by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
October 28, 2020
Amid this worsening crisis between France and leaders of some Muslim-majority countries, media outlets are manufacturing narratives favorable to the side they support. Facts and truth matter. They matter because a sound solution to a problem must be built on the truth for a solution to endure. Truth did not survive Western media drive to create a narrative that portrays Muslims as being unappreciative of or hostile to freedom of speech. A German news outlet (dw.com), for instance, proposed the following chain of events:
A French high school teacher circulated the 2015 Charlie Hebdo cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad. The teacher was killed by a suspected Muslim man. Reacting to the killing, Macron delivered a spirited defense of free speech and secularism. Subsequently, Muslims reacted angerly to Macron’s speech and called for a boycott of French goods.
This contextualizing of the current problem is subverted and manipulative.
France’s, and by extension Europe’s, problems with Islam are hardly the result or consequence of the events of the last two weeks described in the above media narrative. Europe and the Islamic world have unresolved issues that date back to their first encounters and events like the crusades, Enlightenment thinkers’ depiction of Islam and Muslims, colonialism, exploitation, and plunder Muslim resources. However, even the recent events alone reveal France’s systemic problem in addressing the concerns of Muslim-French citizens and those of Muslim-majority countries.
Macron, living up to his aspiration to be a transformative figure at home and abroad delivered a speech on October 1. In it, he outlined his grand project to build “an Islam of Enlightenment.” Echoing the voices of 300 French intellectuals and leading figures who called on Muslim religious scholars to strike out verses of the Quran, Macron contended that Islam, not Islamism or violent Islamists, but Islam in general is “in crisis, including in countries where it is a majority religion.” Speaking with a tone of superiority, he declared: “We must help this religion organize itself so that it’s a partner for the Republic.”
This event is the trigger event because it was not a reaction to a killing or a call for boycott. It was his national plan with policy goals. The killing of the teacher occurred nearly two weeks after his speech. Macron’s speech could be seen as the cause of later events; not the other way around. What kind of national leader singles out a religious community to tell them that their religion has a problem and endorses the bizarre demand that Muslim religious leaders should change the words of the Quran, words Muslims believe are God’s? Followers of which other major religion has Macron asked to edit the text of their religious scripture?
Muslims’ reaction to Macron is a rejection of his paternalism, supremacy, and disregard to what they see as a long list of grievances. Macron and his supporters are attempting to explain Muslims’ reaction by what they claim is Muslims’ lack of appreciation to France’s (and Western) principled commitment to freedom of speech. Far from the truth. The real problem is that Macron, like many politicians in the West, are instrumentalizing freedom of speech for political ends, not defending or promoting freedom of speech and human rights.
First, freedom of speech is not absolute. It is not absolute in France. It is not absolute in the United States, which has much stronger commitment to freedom of speech than most European countries.
In France, freedom of speech is protected by the 1789 Declaration of Human and Civil Rights, which informed the French Constitution. It is also protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which France is a party. However, in practice and in law, freedom of speech in France is not absolute. It is limited by the legal protection of privacy, the presumption of innocence, and proscription of defamation and insults. In France, freedom of speech can be limited by the need for public order. Specifically, French law prohibits hate speech, and speech denying or justifying the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity. Furthermore, French law proscribes speech if such speech defames government institutions and/or insults public office holders (like the president) or abusing the national anthem and flag. Given such broad latitude that can be used to limit freedom of speech, is it unreasonable for French Muslims to expect that their religious symbols are protected against hate speech, defamation, and insults? If Macron can limit free speech because he is the president; is it out of order for Muslims to ask that their Prophet is protected from defamation and insults? We don’t have to agree that their wish should or should not be granted but we should agree that, given the protections others enjoy, it is not unreasonable for French Muslims to ask that their religious symbols are not insulted and defamed without them being labeled as anti-freedom of speech?
Second, freedom of speech is protected primarily for ordinary citizens, for individuals, so that the State does not infringe on their rights of thought, belief, and conscience. Freedom of speech of private individual citizens, in my opinion, ought to and should be absolute, for it is a shield protecting vulnerable individuals against the overreach and abuse of the powerful and the State. If a private, ordinary citizen drew these offensive cartoons and Muslims objected to it, wanting to ban such private exercise of speech; they would be wrong and their attempt to limit individuals’ right to speech and thought should be condemned. But when the offensive speech is initiated or amplified by the State, agents of the State, and/or powerful institutions, then that would amount to human rights violation and systemic discrimination. Macron, being the head of the State, should not initiate or amplify attacks on the freedom of belief of ordinary citizens. Macron’s careless attack on Islam is abuse of power. The State should not be in the business of establishing or reforming religion.
Among Muslims, as is the case among followers of any other religion, there are people who are committed to freedom of speech. I would argue that there are many Muslims who are more committed to freedom of speech than people living in Western societies because these Muslims know firsthand how precious freedom of speech is. They know how precious freedom of speech is because they live or have lived in countries that are ruled by Western-propped tyrants who use bone saws to dismember persons alive (recall the murder of journalist Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents) because they spoke out against them and condemned their despotism. Ironically, many Western political leaders, including France’s, refused to condemn and impose sanctions on rulers who have committed such cruelty. Yet they are willing to portray ordinary Muslims as hostile to freedom of speech and to debase their religion depicting it as being in need of purging and editing.
This problem is not an international relations matter. French leaders should focus on the status of Islam and Muslims as a domestic issue that has been neglected for far too long. France has a sizable segment of its citizenry, nearly 10% of the population, who are Muslim. If France is serious about integrating these Muslim citizens, it should start by looking into its governing and social systems: using the legal and institutional tools to protect the rights of all its citizens, including Muslims, instead of othering them.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA is a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa with joint appointment in International Studies, Religious Studies, and College of Law. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest, not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he might be affiliated.