Je suis? Secular or religious—the debate continues

Letter to the editor

To the editor,

On Jan. 23, The Observer published a story about the forum “Je Suis?” hosted by Case Western Reserve University’s Department of Religious Studies. The title “Je Suis?” refers to the “Je Suis Charlie” or “I am Charlie” slogan that became a national rallying cry for French citizens following the mass shooting at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris.

In contrast to the state support of the “Je Suis Charlie” demonstration, early U.S. protests against the use of lethal force in the police-related deaths of blacks were met by a show of police power. The “I am” chants in these demonstrations identify protesters from Ferguson, Missouri to New York City with those whom they consider most marginalized and vulnerable. In France, “Je Suis” is an assertion of national identity and an affirmation of western values.

Thus, “Je Suis?” appropriately challenges us to raise complex questions regarding freedom of speech, religion and violence both abroad and here in the United States. In the U.S., our understanding of a separation between the state and religion is based on a freedom of religion. As mentioned in The Observer, the French understanding of freedom of speech is based on the principle laïcité—a national secularism or what Professor Jonathan Tan refers to as a “freedom from religion.”

This idea of freedom from religion arises out of France’s historical rejection of a state church and its association with political and social power. Western notions of free speech and freedom of “the press” in the United States are rooted in the important role that media and the freedom to engage in public critique of institutions of power play in a healthy democracy. Forms of satire such as those published in Charlie Hebdo are considered part of that equation.

Satire and other forms of humor can push us beyond the religious, political and ideological boundaries that divide us. To hold that institutions that wield power and influence are above critique would be to suggest that they are also beyond public accountability. At the same time, dismissal of religious ideas wholesale in the name of secularism can also lead to the suppression of religious and cultural identity for the very members of society most in need of democratic protections.

In his Feb. 3 New York Times editorial “Building Better Secularists,” David Brooks describes the conflict between secular and religious worldviews as simply a difference in the ways freedom and autonomy are valued over and against a group ethic. The problem here is the assumption that secularism is always a neutral purveyor of individual freedom and autonomy and religious persons and groups are pretty much mired in a collective “group-think.” What is often missing in these debates between secularism and religion is an honest look at the complex ways in which secularists and religionists apply the “tenets” of their “faith” to obscure the power relations at play or to wrestle with ethical beliefs and their implications. Thus, the debate regarding our identifications with secular and religious worldviews rages on.

Some of the questions we might ask ourselves in this ongoing debate are: 1) Is the critique or mocking of a religious idea or tradition in the name of secularism intended to expand freedom and inclusivity within a society, or does it serve to denigrate an ethnic or racial minority and demand social conformity or cultural assimilation? 2) Is there such a thing as equal opportunity mocking when the followers of the religion or group mocked are considered social outsiders? 3) Does the critique operate to balance power among societal institutions or perpetuate stereotypes and cultural fears that further exclude?

Joy R. Bostic, Associate Professor
Department of Religious Studies