A month before he was slated to begin teaching a course as a visiting professor at Princeton earlier this year, French journalist Philippe Lançon was seriously injured during a terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris.
The satirical magazine had previously published cartoons on the prophet Mohammed, inciting Muslim extremists to murder 12 of Lançon’s colleagues while he lay on the floor, fully conscious.
Lançon, speaking at a packed public discussion with Latin American studies professor and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa last month, said that the right to freedom of speech is a pillar of democratic society that is essential in the battle against terrorism.
The talk, delivered less than a week after the Nov. 13 attacks at a Paris café, theater, and stadium that left 130 people dead. Those attacks also revolved around freedom, Lançon said, as the Islamic State militant group aimed to prevent French citizens from enjoying rights to leisure and entertainment.
“I think there is an absolute existential link between the two moments,” Lançon said.
In response to the argument that cartoonists should not ridicule prophets, Llosa said that we cannot be tempted to fight against terrorism through censorship.
“Irreverence is one of the great conquests of civilization,” Llosa said. “I think it’s practically impossible to write without offending somebody.”
After the Charlie Hebdo attack, the magazine’s readership grew from 30,000 to 200,000 people, Lançon said, a form of peaceful resistance that also prevailed after the most recent attacks. Despite government advisories to stay at home, French citizens flocked to cafés and other public spaces to defend their personal rights.
However, Lançon noted that the magazine’s popularity has also led international communities to misinterpret its content and to falsely attribute political messages to the French government.
“Now we are the state, we are France,” Lançon said. “This type of humor is very difficult to export.”
Although the rise of the Islamic State is a global phenomenon, France did not adequately address mounting tension between the government and the Muslim community since the French-Algerian war in the 1960s, Lançon said in a panel discussion with Princeton professors Nov. 20.
“The way we failed created these monsters,” Lançon said, referring to the minority of French Muslims responsible for the terrorist attacks. The French value of laïcité, or secularism in public affairs, also increased tensions between France and the Muslim community by forbidding religious traditions such as wearing veils in public, Lançon said.
It is important to remember that most of the victims of the Islamic State are Muslims, Lançon added, and that a global effort is needed to prevent future attacks.
Lançon is a journalist for the French newspaper Libération and will be teaching a course on literature in the program of Latin American studies at Princeton next semester.