est Charlie?”, described by its flyer as an “open conversation,” was co-organized by the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures’ program in French and Francophone Studies and the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies. Seth Whidden, a professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, moderated the discussion. Additionally, professors François Massonnat, Étienne Achille, Rebecca Winer, Hibba Abugideiri and Catherine Warrick began the conversation with opening remarks ranging from France’s history of secularism to what it means to be French. The panelists also fielded the myriad questions from the audience throughout. 

“Our goal was perhaps to keep the discussion going, to help organize it and to bring together some of the many issues related to it,” Whidden said. “We tried to raise, in the same public arena, a host of questions about the recent events in Paris that show precisely how tightly woven the situation is.”

Although many believed the main issue at hand to be one of the extent of freedom of the press evaluated against religious intolerance, attendees examined several topics, such as the history of anti-Semitism in France and Western media coverage focusing on radical Islam as the root of this and similar tragedies. Some participants raised concerns that the media have perpetuated the idea that the more Islamic one is, the more dangerous that individual is. This is a counterproductive ideology that fails to differentiate between Islam, a largely peaceful religion, and those who commit egregious violent acts falsely in its name. 

“We hoped to shed light on many of the relevant points,” Whidden said. “And, just as importantly, to give members of the Villanova community a chance to be heard as well.”

At the outset, a topic of discussion was the JeSuisCharlie hashtagmeaning I am Charliethat permeated social media in the wake of the attack. Although it is meant to be a sign of camaraderie in support of the fallen journalists and others who lost their lives, some expressed concern that the hashtag also echoed encouragement for racially insensitive satire. Still, it was brought up that the hashtag was similar to France’s support of the United States after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, after which the phrase “Nous sommes tous Americains,”—or “we are all Americans”—began to circulate in France. 

Another issue that was extensively covered was the contribution of France’s Banlieues, impoverished housing projects in large suburbs, to the divide that has grown between white, relatively wealthy French citizens and minorities living in less affluent areas. The two gunmen in the attacks on “Charlie Hebdo,” brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, were Muslim, but also French citizens. Professor Achille believed that this chasm between the social classes has caused significant tension and spurred tragic incidents such as this.

He acknowledged the existence of discrimination against non-white French citizens who frequently live in the disadvantaged Banlieues. The disdain between the social classes emanates from the idea that to be French is to be white and therefore others feel anger as a result of being ostracized by members of their own nation. Professor Achille argued against the current system of attempting to make those who follow Islamic fundamentalism more French instead of altering the strict definition of what it means to be French to be more inclusive. 

Not all of the participants agreed with each of the panelists’ perspectives, but more importantly, everyone was encouraged to share their views and bring up any relevant points or issues. 

“Our campus needs conversations of this kind,” Whidden said. “We have an important role to play in making sure that they take place, and that when we organize them, people attend and are glad that they did.” 

According to Falvey Memorial Library’s estimate, approximately 75 people attended “Où est Charlie?”  

As “Où est Charlie?” showed, the discussions that grew out of the events in Paris are important to everyone, everywhere,” Whidden said. “It’s for that reason that [we] all felt compelled to participate in the event, and to explain to the University community how their disciplines can help us see how to connect the dots between events such as what happened in Paris and our own lives.”