Hebdo Aftermath Shows International Rift on Religious Exceptionalism

by Kyle Rohrich

The ongoing discourse in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January has shed light on the deep-seated tension regarding the role of religion in the political affairs of a state and in the international system as a whole. In a system based on the sovereign equality of states, countries have the right to adopt whichever rules regarding the role of religion within their borders. However, in a system where states are bound only by their consent, religious exceptionalism impedes cooperation and lays the groundwork for future confrontations.

In reaction to the attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo, millions of French citizens took to the streets of Paris to show their support for freedom of expression. Their country has long held a tradition of laïcité, the absence of religious involvement in governmental affairs, and vice versa. The strong value many French place on this principle is a reflection of the unique history of the French state, where the Roman Catholic Church exercised a great deal of power prior to the enactment of the Law on the Separation of Church and State of 1905. Likewise, the reactions against controversial secularist laws such as France’sbanning of face-covering in public places is a reflection of, among other things, the value some individuals—many of them descendants or immigrants from former French colonies—place on religious expression.

Regarding the appropriate relationship between religion and the state, there is no objective measure to determine which policy is more or less “right” than another. Rather, the international legal definition codified in the UN Charter provides for states themselves to decide the appropriate balance within their sovereign territory. In sharp contrast to the French government’s staunch secularist policies, the Islamic Republic of Iran imprisons and tortures women who do not sufficiently cover their hair while in public. The State of Israel, meanwhile, precludes non-Jewish couples from marriage. In the United States, religion appears to be apropos for the chambers of Congress and the campaign trail despite a constitutional provisionprohibiting the official recognition of any religion.

With national law reigning supreme for citizens of a state, opponents of the content of the Charlie Hebdo publications may thus divide themselves among two stances: first, that the French government should prohibit the publishing of offensive materials; second, that Charlie Hebdo should have exercised self-restraint in publishing offensive materials. However, both of these positions are problematic due to the lack of any objective criterion upon which to judge what may be deemed“offensive.” Portrayals of Islam’s prophet may be as offensive to Muslims as self-censorship based on a religious belief may be to secularists. To give one religious group more preference over another is to open a Pandora’s Box of exceptionalist discourse.

Unfortunately, the Box is already cracked ajar on the international stage. Since the UN Charter binds all states to protect the human rights of its citizens, the institutionalization of national preferences as human rights may be a particularly attractive way to coerce other states into compliance on issues toward which states may not otherwise agree. In this arena, states commonly employ religious (or nonreligious) beliefs as a justification to codify a preferenceto impede the codification of a preference, and to avoid compliance with the existing codification of a preference. Critics of international human rights law claim the field to be a reflection of primarily Western principles, incompatible with the preferences of countries that place a greater value on religiosity.

This global divide on the compatibility of religious values and other values is evident in the clash over ongoing attempts to codify LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights into the human rights field. In 2011, as primarily Western states worked to codify LGBT rights into international human rights law, a Russia-led coalition passed a Human Rights Council resolution calling for the respect of “traditional values,” encompassing religious belief, in applying international human rights law. The Western viewpoint depicts LGBT rights as human rights, while its opponents frame this view as an assault on religious values, and as something that should be exempted from human rights law altogether. If that is the case, everything—and nothing—is sacred. A law not applied equally to all is not a law.

Attempts to coerce another—whether she be a person or a state—into compliance with religious beliefs will inevitably lead to conflict. As it pertains to religion, such conflict has manifested itself in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo as well as over women drivers in Saudi Arabia and headscarves in Turkey. In the case of France, the composition of the state is changing, from a country remembering religious tyranny to one with a rising immigrant population that places more value on religious expression. Reactions by extremists on all sides are simply efforts to impose their respective beliefs onto the other, a system that serves to the detriment of all parties in the end.

To me, the French laïcité principle seems the middle ground in this fight, offering more space for tolerance of belief than the anti-Islamic or anti-secular alternatives. But let the French decide for themselves what kind of society they want to live in, and let us decide what kind of world.

About the Author

Kyle James Rohrich is a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) candidate at The Fletcher School, with a focus on conflict resolution and public international law. He is a Boren National Security Fellow to Azerbaijan and previously a Boren Scholar to Kyrgyzstan. Kyle is also an inaugural "Diplomacy and Diversity" Fellow for Humanity in Action, an international human rights organization.

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