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Living together well: secularism, liberal democracy and uncertainty in the wake of Charlie Hebdo

Date:20 January 2015
Author:Religion Factor
Sign in front of the Capitole at the rally in support of the victims of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting (“That’s the Freedom of speech that has been murdered”). Below, the issue published that very morning. 7 January 2015. Source: Gyrostat (Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA 4.0)
Sign in front of the Capitole at the rally in support of the victims of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting (“That’s the Freedom of speech that has been murdered”). Below, the issue published that very morning. 7 January 2015. Source: Gyrostat (Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA 4.0)

The Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris have raised many questions about free speech, liberal democracy, freedom of religion and how to live together in multicultural, multi faith, multi political societies. In today’s post, Erin Wilson explores some of these questions and encourages us, rather than seeking for definitive answers, to see the conversation and debate these questions inspire as an answer in themselves.

In the wake of the attacks in Paris on 7-9 January that left 17 people dead, there seems to be a growing sense of unease and uncertainty in Europe. What now for liberal democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion? How do we live well together in a Europe that is becoming increasingly culturally and religiously heterogeneous? At times such as this, the immediate and natural response is for people to seek certainty, reassurance, security. There is an overwhelming desire to seek clear explanations and respond immediately and decisively. Some political leaders and commentators have argued the Charlie Hebdo attack was an attack on freedom of speech.[1] Others claim it is evidence of a “clash of civilizations”.[2] In response we are seeing calls for heightened security monitoring, Francois Hollande has deployed 10,500 military personnel across France to increase security[3] and has sent the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to the Middle East to support the fight against ISIS.[4] Clear, swift, decisive responses, that reassure France and Europe that we are in control and that all is right with the world once more.

Yet more and more it seems that people are dissatisfied with such black-and-white explanations and rapid policy responses. Such reactions sweep under the carpet the jarring dissonance and sense of disharmony and brokenness in society that attacks like these make plain, painting over it with the veneer of liberal democracy, equality, freedom of speech, Islam as a religion of peace, labeling the attacks as an aberration. They leave little space for dealing with the complexities, nuances and uncertainties that are becoming a daily feature of how we experience 21st century life. This is not to say that life used to be more simple and straightforward, rather that we are more acutely aware somehow of the multifarious dimensions of contemporary politics and society.

There have been wonderful, thoughtful pieces calling for calm, for nuance, for avoiding polarizing narratives that entrench the suspicion and tension such attacks generate.[5] Gary Younge’s excellent piece in The Guardian emphasized the need to embrace the ambiguity and complexity of the situation – we will most likely never know exactly why these young men decided to kill 17 people in coordinated attacks in Paris. We should not settle for reductive conclusions such as “it was an attack on free speech” or “Islam is inherently violent” or even “Islam is inherently peaceful”. Such reductionist, overly simplified statements ignore the multifaceted nature of these issues, the richness of the Islamic and indeed all religious traditions, the significance and unpredictability of human agency in such events, that the meaning of “free speech” cannot be assumed or taken for granted.

Slavoj Zizek has recently asked whether the rise of religious fundamentalism is linked to a failure of secular liberal democracy. (I would add that arguably not just religious fundamentalism but the rise of national populist movements of the far right could also been seen as linked to a failure of secular liberal democracy.) One of the strengths of secular liberal democracy is that it seeks to provide a system of governance where everyone can have a say, where people from vastly different cultures, classes, educational backgrounds and worldviews can all live together and contribute to the decision-making processes about how to live together. But of course as is so often the case, this great strength has the potential to be a great weakness. So much emphasis is placed on everyone having a say, on the right to free speech, we must ask ourselves whether we have forgotten how to listen to one another. Perhaps it is not enough that we are all able to live as we please (so long as it does not harm anyone else), to “live and let live”, to tolerate one another. Perhaps rather than just tolerating one another, we need to understand, engage, debate, converse, visit and share with one another, even with those with whom we profoundly disagree. After all, as Wendy Brown has argued, tolerance is in many ways deeply problematic. “Tolerance as a political practice is always conferred by the dominant, it is always a certain expression of domination even as it offers protection or incorporation to the less powerful.”[6] Tolerance carries within it an “us and them” logic. While ever “we” tolerate the views and practices of “them”, “they” will always to a certain extent feel beholden to “us”, excluded from the inner circle of secular liberal democratic citizenship. Tolerance is not enough.

