23-29 January #742

Limits to toleration in a secular state

The debate about free speech and tolerance in France is relevant to the current discussion about secularism in Nepal
David Seddon
In the weeks after the attacks by Islamist militants on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo there has been intense and often angry debate as to the limits to free speech and toleration in secular France, who defines them and why, and who really are the victims. The discussion is highly relevant to the debate over secularism in Nepal.

In a recent contribution Ali Abunimah reports that less than a week after the rallies in defence of free expression, French authorities have jailed a 16-year-old high school student for l’apologie du terrorisme (‘defending terrorism’). He had posted on Facebook a mock Charlie Hebdo cover by the cartoonist Dedko, showing a young man of indeterminate ethnicity, religion and nationality holding up a copy of Charlie Hebdo of 2013 ‘Charlie Hebdo is shit. It doesn’t stop bullets’.

The cartoon was closely modelled on an earlier one published by Charlie Hebdo in July 2013, which showed a Muslim protester against the military coup in Egypt being shot through a copy of the Quran he is holding. The text says, ‘The Quran is shit. It doesn’t stop bullets’. The recent cartoon is already widely available on the social media and was published on 7 January on the website of the controversial French comedian Dieudonné.

This arrest is just one of around 70 that have taken place in the last week, on the charge of ‘defending terrorism’. It may seem surprising that French authorities can charge and jail people so quickly. But this is the result of a change in the law last November, in which ‘defending terrorism’ became a criminal offense, subject to fast-track trials. Last week, France’s Human Rights League reminded those concerned that when the change in the law was being debated, it had argued against it, as ineffective as regards security, dangerous for civil liberties and damaging to the credibility of the justice system. It said that these summary convictions vindicated its warnings.

Amnesty International reports that the crackdown follows a circular sent to prosecutors on 12 January by Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, instructing them that ‘words or wrongdoing, hatred or contempt, uttered or committed against someone because of their religion must be fought and pursued with great vigour’. But the fight and the pursuit look highly partisan. Now, according to Ali Abunimah, ‘anything mocking and denigrating Islam and Muslims is venerated as courageous free speech, while anything mocking those who engage in such denigration – even using precisely the same techniques – can get you locked up’.

This week, rapper Saïdou (of the band Z.E.P.) and sociologist Saïd Bouamama will both be indicted in Lille for ‘public insult’ and ‘incitement to discrimination, hate, or violence’. The prosecution was brought by a right-wing nationalist group, because of Bouamama’s book Nique La France (Fuck France) and a Z.E.P. song with the same title. The song’s refrain states: “Fuck France and its colonialist past, its paternalist smells, stenches, and reflexes. Fuck France and its imperialist history, its capitalist walls, fortresses and delusions.” Z.E.P., ironically, stands for “Zone d’expression populaire” – Popular Expression Zone. But irony is now apparently a crime in France – and freedom of expression apparently available only to some.

When prominent journalist Philippe Tesson declared on Europe 1, one of France’s biggest radio stations, that ‘it’s the Muslims who bring the shit to France these days’, a private citizen reportedly brought a legal complaint against him for ‘inciting racial hatred’. But the authorities have not charged him with a crime.

It is only a matter of time, worries Ali Abunimah, before the laws are used with renewed vigour against a whole range of speech that might upset the French state, especially by those who advocate for Palestinian rights and for the boycott of Israel, that might be seen as ‘anti-semitic’. In the meanwhile, it is Muslims in France who are now both ‘the enemies of free speech’ and the victims of aggression. Already there have been reports of at least 83 Islamophobic threats and attacks in France since the Charlie Hebdo attack.

There are however, some, who blame Charlie Hebdo for a partisan position on ‘free speech’. In 2008, a column by veteran cartoonist Siné led to accusations of ‘anti-semitism’ and his sacking by Charlie Hebdo (although Siné successfully sued the newspaper for unfair dismissal.

Today, ironically, it is mainly Jewish schools and synagogues that are protected by French troops, and there is a heightened concern about the growth of ‘anti-semitism’. But in 2013, a piece by Olivier Cyran, a former journalist at Charlie Hebdo, traced the magazine’s descent into ‘an obsessive bigotry against Muslims in the years since the 11 September 2001 attacks’.

‘The obsessive pounding on Muslims to which your weekly has devoted itself for more than a decade … has powerfully contributed to popularising, among left-wing opinion, the idea that Islam is a major ‘problem’ in French society,’ wrote Cyran. It contributed to the notion, he suggested, that demeaning Muslims was no longer the sole privilege of the extreme right, but was permitted by a ‘right to offend’, sanctified by secularism (laïcité).

In a recent article for The Conversation, Mayanthi Fernando, a professor of anthropology at University of California, has suggested that ‘we should be wary of myths about French secularism and French citizenship being spun in the aftermath of the attacks’. She notes that despite its ostensible laïcité, the French state has always privileged some religious groups. But when Muslims ask for the same accommodations others receive: ‘they are reminded that France is a secular country where proper citizenship requires separating religion from public life’.

More generally, Joseph Massad argues, in his new book, Islam in Liberalism, that the American and European proponents of ‘liberalism’ are engaged in a campaign to remake Islam and Muslims in the image of liberal Protestant Christianity: ‘Muslim resistance to this benevolent mission is represented as rejection of modernity and liberal values of freedom, liberty, equality, the right-bearing individual, democratic citizenship, women’s rights, sexual rights, freedom of belief, secularism [and] rationality’.


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Je Suis ‘Charlie’

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