With increased globalisation, the last few decades have been witness to the increasing heterogeneity of communities and nations. This increasing heterogeneity has spurred a need to accommodate diverse cultural, religious, historical and linguistic identities within the social fabric. In many instances, this accommodation has been imposed through a process of assimilation where minority communities have been coerced to shed their identities and imbibe the cultural values and norms of the majority. The French nation state is a stark example of this. By constantly citing Liberalism and Progress as its raison d’être, the French State has manipulated many supposed liberal values to propel a narrative which rejects the notion of a French identity that may exist in symbiosis with any other religious or social identity. By exploring the French treatment of an absolute right to free speech, I expose this hypocrisy and illustrate the dire need to debunk such prevailing narratives, not just in France but in other nations all across the globe.
The aftermath of the attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo saw a protracted campaign lead by the French government defending and justifying an absolute right to free speech. A large number of academics and journalists backed this campaign through an ad nauseam invocation of Salman Rushdie’s little nugget: “No one has the Right to be Offended.” In a piece for The Intercept earlier this year, Glenn Greenwald calls out the hypocrisy of this stance in light of a clampdown on free speech after the Paris attacks in November. In that piece he also questions the absence of free speech crusaders in France today and attributes this selective crusading to a matter of convenience and strategy where free speech was a “cynical weapon [of galvanizing Islamophobia] not their actual belief.” I believe that this hypocrisy pointed out by Greenwald is not a one-off instance but the product of a narrative that has been engrained into the modern French State since its very inception.
The inherent fallacies in the free speech narrative are underscored by the labyrinthine cluster of laws regulating it. Following the French Revolution, France rescinded all laws making blasphemy a crime. However, it is still a crime to “provoke discrimination, hatred, or violence toward a person or group of persons because of their origin or belonging to a particular ethnicity, nation, race, or religion.” (Freedom of Press Act, 1881) This essentially means that caricaturing Muhammad or insulting the Prophet is not a crime while inciting hatred towards Muslims as a community is one. This distinction stems from France’s anti-clerical roots, resulting in a strong entrenchment of the principle of assertive secularism, (lacite) which involves the State actively rejecting the public visibility of religion. This is in contrast to the model of ‘passive secularism’ followed in the United States and other countries which involves the State allowing public profession of all religions without endorsing any one. In other words, you can be a French Muslim as long as being Muslim does not get in the way of you being French. Unfortunately, what constitutes being French is naturally imposed by the (non-Muslim) majority, which necessarily means that this flawed premise leads to the inevitable conclusion that being French ideally means that you cannot be Muslim.
This legal framework fallaciously attempts to sever the identity of an individual with the beliefs she holds. J.A. Coyne defends this demarcation by writing, “Charlie Hebdo wasn’t calling Muslims names but was calling Islam names ”and the “… mockery of religion,are not meant to insult religious people or designed only to give offense, but to bring attention to the harmful effects of faith.” Coyne fails to recognise the varying degrees of significance religious belief has in shaping the identity of an individual or a community. Many Muslims view themselves largely as ‘followers of the Prophet’ and an affront to the Prophet translates into an affront to themselves and their chosen identities. Further, Coyne does not clarify the harmful effects of faith but limits his argument to stating, “Religion makes people do terrible things.” The French state seems to share Coyne’s views, evidenced by their promotion of secularism as the only justified belief. Secularism. This stance automatically leads to the suppressing of communities who devoutly follow a certain religion.
Coyne characterizes this conflict as one between two cardinal tenets of Liberalism-Multiculturalism and Enlightenment. He claims that absorbing immigrants may “enrich a society in many ways but not if those immigrants demand a public deference to their religion that conflicts with democratic values.” He ignores the fact that giving deference to various beliefs and assimilating multiple cultures into the social fabric is in itself a core tenet of Liberalism. Further, these democratic values, seemed to play no part in the 2004 French decision to ban Muslim women from wearing the hijab in public spaces. Wearing the hijab in public is a form of expression and a celebration of identity that neither the French Government nor French society deemed worthy of protection. Thus, the aggressive promotion of the secular narrative in French society seeks to suppress the development of any identity that rejects this narrative. Such promotion is certainly at odds with the liberal tenets that Coyne appears to stress on.
The insidious nature of the free speech framework does not end there. It turns out that France never really had an absolute right to free speech anyway. Such an absolute right cannot possibly explain the existence of The Gayssott Act- France’s holocaust denial law. A renowned victim of this Act is Robert Faurisson, a former professor of Literature at Lyon, whose work questioned the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz and other German concentration camps. He was stripped of his academic position in accordance with The Gayssott Act. The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) upheld his conviction, claiming that questioning the decision of the Nuremburg Tribunal, had the potential to strengthen anti-Semitic feelings and thereby provoke hatred towards the Jewish community. Indeed, the very narrative that aggressively lends validity to Charlie Hebdo’s right to caricature the Prophet and the absence of a ‘right to be offended’ dichotomously suppresses Faurisson’s right to question historical facts.
The according of preferential treatment to the Jews may be explained by a pathological sense of guilt and pity. The provision of this immunity is possibly a means to atone for the long history of anti-Semitism in France, culminating in the Dreyfus Affair. However, such preferential treatment is also problematic as the narrative that is implicitly attributed to the Jewish identity is one of persecution and suppression. The sentiments that France seeks to protect are not linked to Jewish faith, culture, social standing or any other factor that is considered integral to an identity. Therefore, it may be argued that such protection is not a promotion of the Jewish identity but instead, the protection of an identity that has been ascribed to the Jews.
Liberal values have been moulded into the mainstream narrative as weapons of choice to occlude nuanced sensitivities of culture, religion or class that every community is burdened and blessed with. Certain forms of speech are prioritized over others. Certain sentiments are deemed more worthy of protection than others. Free speech can never be an absolute right. A multitude of riders will necessarily fetter its carte blanche use. These riders include concerns of national security, public order and social cohesion. A responsible state must assess these riders in a fair and equitable manner and thereby ensure that all communities benefit from the use of the right. The dichotomous French narrative, however is firmly entrenched in the opposite direction. The conspicuous absence of a “Je suis Faurisson” proclamation certainly denigrates to a large extent the liberal legitimacy of the “Je Suis Charlie.”