Nations have different ways of talking about themselves. Americans tend to discuss their country in an idiom of national greatness, however radically they may disagree about the nature of this providential blessing. The French, on the contrary, make berating their country a national sport. Anyone who has recently spent time in France has heard the exasperation with which its citizens are prone to speak of their homeland, often describing it as “little country” whose glory days are behind it. Such talk is hardly new. In the 1930s, the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline—a master in the genre—mused about his nation’s fate: “We’ll disappear body and soul from this place like the Gauls … They left us hardly twenty words of their own language. We’ll be lucky if anything more than ‘merde’ survives us.”[footnote]Louis-Ferdinand Céline, L’École des cadavres (Paris : Denoël, 1938).[/footnote]
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We are accustomed to hearing stories and seeing images of racial injustice: the white police officer assaulting the black schoolgirl, the unarmed black man shot multiple times while imagined as a demon, the countless acts of microaggression. We are also accustomed to calls for racial justice. We live in an exciting time, when there is a burgeoning movement against racism attracting broad attention. Yet we are less accustomed to filling out, in any detail, what racial justice means. Does it simply mean an end to what we consider acts of racial injustice? Does it mean a transformation of a system that produces such acts? If so, a transformation to what? What will our world look like when there is racial justice?
Now that Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel has permitted the prosecution of German satirist Jan Boehmermann the time has come to fully wade into the free speech debate and take it beyond the question of policing the boundaries of a democratic society. Commenting on this decision, The Guardian criticized Merkel for tarnishing “her country’s reputation for freedom.” While the familiar issues of Europe’s core values—learning by the minority to develop a culture of laughing at oneself; of intolerance, bigotry, and micro-aggression against Islamic communities; of a new idea of plural Europe, with new rules of living together differently, that is in the making—will be played out as the controversy develops, the case of the German satirist opens the door to new issues for deliberation.
In the wake of the November 13 terrorist attack, French president François Hollande decided to reinforce France’s security legislation. In addition to a raft of police and intelligence measures, he proposed two major constitutional revisions: the first was to “constitutionalize” the state of emergency, previously an ad hoc piece of legislation; the second was to formalize the conditions under which French citizens can be stripped of their nationality.
Claims made in the name of secularism vary greatly. At one extreme, self-described secularists in the United States portray their cause as the beleaguered defense of the separation of church and state. As their critics rightly point out, faith in naturalistic worldviews often bubbles up in the fuzzy definitions of secularism that underlie their advocacy. At the other extreme, political and critical theorists use the term as shorthand for a master theory of global modernity. They see secularism as a set of discourses, policies, and constitutional arrangements whereby modern states and liberal elites have sought to regulate religion and, in the process, have contributed to the “immanent frame” in which religion is now located. Rather than advocacy, they see their task as the demystification of secularism.
Journalists, politicians and even scholars in Europe commonly use the word “Muslim” to refer not to religion, but to a person’s national origin, ethnicity, migration background, and incomplete membership in the national imaginary. This slippage happens as religion is used as an overarching category to speak about Maghrebi and Turkish migrants, and as immigration, Islam, and delinquency are consistently mentioned in the same breath, even in governmental studies. The conflation of religious and racial categories is important to understand because it pertains to a wider tendency of veiling anti-immigrant and racist sentiments in a language of cultural critique. It also makes one wonder whether the secular ideal of separating religion, culture, and politics is unfulfilled, if not hypocritical. But how exactly does religion become akin to a racial category? And how can we unravel their association?
In an essay here back in 2011, I sounded the alarm about the ubiquity and mainstreaming of hate speech directed against Muslims in Norway. That item was published a mere month before a White, Norwegian, right-wing extremist—who claimed Christian conservative leanings, and who had, since 2006, drenched himself in the netherworld of far-right online conspiracy theories about Islam and Muslims in Europe—committed the worst terrorist attacks in modern Norwegian history, killing seventy-seven people in Oslo and at Utøya on July 22, 2011. In that essay I was concerned with a state of affairs in Norway in which anti-Muslim ideas and sentiments had become so ubiquitous in the media and in public discourse—and legitimate and necessary critique of “religion” so conflated with hate speech—that few seemed to have the stomach to engage in any form of counter-speech, and hate speech against Muslims was hardly ever prosecuted.
In 2009, and again in 2010, I taught a class on the Akeda (“Binding of Isaac”) in the arts and the humanities (syllabus). The story of the Akeda, from Genesis chapter 22, is one of the central narratives of western culture. For Jews, the Akeda became a central motif of the penitential season, during which the merit of Abraham’s faith and Isaac’s willingness to be sacrificed is invoked to call upon God to forgive the people their sins and to save them in times of persecution and danger. For Christians, who often call this chapter the “Sacrifice of Isaac,” the Akeda became a foreshadowing of the crucifixion in which God sacrificed his only son for the salvation of humankind. For Muslims, the identity of the bound one became, in the post-Qur’anic period, Ishmael, the biblical founder of the Muslim people and religion. For secularists of all types, the Akeda became the embodiment of the conflict between the parental willingness to sacrifice children to various political and other causes, as well as the focus of the Oedipal conflict between father and son.
Around Christmas time, in the heart of Europe, furor broke out over blasphemous cartoons. The newspapers and public opinion were split. Was the blasphemer a public martyr for “liberty of the Press, or the right of free speech and free thought”? Or did the cartoons represent a “gross and gratuitous insult to the religious convictions of others”?