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Nanovic flash panel examines causes and effects of Hebdo attack

| Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Four panelists brought the global conversation of free speech rights and extremism and Western conflict to the Hesburgh Center Auditorium on Tuesday as part of a panel called “Paris 2015.”

The four panelists, Margaret Meserve, Olivier Morel, Ebrahim Moosa and Elliot Visconsi, discussed the international significance of the recent unrest in Paris following the murder of more than a dozen French citizens by offering four different perspectives on the attack.

Meserve, an associate professor of history, led the panel by focusing on the visual representations of the prophet Muhammad that have appeared in historically opposed cultures.

“It may surprise people to know that there is a tradition of visual representation of Muhammad in Islamic culture,” Meserve said.

Meserve said this may be unexpected because idolatry is prohibited in Islam. The images of Muhammad portrayed by Muslims compared to Western depictions of Muhammad differ vastly, as certain depictions can greatly showcase the relationship between a culture and a religion, she said.

“The particular form that various ages use to present Muhammad tends to represent the concurrence of that particular age rather than the Muhammad’s actual message or life or preaching,” Meserve said.

Incorporating pictorial examples on a projector, Meserve focused on the evolution of Muhammad’s relationship to the Western world.

Meserve said the Western medieval Muhammad, as evident in Dante’s portrayal, was usually depicted as a false prophet.

The religious anxiety associated with the medieval Muhammad, however, evolved in the 15th and 16th centuries into political fascination, she said.

Meserve said Muhammad’s history as a great military king and creator of divine and human laws interested many scholars, leading to a softening of his portrait in the 17th and 18th centuries as a kind of political phenomenon so that by the time of the Enlightenment era, Muhammad’s portrait had become tamed.

“What these portraits reveal as they progress from hostile to neutral to vaguely patronizing is a West that has become more confident in the Islamic world,” Merserve said. “So what do we make of the seemingly anxious portraits now in modern world?”

Morel, an assistant professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and French citizen, answered Meserve’s question with a native’s perspective on the tragedy.

Morel called the attack a “political assassination” by “children on brothers” that brought a kind of shame to France because the Kouachi brothers, who carried out the attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine, were born and raised in France.

He said the attacks call attention to a divided nation at war with itself over immigration and Muslim inclusion issues.

Moosa, a Professor of Islamic Studies, said the recent attack could be traced to a global marginalization of Muslim youth.

Moosa said that he believes that the recent terror attacks have something to do with the larger global unrest that has surfaced following events such as the 1979 Iranian Revolution, 9/11 and the United States and European campaigns in the War on Terror.

In particular, Moosa said that the War on Terror “not only awoke monsters but resulted in the deaths of thousands and destabilized many Muslim communities and societies.”

As a result, Moosa said there have been three decades for Muslim youth to develop agendas in very complex and fragmented ways that now result in extreme forms of violence that cannot be controlled.

Moosa said he believes this radicalization of Muslim youth  is a core reason that terrorist groups, such as the Kouachi brothers, are mobilizing, more so than free speech issues regarding the depiction of Muhammad.

Moosa said that the lampooning of Muhammad has evolved into a contested historical doctrine, as most mainstream Muslims do not exhibit a desire to punish lampooners by the death penalty as is written into classic Islamic law.

Most lay Muslims living in secular societies do not invoke religious doctrine but do join protests to make known their religious wounds, he said.

“The globalized world is fragile… and we are mistaken if we highlight these woeful acts of terror as singular acts,” Moosa said.

Moosa said one possible solution is to update Muslim theological doctrines, such as capital punishment, that have explosive sociological consequences.

To conclude the panel, Visconsi, an associate professor of English and concurrent professor of law, provided context for thinking about the freedom of expression laws.

Visconsi first described expression laws in the United States, as defined by the First Amendment.

Free speech in America is centered on the individual, Visconsi said.

“The freedom of expression in the United States is the right of the extreme speaker to say whatever they want in face of the overwhelming disapproval of the majority,” said Visconsi.

Visconsi said the emphasis on the individual stems in part because America believes in the marketplace of ideas and the autonomy of the individual, and the value of speech to democratic participation in government.

Visconsi said a highly controversial claim in France is that many French Muslims feel that speech directed against Muhammad is itself personal and results in Muslims feeling unwelcome to take a full role in the democratic processes of the state.

Visconsi warned against the creation of “democratic deficits” and said he believes the world should focus on developing a notion of value of each person’s democratic legitimacy.

“In a world by which global communication is nearly frictionless and speech transmits rapidly across borders, we may well need a new global framework for thinking of freedom of expression based on more than the individual,” Visconsi said.

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