By The Economist
Jan 24th 2015
IN 2011 Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper, was firebombed. Its editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, was asked if he could understand that moderate Muslims might have been offended by its cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. “Of course!” he replied. “Myself, when I pass by a mosque, a church or a synagogue, and I hear the idiocies that are spoken in them, I am shocked.” Charlie Hebdo kept publishing such images. On January 7th Mr Charbonnier and 11 others were murdered by radical Islamists for their “offence”. The paper’s actions were a sign of defiance. But they also reflect France’s free-speech law, which protects commentary on religion, even when it insults or mocks.
The reason lies in French history. Blasphemy laws carried the death penalty before the 1789 revolution, but were scrapped in 1881 as part of a bloody struggle against the Catholic church. Such latitude is not granted to incitement to racial or religious hatred, which was made a crime in 1972, partly as a response to a rise in attacks on Algerians. Holocaust denial was outlawed in 1990, and “apology for terrorism” last year. There is a “fundamental difference”, declared the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, in a speech to parliament on January 13th, between the “freedom of impertinence” and “anti-Semitism, racism, apology for terrorism, Holocaust denial”.
Every country limits free speech. Some do so only to prevent immediate harms, such as libel, violence or child pornography; others ban “hate speech” (offensive utterances against groups such as gay people or racial minorities) or blasphemy. In the wake of the Paris attacks, these differing approaches are colliding—both with each other and with free speech, which is in many places at best a wavering ideal.
Even in France, not all agree with the distinction drawn between “impertinence” and racism, Holocaust denial and the like. A poll published a week after the Charlie Hebdo attacks found that two-fifths felt that, since images of the Prophet offended Muslims, they should not be published. And some see double standards. In the banlieues, or outer-city estates, there were around 200 reported incidents of disruption in schools, mostly during a nationwide minute of silence on January 8th to honour the victims. How could a newspaper mock Islam with impunity, some Muslim pupils asked, but Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a comedian with past links to Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right National Front, be arrested for apparently sympathising with the killers on Facebook? Along with dozens of others who commented on the attacks, mostly on social media, he has been charged with apology for terrorism. He faces up to seven years in jail.
Elsewhere in Europe, laws against hate speech can backfire by making free-speech martyrs out of provocateurs. In a Dutch parliamentary debate on January 14th on the Paris attacks, Geert Wilders, a populist politician, thundered that Islam must be eradicated from the Netherlands: “In every country where Islam is strong, it comes at the cost of freedom.” For a decade he has been calling for bans on the Burqa and the Koran, and an end to immigration by Muslims. Such a platform would seem at odds with his claims to support liberty and free speech. But he says Islam is a totalitarian ideology rather than a religion, and likens the Koran to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, which is banned in the Netherlands.
Mr Wilders has already been acquitted of charges of fomenting discrimination in 2011. The court ruled that criticism of religion, especially by politicians, should enjoy strong protection. But last year he prompted followers at a rally to shout that they wanted “fewer Moroccans”. Over 6,000 people filed complaints. Last month prosecutors decided to take up the case, saying the words demonised a population group rather than criticised a religion. Mr Wilders will no doubt exploit his new trial for free publicity, as he did his last.
So Much for Turning the Other Cheek
A startling contribution to the debate over freedom to offend came on January 15th, when Pope Francis told reporters that, though waging war in God’s name was wrong; responding violently to one’s religion being mocked or insulted was “natural”. He likened such provocation to using a crude word about someone’s mother, saying that if a Vatican official standing nearby were to do such a thing to him, he could “expect to get punched in the nose”.
That was perhaps a moment of South American machismo from an Argentine pope—or a clumsily phrased attempt to express solidarity with Muslims offended by the cartoons, in the hope of calming inflamed tempers in the Islamic world. Cartoons depicting Muhammad published in 2005 by Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper (later republished by Charlie Hebdo) sparked global protests, some of which developed into riots. In Nigeria, more than a hundred people were killed.
This time round Niger, a majority-Muslim former French colony sitting on the edge of the Sahara, has seen the worst violence. Protests against Charlie Hebdo’s unrepentant depiction of Muhammad on the cover of its “survivors’ issue” have caused the deaths of at least ten people and the burning of 45 churches. Hotels and bars have been razed to the ground, prompting speculation that Islamist extremists were among those inciting the mobs.
Words That Wound
Such mayhem is often whipped up by reference to blasphemy laws. Though these remain on the books in several European countries, they are rarely used. But in much of Africa, Asia and the rest of the world, they serve not only to silence irreligious utterances but, along with other limits on free speech, to ensure that hard-line religious leaders support incumbents and to silence political opponents.
Even laws introduced to tamp down the most poisonous utterances can end up as a tool of repression. In Rwanda all discussion of ethnic culpability for the 1994 genocide that disagrees with the officially sanctioned version is banned. The stated reason is to avoid a resurgence of ethnic hatred. But critics say that the Tutsi-led government uses restrictions on free speech to crack down on dissent, whether from the Hutu majority or not.
Among the dozens of world leaders condemning the Paris attacks was Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s president. Nigeria’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression and of the press, but laws against sedition, civil libel, criminal defamation and the publication of false news are used to protect the elite from criticism, says Jennifer Dunham of Freedom House, an American lobby group.
Comment on the government’s weak response to Boko Haram, an Islamist insurgent group inflicting terror on the country’s north-east, is also stifled. Terrorism and national-security laws have been used to enter offices, seize print runs and detain journalists. Several international news organisations have reported that journalist visas are hard to get, as criticism mounts in the run-up to next month’s elections.
Laws against blasphemy and statements that could inflame religious conflict make it hard to criticise Nigeria’s religious leaders and encourage self-censorship. Sharia, or Islamic law, adopted in most of the predominantly Muslim north is even stricter. “Journalists don’t even think of speaking about controversial religious issues there,” says Lai Oshisanya, a lawyer. “You’d probably be killed before it got to prosecution.”
Pakistan’s shadowy web-censors also crack down on any questioning of Islam—as well as criticism of the army. YouTube has been banned since the uploading in 2012 of “Innocence of Muslims”, an amateurish 14-minute film combining footage of Muslims attacking Egyptian Christians and depictions of Muhammad as a lecherous thug.
Junaid Hafeez, an academic accused of links to Facebook pages where religion and politics were discussed, is facing trial under blasphemy laws that human-rights groups describe as a tool to wage vendettas, persecute minorities and whip up mobs. Even defending the accused is dangerous. One lawyer, who received threats when he took up Mr Hafeez’s case, was murdered in his office in May. His successor was attacked last month.
The ease with which blasphemy can be alleged makes discussing Islam treacherous, even for those who may be thought able to avoid slip-ups. Junaid Jamshed, a former pop star turned hard-line preacher, is unable to return to Pakistan after being accused of mocking one of the Prophet’s wives in a throwaway remark about the weakness of women. Newspapers avoid giving the detail of such cases, for fear of repeating the blasphemy: one described Mr Jamshed’s alleged offence as “uttering shameful words against holy personalities”. When it is risky even to report on restrictions to free speech, there is little left for the censors to do.