The tragic attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo should prompt sincere reflection. For many Muslims, the incident raises once again the question of how and if the dictates of their religion should be lived and understood in a world constantly in flux, a world in which many of the assumptions and hopes of Islam’s moral and legal vision can seem outdated. As in the case of other attacks carried out by Muslims against civilians, there has already been tremendous reflection by Muslim scholars, preachers and politicians from the United States to France, from Egypt to Australia. Over and over one hears the same message: Muslims should either ignore insults to their Prophet or express their discomfort through peaceful means. One also hears another call from the voices of European Muslims and those sympathetic with them worldwide: that one of the French policemen who died in the attack on Charlie Hebdo was a French Muslim of Arab descent, and that his act of sacrifice for the protection of civilians speaks more for the values taught by Islam than unannounced and adjudicated violence.
One hears another familiar chorus, namely the public lionization of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and their commitment to the ‘freedom of expression.’ This is joined by the contention that this ‘freedom of expression’ is a hallmark of the West that, for some reason, Muslims just can’t seem to accept.
Normally, this claim would take a great deal of time and explanation to debunk. I would have to struggle to convince a reader that the ‘freedom of expression’ in Western Europe is not an absolute or even particularly wide-reaching right but rather a shield raised to excuse attacks on cultural and religious minorities. In an inadvertent act of compassion, however, the French government has made this unnecessary. Astoundingly, within a week of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the government has arrested some fifty-four people for “hate speech or other acts insulting religious faiths, or for cheering the men who carried out the attacks.” Before he was arrested in this wave of… support for free speech (?)… on January 9th the French comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala was banned from performing by a ruling from France’s highest administrative court because of his allegedly anti-Semitic act and, as one of the judges explained, because of “the reality and gravity of the risk of trouble to public order” that the act presented. I am at a loss as to how this reasoning should not have applied, with much greater magnitude, to Charlie Hebdo’s grossly insulting cartoons about the Prophet, particularly in light of the real and grave violation of public order that actually occurred as a direct retaliation for the cartoons, dating back to the arson attack on the magazine's offices in November 2011.
This is not an inconsistency, defenders of French law explain; the country’s law distinguishes between hate speech directed at racial groups – prohibited – and insults against religion - allowed in light of the country’s strong anticlerical tradition. This is unconvincing to say the least. First, French law criminalizes Anti-Semitism, a textbook example of how ‘religion’ and ‘race’ can be synonymous. Second, it is absurdly naïve to imagine that attacks on Islam are merely anticlerical attacks on a religion. In France, Islam and Arabs are equivalent in perception if not in fact. It is no coincidence that, when the French president made a speech addressing the attacks on January 15 and attempted to create a unifying moment for the entire French population, he did so at Paris’ Insitut du Monde Arabe.
This is overwhelming proof that the freedom to insult or offend religious sentiment is reserved for those who want to attack unpopular or disenfranchised groups, not groups that the French establishment has deemed above parody. “That's because,” as the great Glenn Greenwald just wrote, “’free speech,’ in the hands of many westerners, actually means: it is vital that the ideas I like be protected, and the right to offend groups I dislike be cherished; anything else is fair game.” I, for one, can no longer take French chants about freedom of expression seriously. Really, how could anyone?