William Connolly, in his pivotal book Why I Am Not a Secularist, has argued that while secularism has enabled the co-existence of diverse perspectives and worldviews, its insistence on public language that is devoid of religious sensibilities may have potentially done more harm than good. “Maybe secularism in democratic capitalist societies has muffled the public ventilation of diverse religious and irreligious perspectives needed to adjust public life to the multidimensional pluralism of today.”[7] Secular public reason enables tolerance of different perspectives, but not necessarily engagement and understanding. This is because the prevailing understanding of secular public reason is rather narrow and assumes the superiority of secular principles and worldviews. We simply assume the rightness and virtue of principles such as free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion and so on, without appreciating, as Connolly puts it, “the profound contestability”[8] that exists at the heart of these and almost all the principles we value. We must constantly ask what exactly is free speech, what is its purpose, what are its restrictions and limitations and who decides these limits? What do we mean by “religion”? What happens when we decide one group is a religion and therefore can claim the right to freedom of religion, but another group is not a religion and therefore cannot claim this right? And we should be prepared to change our answers to these questions from time to time.

This does not mean that we abandon these principles or abandon secular democracy, far from it. What it does mean is that we need to incorporate that sense of contestability, that willingness to question, critique and reflect on our own values, more and more into our public discourse. As Zizek put it, “What Max Horkheimer had said about Fascism and capitalism already back in 1930s – those who do not want to talk critically about capitalism should also keep quiet about Fascism – should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.”[9] We should not forget that in the last decades we have seen dictatorships propped up, countries invaded, human rights abused through, amongst other things, indefinite imprisonment and torture, by supposedly liberal democratic countries and in the name of spreading liberal democracy. This is a point Kim Knibbe will pick up on in a later post on this site. As Winston Churchill once remarked, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.”[10] But for all its problems, what is invaluable about democracy is that it enables this space for continual self-reflection, for discussing, debating and critiquing our social and political principles and values in pursuit of greater justice and equality, whatever we understand those things to look like in practice. As part of that process of questioning and critiquing ourselves and our own worldviews, we could begin by exploring why the killing of 17 people in a European capital seems to disturb us so much more than the massacre of an estimated 2000 people in a remote village in Nigeria, when both attacks were carried out by so-called “Islamic extremists” and are an affront to the value of human life.

With this need to continually question and reflect, we – all of us, not just academics or politicians, but everyone, citizen, non-citizen, foreigner, resident – must become more comfortable with uncertainty, with having things unsettled. If we are honest with ourselves, everything in our lives is uncertain and unsettled, yet we feel such anxiety about this we try to pretend that everything is under our control. I do not mean by this that we must be constantly “alert but not alarmed” for fear of another terrorist attack. Rather what I am saying is that we must be more willing to acknowledge that the definitions and boundaries of our principles and values are fluid, not fixed, that in order to live together well in “the multidimensional pluralism of today”, we must be willing to adapt and change. Some will be frightened by this prospect and will see it as a compromise of “our” values. I would prefer to see it as an opportunity to explore new visions of society, to think and work creatively together on what it means to live a good life, both individually and collectively, what an inclusive, just, equal, liberal democratic society actually means and looks like for each of us.

These problems – fundamentalism, extremism, how we live together in contexts of multidimensional pluralism and the limitations of secular liberal democracy – are not going to go away. But that makes it all the more important that we become more comfortable with critique, questioning, reflecting, adapting and changing. I have no concrete suggestions for how to rethink secular liberal democracy, nor for how we can become more comfortable with uncertainty and fluidity. But that, in a way, is the point – it is the willingness to engage in reflexivity, critique, discussion, conversation and debate in itself that is perhaps the answer.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen.





[5] See, for example, Hayes, Ben. “No we’re not all Charlie Hebdo, nor should we be’re-not-all-charlie-hebdo-nor-should-we-be ; Al-Saadi, Yazan. “On Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech, terrorism, and the value of lives” ; Malik, Nesrine. “Charlie Hebdo: The ‘them and us’ narrative is a dangerous downward spiral”

[6] W. L. Brown, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p178.

[7] W.E. Connolly, Why I Am Not a Secularist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, p4

[8] W.E. Connolly, ibid, p36.

[9] S. Zizek. 2015. “Slavoj Zizek on the Charlie Hebdo massacre: Are the worst really full of passionate intensity?” Available at



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