Charlie Hebdo, French Society, and Islamophobia

Fast Facts

You probably already know a decent amount about the shooting at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, but just in case, here are the basics. Gunmen opened fire on the offices of the magazine, killing 12 people. Witnesses said that they heard the gunmen shout things like “Allahu akbar,” leading authorities to believe Islamic extremists were behind the attack.

More recently, U.S. officials declared that one of the gunmen, Said Kouachi, had been trained by an al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, and that he and his brother Cherif Kouachi were on U.S. terrorist watchlists and the no-fly list. French authorities also have disclosed that one of the brothers had previously spent 18 months in prison after attempting to travel to Iraq to join militants there.

Charlie Hebdo was known for its controversial work satirizing not just Islam, but other religions and political figures. In 2011, it was firebombed, in another attack linked to Islamic extremists. French police are currently searching for the two brothers.


France has the largest Muslim population in Europe: they number at approximately 6 million and make up ten percent of the population. The number of French Muslims is growing nearly five times as fast as the Muslim population in other parts of the EU, and by 2020 some estimate that there will be as many Muslims as Christians in France.

The first and foremost conclusion that should be drawn from those numbers is the fact that the existence of such a large Muslim population in France means that the majority of French Muslims (just like the majority of Muslims worldwide,) do not support or engage in the kind of extremist violence that we saw yesterday at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, just as extremist violence carried out by Christians who do things like murder abortion doctors are not used to tar the entire Christian religion. Another fun fact: in the past five years, less than two percent of terrorist attacks in the EU have been religiously motivated. So while that does not diminish the tragedy of the murders yesterday, it is an important point to keep the dangers facing France and the EU in perspective.

Another important detail to remember is that while some of France’s Muslims are first-generation immigrants, many are not. Due to its colonization of several major countries in Northern and West Africa, France has always received many immigrants from that region. And a majority of those immigrants have been Muslim. So the existence of French Muslims is not a new phenomenon. It goes back generations. Like all migration patterns around the world, it has had fluctuated based on economic, social, and political factors, but it has nearly always been present.

However, since the French Revolution, the ideal of French society has been one of relative cultural homogeneity. An important aspect of French culture since 1905 has been the principle of laiceté, which established the state and the church as separate entities. Secularism has become a hallmark of French society. French citizens may believe whatever they like, but they must keep any significant markers of their beliefs private. For Muslim believers to whom it is important to do things like wear a headscarf, for example, this becomes a point of contention: non-Muslim French citizens object to the visible signifier of religion, while French Muslims maintain that it is an important part of their personal observance of their faith.

Furthermore, the defining characteristic of French immigration policy has been assimliationism, which is essentially the idea that cultural differences can be erased, or at least hidden, in order for everyone to become equally French. This is kind of like the pipe dream some Americans have of a post-racial society: the idea is kind of to ignore differences until they cease to be important. In fact, the numbers I provided earlier about the size of the Muslim population in France had to be collected by independent researchers, because by law the French census cannot ask its citizens about their religion or ethnicity.

However, this approach often further marginalizes minority groups who have unique needs stemming from the history of majority white French society colonizing them and discriminating against them. This discrimination is ongoing and can take many forms; for instance, immigrant or immigrant-origin French residents who speak Arabic as their first language and do not know French well enough to perform well in school are sometimes placed in special education classes, rather than given opportunities to take remedial French.

The failure of assimilationism can be seen in France’s recent experiences not just with this latest attack, but also in the series of protests and riots both for and against immigrant rights, and the resurgence of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Front National party.


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