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  • The Terrorist Attack against Charlie Hebdo: Public Debates in Bulgaria

The terrorist attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris provoked an immediate reaction in Bulgarian society. Receiving the tragic news, journalists were the first who condemned this act. They also organized demonstrations of solidarity under the slogan "Je suis Charlie" holding a minute of silence in tribute to their French colleagues who had lost their life in this dreadful event. Their example was followed by politicians, academics, ordinary citizens… Religious leaders also joined. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church read special prayers for the victims of the terrorist attack. The Chief Muftiate issued a declaration defining the assault on the French journalists as one directed against all Muslims. According to it, the terrorists not only violated God’s law, but also imposed the threat of segregation the Muslim community in the country and worldwide (see the declaration of the Grand Muftiate, 7 January 2015). Bulgarian Jews also held a commemoration ceremony dedicated to the Paris victims.

Furthermore, the attack against Charlie Hebdo provoked a series of discussions in Bulgarian media. While unanimously condemning the murder of journalists as an act against humanity, their participants split over the question of freedom of speech. The majority perceived it as an absolute value and defended the rights of journalists and cartoon painters to express their attitudes to religion(s), even if that could mean hurting the feelings of believers. There were also opposing voices. Many practicing Orthodox Christians and Muslims found the Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons on religious subjects extremely humiliating. According to them, there should be some ethical norms or limits on the freedom of expression when religious issues are at stake. Otherwise, there are no guarantees against future cases of religiously inspired terrorism. On these grounds, one of the major satiric Bulgarian newspapers "Starshel" [Hornet] decided not to publish the Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. It is interesting that there was a similar division in Bulgarian media in 2005, during the worldwide controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo, however, has had a stronger effect on media and society in Bulgaria. It went beyond the question of cartoons. Some journalists questioned the appropriacy of the slogan "Je suis Charlie" in Bulgarian context. They asked whether it would be supported if the name was a Muslim one, e.g. "Je suis Mustafa" or why the murder of Christians in the Middle East did not trigger the same type of reaction (Ahmed Ahmedov, “The Freedom of speech between two extremes”, website of the Grand Muftiate).

Public debates were also initiated by scholars and theologians. The problem of balance between the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion provoked the most heated discussions. Muslim theologians especially depicted the violent death of the French journalists and painters as an act that contradicts the spirit of Islam as a religion of peace (see the Grand Muftiate’s website). They also stated that believers and atheists perceive the freedom of religion in different ways. Likewise, Orthodox theologians and believers considered that the freedom of speech cannot justify blasphemy (See Teodora Dimova, “Liberty on autopilot” and the interview with Prof. Kalin Yanakiev, 9 January 2015). In parallel, an Orthodoxy-oriented website published a collection of Orthodox cartoons to demonstrate an alternative satire that spares believers’ self-esteem (see the Orthodox website "Dveri", 11 January 2015).

In their turn, scholars offered a different perspective to the Paris event. The philosopher, Prof. Vladimir Gradev, promoted the view that there should not be limits for the freedom of expression. According to him, the message of cartoons is a question of the personal consciousness of their authors while their final judgment is in the hands of society. Yet, terrorist attacks as that against Charlie Hebdo raise also questions among Christians about their own tradition, identity and role in the contemporary world. The increased identity sensitivity as a follow-up effect of the terrorist attack was also analyzed by Anna Krasteva, professor in political sciences. She discussed the case in the context of the choice of contemporary society between fanaticism and secularity. In her view, the international demonstration of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo does not mean acceptance of the message of their cartoons, but support for the freedom of speech and protest against terrorism (See the public debate „Religious Fantasms under Control?!”, organized by the Red House – Sofia (held on 2 February 2015), 25 February 2015 and available on Youtube). In his turn, Arif Abdullah paid attention to the threats for secularism and pluralism in the contemporary world. He pointed that there is a war going on against terrorism and not against religion, and affirmed that classes on Islam in the Bulgarian public schools, taught by well-trained teachers, would help prevent a radicalization of Islam in Bulgaria. Simeon Evstatiev, who teaches Arabic studies in Sofia University, pointed that not all Muslims accept Western values as universal. Finally, Kalin Yanakiev, professor in cultural anthropology at the same university, shared his view that Charlie Hebdo is itself an example of militant secularism and thus the slogan "Je suis Charlie" is misleading. According to him, there is a danger for people who refuse to support this slogan of being identified with Putin’s proponents, or perceived as a kind of religious fundamentalist.

D 18 March 2015    ADaniela Kalkandjieva

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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