France and Islam: Fighting freedom with fire
WHEN the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, reprinted controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet, Muhammad, five years ago, French political leaders were ambivalent. Jacques Chirac, then the president, called it a “manifest provocation”. “Anything that can wound the convictions of others should be avoided,” he declared. Today’s political reactions to a fresh controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo and Islam have been far more robust.
The paper’s issue dated November 2nd and entitled Charia Hebdo (a play on the French word for sharia), is “edited” by Muhammad, who threatens in a front-page cartoon “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!” Inside are dozens of satirical stories and cartoons depicting Muhammad, as well as caricatures featuring women wearing the burqa, the face-covering veil. The idea was to “celebrate” the victory of Islamists at Tunisia’s recent election, and the introduction of sharia law in Libya. Late last night, the publication’s offices in the 20th arrondissement of Paris were firebombed.
This time, French politicians have been unequivocal. François Fillon, the centre-right prime minister, not only denounced the attack, but declared that “freedom of expression is an inalienable value”. Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist mayor of Paris, deplored the “act of violence against the freedom of expression”.
In some ways, this is a straightforward issue of the right to free speech. France outlaws holocaust-denial, but otherwise protects free speech. Controversial cases often end up in court. Since it was founded 19 years ago, Charlie Hebdo’s editor told Le Monde, his paper has been sued 13 times by various Catholic organisations, offended by the depiction of Christianity—but only once by Muslim groups, which went after Charlie Hebdo over the 2006 caricature issue and lost the case.
Yet the controversy comes at a delicate time for France’s efforts to reconcile its secular tradition with the demands of its Muslim minority of some 5m, which is Europe’s biggest. France has banned the wearing of the burqa in public. It recently cracked down on Friday prayers in the streets of Paris. A permit to build a big new mosque in Marseilles has just been refused on technical grounds. Any pretext can be used these days to spread (and amplify via social media) outrage at the mere hint of Islamophobia.
Hence, presumably, the more cautious reaction today of French Muslim leaders. Mohammed Moussaoui, leader of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, an official body, condemned the attack, and stated his “profound attachment” to freedom of expression. But he also “strongly deplored the very caricatural tone” of the newspaper towards Islam.