Charlie Hebdo and the Limits of the Republic
Portside Date:
Author: Arthur Asseraf
Date of source:

Immediately following the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, commentators denounced an attack on "Democracy and the West," an attack on "the fundamental values of the French Republic." Everywhere in France, people are rallying around these apparently pure, unproblematic “Republican values.” There have been many requests for Muslims to demonstrate that they share in the Republic’s cherished values of secularism and freedom of speech. It is bitterly ironic that Muslims are being asked to prove that they believe in the same values from which they were historically excluded. The Republic has always had a darker side, and the civil liberties that are now idealized emerged in a colonial context where they excluded the Republic’s Muslim subjects.

Tony Barber, writing in the Financial Times, claimed the attacks this week "should not surprise anyone familiar with […] the poisonous legacy of French colonialism in North Africa." Yet France’s colonial history and the hypocritical origins of Republican values cannot explain the current situation. What is colonial here is the analysis rather than the events, the narcisissm that leads to the belief that everything is still about France, the West, and its values, even though many other dynamics are at stake. While recent violence knows no location and no boundaries, focusing on this as an attack on the Republic plays into the hands of the murderers themselves. 

The Colonial Limits of Free Expression

France’s iconic law on the freedom of the press passed on 29 July 1881, still enforced today, was designed in part to exclude the Republic’s Muslim subjects. While the law protected the rights of all French citizens, including explicitly those in Algeria and the colonies (Article 69), it did not protect the Republic’s subjects, who are the vast colonized populations throughout the French Empire. This was not a mere oversight: less than a month before, on 28 June 1881, the same parliament had passed an equally iconic law on the indigénat. Under the indigénat, a bizarre parallel system of justice, natives (indigènes) could not publish newspapers, or even speak or gather in public. The indigénat bypassed due process, required no trial, and involved a colorful variety of fines and punishments.

While the law also excluded a variety of colonized subjects of various creeds throughout the Empire in Africa and Asia, its Algerian context is particularly instructive because it specifically targeted Muslims. In colonial Algeria “citizens” were all those who were not Muslims, and the terms musulman, indigene, and sujet usually (though not always) overlapped. Muslim was a racialized legal category stripped of any religious significance. For instance, in a beautiful show of absurdity, several court cases confirmed that even if they converted to Christianity, natives remained legally Muslim, that is subject to discriminatory laws and stripped of citizenship.[1] The famous 1905 law on the separation of Church and State was also meant to be applied to Algeria. Tellingly, this never occurred because authorities, in particular, wanted to control what imams said in mosques. Imams remained civil servants of the French state until 1962.

Because Algeria was officially part of France, the freedom of the press law led to a unique situation where the small settler population, along with Algerian Jews naturalized as French citizens in 1871, developed a bustling newspaper industry free to publish more or less whatever they wanted. According to historian Didier Guignard, in the late nineteenth-century, settlers in French Algeria probably published far more per capita than even their already prolific metropolitan counterparts.[2] Muslims, on the other hand, were subject to censorship and official intimidation: newspapers by and for Algerians only emerged timidly in the early years of the twentieth century, and there was no daily newspaper right up until independence in 1962.

Such censorship was part of a vast “security” apparatus, to use contemporary language, designed to prevent a general Muslim insurrection. Following an extremely brutal war of conquest, Muslims, “a conquered people,” could not be trusted to speak freely lest they organize against France. Many foreign publications in Arabic were also censored in Algeria, in case the “fanaticism” of other Muslims in the Middle East were to contaminate the Republic’s departments that lay on the other side of the Mediterranean. In short, the emergence of French freedom of the press is linked to the violence, Islamophobia, and racism of colonialism. France has never been an unproblematic beacon of press freedom. The crux of the issue was not the failure of Muslims to “integrate” with Republican values. It was precisely the inverse: the construction of French laws to exclude Muslim voices.

