France Cracks Down On Free Speech

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 14 2015 @ 2:34pm

Quelle surprise!

[Dieudonné] was detained for questioning on Wednesday for writing on his Facebook account he felt “Charlie Coulibaly,” a word play combining the widespread “I am Charlie” vigil slogan and the name of one of the three gunmen.

And he isn’t the only one. According to the AP, French authorities said “54 people had been arrested for hate speech and defending terrorism in the last week.” So the French are arresting people for committing acts of free speech just after a massive rally defending those principles.  Dieudonné, for one, claims he is being misunderstood:

What he had meant to say on Facebook, he said, was  that “I am considered like another Amedy Coulibaly when in fact I am no different from Charlie.” His original statement on his Facebook page was as follows:

“After this historic, no legendary, march, a magic moment equal to the Big Bang which created the Universe, or in a smaller (more local) way comparable to the crowning of the (ancient Gaullish king)  Vercingétorix, I am going home. Let me say that this evening, as far as I am concerned, I feel I am Charlie Coulibaly.”

The very idea that one can be arrested for writing such a thing is appalling – but par for the course in much of the West. Josh Lowe provides background on Dieudonné:

Originally called Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, the comedian is the son of a French woman and a Cameroonian man. His jokes have frequently got him into trouble, in particular those deemed to be anti-Semitic. Last year, the French government issued a strong recommendation to local authorities across France to cancel his scheduled shows, on the grounds that he had repeatedly violated French laws against inciting racial and religious hatred. In 2003, he appeared on French TV dressed in orthodox Jewish garb, performing a Nazi salute and crying “Israheil!” He makes fun of the Nazi atrocities in a song called Shoananas which mixes the French word for “holocaust” with that for “pineapple.” He began his career in the early 90s as part of a controversial double act with the Jewish comic Elie Semoun. Since the pair went their separate ways, however, Semoun has criticised him, writing (in an open letter to Libération in 2004) that: “You and me, we made fun of everyone, people loved it… but that’s why I feel so betrayed. You are not the same Dieudo.”

Tom Reiss profiled the comedian back in 2007:

“Dieudonné is the spokesman, the godfather, the icon of a new kind of anti-Semitism,” Alain Finkielkraut, the philosopher and memoirist of Jewish identity, told me. “It is an explicitly anti-racist anti-Semitism, which inverts traditional anti-Semitism by asserting that the Nazis today are in fact the Jews. The idiom of anti-Semitism is no longer racism; it is now anti-racism. Dieudonné’s followers say that they don’t hate Jews, they hate Jewish racism. They say that Israel is like Nazism, like apartheid.”

So of course he must be punished! Matt Welch expects the arrest to backfire:

Any speech made criminally taboo will thrive unchallenged in the shadows, rather than be refuted and ridiculed out in the open. If you’re alarmed by Dieudonné’s infamous quenelle gesture, how popular do you think it will get if he’s behind bars?

Très. Greenwald uses the arrest to question the motivations of Charlie supporters:

It is certainly true that many of Dieudonné’s views and statements are noxious, although he and his supporters insist that they are “satire” and all in good humor. In that regard, the controversy they provoke is similar to the now-much-beloved Charlie Hebdo cartoons (one French leftist insists the cartoonists were mocking rather than adopting racism and bigotry, but Olivier Cyran, a former writer at the magazine who resigned in 2001, wrote a powerful 2013 letter with ample documentation condemning Charlie Hebdo for descending in the post-9/11 era into full-scale, obsessive anti-Muslim bigotry).

Despite the obvious threat to free speech posed by this arrest, it is inconceivable that any mainstream western media figures would start tweeting “#JeSuisDieudonné” or would upload photographs of themselves performing his ugly Nazi-evoking arm gesture in “solidarity” with his free speech rights. That’s true even if he were murdered for his ideas rather than “merely” arrested and prosecuted for them. That’s because last week’s celebration of the Hebdo cartoonists (well beyond mourning their horrifically unjust murders) was at least as much about approval for their anti-Muslim messages as it was about the free speech rights that were invoked in their support – at least as much.

Although I find Glenn’s refusal to admit the link between terror and Islam befuddling, I do think he is right to point out the double standards of some of the free speech crowd. Once you establish limits on free speech, the consistency of their application matters. To have different rules of censorship for anti-Semites and anti-Muslims is to deepen the conflict even further. Sullum rightly fears that the criminalizing of speech “teaches people that the use of force is an appropriate response to words and images that offend—a principle that is poisonous to free speech and conducive to violence”:

Since the French government has announced that offending the wrong people by saying the wrong thing in the wrong context can be treated as a crime, it would not be surprising if some people, convinced that their rights had been violated and that they could not count on the courts to vindicate them, resorted to self-help.

Other countries that criminalize “hate speech,” including Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K., Sweden, and Canada, are likewise sending a dangerous message that offending people with words or images is akin to assaulting them with fists or knives. Instead of facilitating censorship by the sensitive, a government truly committed to open debate and freedom of speech would make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that offending Muslims (or any other religious group) is not a crime.

Amen. And particularly religion, which should be open to the most merciless attacks and denunciations and mockery precisely because of the grandeur of its claims and the power of its social authority. A true believer is relieved to see the all-too human institutions of church or mosque or synagogue ridiculed, precisely because those institutions are prone to corruption on a vast scale. And faith should easily survive mockery. Jesus himself encouraged his followers not to be dismayed when they are maligned or disparaged because of their faith. It is not something Christians should avenge; it is something that at times Christians should even seek. But even a spiritual figure like Jesus was ignored for millennia once Christianity got worldly power. When Muhammed himself authorizes a hit on someone who insulted him and Allah, the journey is going to be considerably longer.