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Panel of experts lend perspective to debate after Charlie Hebdo attacks

A worldwide debate on free speech and religion, sparked by a terrorist attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo earlier this month, shaped a conversation in Grand Forks Thursday night.

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A panel held by UND entitled: "Charlie Hebdo: Religion, Race, and the Free Press," featuring UND history professor, Caroline Campbell (from left), Mike Jacobs, former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, and UND English doctoral candidate Musab Bajaber on Thursday, Jan 29, 2015, at The Grand Forks Herald in Grand Forks, N.D. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)

A worldwide debate on free speech and religion, sparked by a terrorist attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo earlier this month, shaped a conversation in Grand Forks Thursday night.

UND ’s Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies hosted a panel in response to the shootings at Charlie Hebdo’s office in Paris Jan. 7, which killed 11 people. The attack came after the satirical magazine published offensive cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

The panel Thursday featured Caroline Campbell, a UND history professor with a specialty in French history and human rights; Musab Bajaber, a UND graduate student and former board member of the Grand Forks Islamic Center; and Mike Jacobs, former publisher of the Herald.

Tension rose among the about 50-person audience in the Grand Forks Herald community room  during a question-and-answer session after the three panelists spoke.

Expressing her viewpoint, one woman said Muslims need to conform to civilization.

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This prompted another woman, nearly in tears, to respond: “How can you even say that? I’m about to break down right now.”

Several other audience members asked questions surrounding the three panelists’ notion that free speech varies among different countries.

Panelists The U.S. probably has one of the most allowing conceptualizations of free speech, in that people can say almost anything they want without fear of criminal prosecution, said Jacobs, who identified himself as “a free speech absolutist.”

“We can’t allow ourselves to be in a situation where a religious assertion is unchallengeable,” Jacobs said.

He later added, “There’s nothing in the concept of free speech that says it has to be nice.”

But at the same time, people should be aware of the stigmas and cultural effects attached to their words, Jacobs said.

Campbell noted the rhetoric of satirical cartoonists, such as those working for Charlie Hebdo, changed throughout French history. In early years, cartoonists used satire to mock the French monarchy, but in about the mid-2000s, that shifted into targeting some minorities, particularly Muslims.

“They no longer lampooned the powerful, they now mocked the powerless,” Campbell said. “They mocked the oppressed.”

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She also said free speech is different in France than it is in the U.S. For example, the notion of French secularism strongly discourages any public displays of religion, including Christians wearing crosses or Muslims wearing headscarves.

Along these lines, the French government famously does not keep statistics categorizing racial or religious demographics.

Bajaber disagreed with that “everyone is the same” viewpoint, saying it’s important to realize not all Muslims are the same, just as not all people of western culture are the same.

The shootings at Charlie Hebdo offices “were terrorist attacks and should be treated as such,” he said. Muslim religious texts state that “all life is sacred,” he added.

And the prophet Muhammad himself was ridiculed while he was alive, similarly to how Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons represented him recently, Bajaber said. Muhammad forgave the people who mocked him, Bajaber said.

Panelists concluded saying free speech is a complicated subject without easy answers.

“I’m fully aware of how deeply complicated and fraught this issue is,” Jacobs said.

 

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1494144+012915.n.gfh_.panel_1.jpg
A panel held by UND entitled: "Charlie Hebdo: Religion, Race, and the Free Press," featuring UND history professor, Caroline Campbell (from left), Mike Jacobs, former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, and UND English doctoral candidate Musab Bajaber on Thursday, Jan 29, 2015, at The Grand Forks Herald in Grand Forks, N.D. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)

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