Thinking Beyond France

This does not mean, however, that this colonial history can seamlessly explain events this week. This flashback to 1881 is only useful to dismiss a few shoddy arguments about idealized French Republican liberties. Unlike what Andrew Hussey writes in his deeply problematic book The French Intifada, there is no straight causal line between colonial Algeria and Paris in 2015. We might note, for example, that “Muslims” are no longer a legal category in French law and that Algeria is independent, free to have its own issues with freedom of the press. The meaning of “Republican values” has shifted well beyond its origins due to a number of struggles, and the limits envisaged by the laws of 1881 have expanded though they have not disappeared. The Kouachi brothers behind the attack on Charlie Hebdo, though of Algerian descent, were born in Paris and trained in Yemen. Amedy Coulibaly, the man who assassinated a policewoman before taking hostages in a kosher supermarket in connection with the Charlie Hebdo attacks, was born south of Paris, went on regular holidays to Crete, the Dominican Republic, and Malaysia, and played online poker. Understanding their trajectories, their radicalization in prison, their wanderings, and marginalization requires a firm understanding of the contemporary rather than of the colonial.

Claiming that this is all about the colonial past runs the serious danger of glamorizing jihadists as anti-colonial freedom fighters resisting imperialism. The geopolitical crisis that they are a part of cannot be read through a colonial lens. All sides are manipulating the languages of imperialism and resistance and the past few years have witnessed equally dramatic cases of Western imperial intervention as well as non-intervention from Mali to Syria. We cannot forget that jihadist movements consistently target Iraqi, Syrian, and Tunisian journalists. In Algeria itself, Islamists systematically targeted journalists during the “black decade” of the 1990s. Thus, it is hardly a “French” tradition of freedom of speech that is under attack, since the context for these events exceeds the geography of the hexagon. We can condemn the deaths of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo, but not because French values of freedom of the press are inherently superior or unique.

Many in the past few days have pointed out that Charlie Hebdo was a racist, Islamophobic publication that perpetrated the colonial stereotypes of Muslim fanaticism. I do not want to get bogged down in “je suis Charlie/je ne suis pas Charlie,” which is proving to be a very lively debate on the limits of freedom of speech. Instead, I will say this: current events are an incentive to think beyond the colonial mindset. The colonial administrators that I read every day believed that Muslims inherently had different brains. For them, Islam clung to the skin and the genes, saturating the individual and leaving them no space to be social beings. They were “only Muslims” and nothing else, to borrow the title of Naomi Davidson’s recent book.

Today, the dangers of this totalitarian vision can come from many and unexpected sides. It comes from the far-right, which warns us that all Muslims are dangerous and cannot be trusted. It comes from the jihadists, who tell us that Muslims are Muslims and Muslims only, necessarily engaged in a struggle against the rest of the world. The trap here is the binary, the inescapable colonizer/colonized, white/black, collaboration/resistance. In this narrowing of politics, we would either have to be “for” or “against” Charlie Hebdo. In other words, we must vehemently resist seeing this as an antagonism between France and “its Arabs,” or between colonizer and colonized. In the current era of geopolitical tension, from Ottawa to Damascus to Sydney to Algeria, there is no West or East, nowhere to run to, no borders, or barricades that offer protection from terrorism or surveillance.

The murders this week are not attacks against French freedom of speech, a tradition which has its own dark history, but it is one of many attacks on freedom of speech everywhere. The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are no more or no less heroes than the Iraqi, Syrian, Tunisian, or Algerian journalists who have been killed. In the words of Tahar Djaout, an Algerian journalist assassinated by the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) in 1993, “I will never support the fear rustled up by your priests, highway bandits that have usurped the halos of angels. I will stand outside of your blessing that kills, you for whom the horizon is a door that is nailed shut, you whose looks snuff out beacons of hope, and make each tree into a tombstone.”

[1] There is now much specialist work on this issue and the presentation here is intentionally simplified. This distinction also meant that Muslims retained the right to be subject to Islamic law in matters of personal status, eg marriage, divorce, etc. which was a matter of great political debate.

[2] Didier Guignard, L’abus de pouvoir dans l’Algérie coloniale, Paris: Presses universitaires de Paris-Ouest, 2010.

Source URL: