houses of parliament

I took part in a discussion at the Institut Français in London featuring the French film-maker Karim Miské, whose debut novel Arab Jazz, a noirish policier set in a Parisian banlieue, has just been published. The discussion, in the shadow of the Charlie Hebdo killings, focussed on questions of Islam, identity, free speech and the differences between British and French social policy. Also taking part in the discussion were the translator Ben Faccini, Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, and the journalist Suzanne Moore. This is the full version of my talk (constraints of time meant that I gave shortened version on the night).

There are two issues that I want to address, both issues at the heart of the Charlie Hebdo debate: the question of free speech and that of Islam, identity and social policy. The two issues are closely linked; as indeed, are the debates in Britain and France. There is a widespread perception that social policies and attitudes to free speech are very different in the two countries; a case of assimilationism vs multiculturalism. In fact, neither at the level of policy nor of attitudes are the two nations quite as distinct as they often like to imagine themselves to be.

Consider free speech. The British sociologist Tariq Modood summed up what one might call the multicultural view when he suggested that ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’ Because we live in a plural society, in other words, so we must police public discourse about different cultures and beliefs, and constrain speech so as not to give offence.

This might seem a very unFrench view. The very existence of a magazine such as Charlie Hebdo, with its willingness to satirise and ridicule ideas, to mock religion, to lampoon Islam, whatever the consequences, seems to speak to a different tradition. And, yet, France has arguably more restrictive speech laws than does Britain. From privacy laws, to the ban on Holocaust denial, to some of the strictest hate speech codes in Europe, French legislation probably constrains public debate to a greater degree than in British.

French public attitudes are also not as often perceived. A poll taken after the Charlie Hebdo killings suggested that more than 40 per cent in France thought in it wrong for the magazine to publish a cartoon of Muhammad on the cover of its following issue; a far higher proportion than in Britain, where a YouGov poll suggested that only around third believed it to be morally wrong.

In my view, truly to defend free speech requires us to defend the right to express all views except that which directly incites violence. This does not mean that one accepts all views. The whole point of free speech is to create the conditions for robust debate. And one reason for such robust debate is to be able to challenge obnoxious and hateful views. To argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge bigotry seems to me immoral. But, one cannot challenge bigotry without the full extension of free speech. Free speech for everyone with nice views is not free speech at all.

That, of course, is not the consensual view in either Britain or France. In both nations, there exists what one might call a moral commitment to censorship, though that commitment expresses itself differently in the two countries.

In France, many of those defending Charlie Hebdo‘s right to publish cartoons of Muhammad offensive to some Muslims, have also applauded the attempts to silence Dieudonné, the anti-Semitic comedian, popular among many sections of France’s North African communities.

What is and is not acceptable speech in France and in Britain are intimately linked to issues of national history and national identity, and of how each is perceived and constructed. Consider, for instance, the role of the three monotheistic faiths in French public consciousness.

davis st sulpice

The modern republican tradition emerged in part through a bitter struggle with the Catholic Church. Provoking the Church and offending Catholicism was, and is, seen as a necessary part of the progressive tradition. The power and influence of the Church has, however, long since declined. Many Catholics may feel aggrieved at the mocking of priests or the Pope but these days such mockery carries little political charge.

France’s relationship to Judaism has been shaped by the centrality of, and subsequent guilt about, anti-Semitism. From the Dreyfus affair to the Vichy regime, anti-Semitism has played a critical role in national life. Consciousness of that history has established certain lines that cannot be crossed. In outlawing Holocaust denial, France acknowledges that guilt about its history of anti-Semitism trumps its attachment to free speech. Writers and cartoonists are far less willing to mock Jews or Judaism than they are Muslims or Islam, or Catholics and Christianity. And where they do cross the line, as with Dieudonné, the authorities come down hard.

In recent years, French anti-clericalism has instead found a new target in Islam. But Islam plays a far more complex role in French society than Catholicism did. On the one hand, it acts as a deeply conservative force within France’s North African communities which remain predominantly secular. On the other hand, politicians and commentators have increasingly presented Islam as an existential threat to French values and identity and, at the same, insisted on labeling the predominantly secular, and diverse, North African population as ‘Muslim’. The consequence has been to create the perception that North African communities are not really part of the French nation, and to justify discrimination against them. It has also been to create a sense within communities of North African origin of double standards when it comes to free speech.

All of which brings us back to the question of social policy and of assimilationism vs multiculturalism. I have long been a critic of multiculturalism. But, paradoxically perhaps, my criticisms of British multicultural policy apply equally to French assimilationist policy. To understand why, we need to distinguish between two notions of ‘multiculturalism’, which all too rarely are rarely distinguished: on the one hand, the lived experience of diversity; and, on the other, multiculturalism as a political process, or rather a set of political policies, the aim of which is to manage that diversity.

The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is obviously positive. It’s a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity through the public recognition and affirmation of cultural differences and by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case not for open borders and minds but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.

One can similarly distinguish between two meanings of assimilationism. On the one hand, it embodies the idea that one should treat everyone as citizens, rather than as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories. On the other, it is also a means of creating a common identity by institutionalizing the differences of groups that are deemed not to belong. I am for treating people as citizens not as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories. That is the heart of my critique of multiculturalism. In practice, however, French social policy has come to mean institutionalizing the differences of groups that are deemed not to belong, and in particular turning Islam into the ‘Other’ against which French national identity is defined.

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French social policy ends up, in other words, at the same place as British multiculturalism: looking upon certain people as members of a particular ethnic group rather than as citizens. Just like British multiculturalism, French assimilationist policies tend to expunge the diversity of minority communities, particularly Muslim communities, treating them instead as homogenous wholes, and as defined primarily by reactionary attitudes. At the same time, speech regulation has in both countries become a mechanism through which to define identities and to regulate social relations between groups in an era of identity politics.

Many in France look upon its citizens of North African origins not as French but as ‘Arab’ or as ‘Muslim’. But the second generation within North African communities are often as estranged from their parents’ cultures and mores, and from mainstream Islam, as they are from wider French society. The story of Cherif Kouachi, who masterminded the Charlie Hebdo killings, is striking similar to that of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 bombings in London. They are both of a milieu caught not between two cultures, as it is often claimed, but between no cultures. As a consequence, some of them have turned to Islamism, and a few have expressed their inchoate rage through jihadi-style violence.

At the same time, and in both countries, there is also a growing hostility to immigration and to Islam, and the attraction of groups such as UKIP or the Front National, as many working class communities come to see the problems of economic dislocation and political voicelessness faced by the working class are really issues of cultural loss.

So, multiculturalism or assimilation? Neither. But a proper defence of free speech and an unfettered challenge to racism and discrimination. A refusal to view individuals as merely bearers of racial or cultural histories. An acknowledgement of the diversity of minority communities. A defence of equality as meaning the right to be treated the same despite one’s differences of race, ethnicity faith of culture, not the right to be treated differently because of them. A concept of citizenship to include all citizens, not merely those whose and values are deemed acceptable. And an acceptance that common values may be a good, but they can only emerge through democratic debate, not by imposition from above.


The paintings are of London by French artists and of Paris by British ones: The Houses of Parliament by Claude Monet, The Interior of St Sulpice by JS Davis, and the View of Pont Neuf by JMW Turner.


  1. This echoes my own doubts about French laicite’. Why should headscarves be banned for being conspicuous religious symbols? Does this ban extend, as consistency would require,to the characteristic broad-brimmed hats and cheek curls of Hassidic Jews? And are not such bans an unwarranted intrusion on the right to control one’s own personal space?

  2. Fiona

    My ideal secularism is really one that facilitates the most freedom of expression for it’s citizens. France and the UK fail on this. I agree with the previous post on the stupid, pointless and just downright wrong banning of niqab and hijab etc in France. Our self- censoring gulags of exceptionalism that blight freedom of expression in the UK are also depressing.

    Your final paragraph is spot on. We are so far away from this though.

    I don’t know that we will get to a point where we can treat people the same in spite of differences of ethnicity. All the ‘nice’ people in the middle are caught between two sets of extremists and many non-muslims are either unable or unwilling to risk freely expressing our disagreement with the muslim variety. We let down muslims who are opposed to islamism very badly. I have just been rereading Salam Pax’s Iraq war blog and I am struck forcibly by his comments on ‘fundi’s’. When did we start to listen to Moazzam Begg to the exclusion of Salam? This is facilitating islamism and it’s truly racist opposition at the same time. The worst are full of passion. If I had one thing to commend the French for it is the fact they have at least attempted to (with a lot of bad mistakes granted) defend secularism with some passion and fearlessness. I never thought I would see the day when Amnesty International could take the stance it did against Gita Saghal and I wept when I read what much of our press had to say about Charlie Hebdo.

  3. “there is also a growing hostility to immigration and to Islam, and the attraction of groups such as UKIP or the Front National… are really issues of cultural loss.”

    First of all, UKIP and the Front National are not similar at all.

    Marine le Pen’s party is nationalist, protectionist, xenophobic and anti-semitic.
    Nigel Farage’s party is patriotic, for free trade, inclusive and tolerant of faith within a secular state framework.

    Secondly, far from ‘cultural loss’ driving people to support UKIP, it is UKIP’s optimistic vision of a society freed from the divisiveness of political correctness and multi-cultural separation, united in a belief Britain can be more than a star on someone else’s flag which attracts people to support this forward looking party.

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