Journalist Hafsa Kara-Mustapha reports on France’s crackdown on freedom of speech in the name of freedom of speech.
Blasphemy laws do not exist in secular societies, or do they?
In the aftermath of the Paris shootings a fortnight ago, debates have been raging over freedom of expression, the right or indeed need to offend, as well as the role of faith and belief in modern societies in which religion no longer plays a dominant role and is at best left to the private sphere.
Yet in times of national grief, inflated as it was in France for political reasons by the most unpopular President in the country’s history, a need to punish the blasphemers has prevailed.
The culprits in question were not rounded up for failing to pray at the altar, or saying their customary Ave Marias. The criminals who would eventually be arrested, charged, and then tried are far worse blasphemers in the eyes of France’s secular laws – they failed to respect the minute of silence for the slain journalists.
Some even tore posters bearing the names of the victims and in one case a 28 year old man with learning difficulties and a known alcoholic was jailed for 6 months for “laughing at the shootings.”
In this atmosphere of solemn contemplation and customary respect afforded to victims of a terrorist attack, the “sacred” simply passes from one hand to the other.
While Muslims have, since the shooting and consequent defiant re-publication of Charlie’s infamous cartoons, expressed in their thousands their revulsion at pictures they deem offensive, non-Muslims have looked on in bemusement at such sensitivity.
Why, they ask, express such feelings for a man who lived 1500 years ago? Muslims look back in equal bewilderment at the need to sacralise and sloganise everything in a bid to elevate it to saintly status. The “Je suis Charlie” slogan and consequent placards that emerged around France and later on in much of the Western world were presented as sacred symbols that should not be tampered with.
The offending Frenchmen who simply refused to engage in the massive sloganeering that engulfed the country and from which many an unsavoury politician capitalised upon, was seen as equivalent to an iconoclastic act in a country priding itself on the rejection of religious devotion.
And yet the examples that have emerged over the past week are astonishing, in particular from a country keen to lecture those more prone to religious fervour on how to behave rationally.
Following the “Freedom of expression” march in Paris that gathered over two million people, at least 60 of them were arrested for expressing opinions that were deemed offensive.
Perhaps that is what the French mean by humour and satire, who knows.
From outside of France this simply re-enforces the deeply held belief that France has descended into the ridiculous.
France has some of the most repressive legislation on free speech and its prime minister Manuel Valls vowed in parliament to clamp down on “comedians of hate” with the full force of the law.
Personally I had never been receptive to French humour until I saw a leading politician from one of the most powerful nations in the world vow to go to war against a man who tells jokes for a living!
That comedian was of course Dieudonne who came to international prominence last year when the hand gesture he had created – the Quenelle – was performed on a football pitch by Nicolas Anelka whose career was subsequently brought to halt as a result.
The Franco-Cameroon comic, known for his irreverent material is no longer free to perform at will and is regularly arrested for comments, tweets and in his latest foray into the supposedly illegal, a Facebook post.
Having participated in the march, Dieudonne expressed a sentiment of alienation in a crowd that had been told to reject him, posted that he was feeling that day like Dieudonne Colibaly- the surname of one of the hijackers. He was consequently arrested and charged with “glorifying terrorism.”
In another incident, a father-of-three in the city of Cannes, in the south of France and a far-right National Front stronghold, was arrested in the early hours of the morning when a neighbour reported him for tearing up a poster left on his windscreen that read “Je suis Charlie.”
On the evening news the head of information declared that those who attended the march yet did not hold “Je suis” placards should be tracked down as they were the ones likely to pose a threat to society.
Even the most stringent of theocracies do not expect their citizens to make such extreme declarations of faith! But France isn’t a theocracy it‘s a secular “republique,” we are told.
In yet another bizarre incident, a primary school teacher was asked by pupils why it was ok to mock the Prophet but not the Holocaust. Rather than engaging with the inquisitive children, the teacher made a formal complaint to the Education ministry.
Prime minister Valls responded to this “scandal” by calling his Education minister Najat Vallaud Belkacem to explain. The pedagogy that would be later administered would include forcing pupils from Muslim backgrounds to draw cartoons of the Prophet Mohamad in a bid to instil the values of free speech!
Orwellian as this may sound outside of France, the French, deep in their internationalised grief and sense of entitlement, see this as a perfect example of French values, trumping those of “backward” people who can’t comprehend why France outlaws mocking the Holocaust or anything relevant to Jews or Charlie Hebdo’s grief parade while not affording the same respect to others.
And so while the country prides itself on being different to those theocracies it is so critical of, it has failed to note that in recent years the parallel between it and a country like Saudi Arabia for instance is increasingly narrow.
While declaring publicly in Saudi Arabia that you do not believe in God would guarantee you a prison sentence (worse for apostasy), in France you can expect a similar treatment for publicly declaring that you do not believe the Holocaust ever happened!
Equally, in Saudi Arabia women are arrested for wearing un-Islamic attire, in France they’re arrested for committing a similar “offence” albeit in reverse. Both countries insist their values trump all others, failing in the process to see the absurdity of their claims.
Nevertheless in France this double-standard attitude that has become so blatant in the wake of the terrorist attack is symptomatic of a society that has endeavoured to alienate and antagonise its Muslim minority to an alarming point.
France’s five million Muslims feel increasingly frustrated. What that will lead to in the months and years to come is difficult to predict. But just as Muslim majority countries are rightly held responsible for the well-being of their minorities, so to should a country claiming to be the beacon of enlightenment learn to treat all its citizens equally.
When even the prime minister admits the existence of a “social and economical apartheid,” something is deeply wrong in France, and that ultimately, is no laughing matter.