A day after at least 1.5 million came out to protest the murder of Charlie Hebdo journalists and support freedom of speech, the French Minister of the Interior announced criminal proceedings against Dieudonné, a comedian, for his "apology for terrorism." After participating in the demonstration in Paris, Dieudonné posted that he felt like "Charlie Coulibaly," thus provocatively combining the name of the victimized publication with that of the terrorist who killed four Jews at a kosher supermarket a day after the Charlie attack. Diedonné had already been banned from performing in France for his harsh satire of Jews. French law criminalizes defamation and incitement to discrimination, hatred or violence against people based on their race or religion. But while the courts have ruled that Charlie Hebdo's irreverent cartoons spoofing the Pope and Mohammed did not constitute such an offence, they ruled differently against Dieudonné's caustic humor, fueling stories about a Jewish conspiracy, especially among Muslim youth. Less than a handful of public figures stood up for freedom of expression in his case.
It is not hard to see the crude political logic of prosecuting an anti-Semite following a massacre of Jews, especially given the recent spate of violence against Jews in France. But given that previous efforts to stifle Diedonné's odious Jew-baiting have only made him into a celebrity, the utilitarian rationale is evidently flawed.
More importantly, the application of human rights principles needs to be above politics. The Charlie Hebdo terror murders were aimed at suppressing the exercise of one of the most fundamental human rights. The best way to repudiate this violence against freedom is not only to proclaim, but to demonstrate respect for human rights. Yet despite rhetoric about the value of free speech in the aftermath of the killings, French authorities have, in recent years, retreated from protecting the freedom of expression -- mostly in an attempt to avoid offending the Islamic community and ideological multiculturalists.
For years, French courts have been sentencing and fining citizens for speech critical of Islam. Cases recently enumerated by Guy Millière of the Gatestone Institute tell the story. There is widespread fear of speaking openly about radical or fundamentalist Islam, generating the use of politically correct code language or silent anxiety.
Christine Tasin, a founder of the "Secular Response" organization, was hauled before a court in 2013 and convicted of making "statements likely to provoke rejection of Muslims" following a public argument. The court fined her EURO 3,000, but her conviction was later overturned on appeal.
Other members of the same organization have been fined for voicing their concerns about Islamism, while a writer was convicted of "incitement to racial discrimination" for comments about the backgrounds of drug dealers. The Minister of the Interior even called for street demonstrations against him. "Secular Response" was forced to relocate to Switzerland.
While a wide range of speech has been suppressed, in the name of secularism (laïcité) France has also infringed on religious freedom. Thus, while subjecting critics of Islam to harsh penalties, the government has made it illegal for Muslim girls to wear veils in public schools, and for women to wear burqas, an obvious violation of the freedom of religion. Using astonishingly weak arguments, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the bans. The judgment has deeply alienated Muslims throughout the world, suggesting profound hypocrisy about the European commitment to human rights and the freedom of religion. Yet the ruling has been met with virtually no public criticism, other than from the Muslim community, and only a few critiques by human rights organizations.
The French state has also compromised the freedom of numerous other religious groups, who have been demonized by government leaders, blacklisted and subjected to harassment by bogus official monitoring bodies. No court prosecutes, and few public intellectuals condemn, scurrilous media attacks on minority religions called "sects."
France has been a primary inspiration for human rights principles since the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Yet it is clear that France is now in a political and moral corner in regards to human rights as a result of contradictions and double standards in its approach toward fundamental freedoms.
The struggle against Islamic terrorism is a struggle against a form of totalitarianism. No society can successfully withstand such a challenge without itself respecting intellectual diversity and freedom. If France would recommit itself to fundamental freedoms, and rid itself of secularized blasphemy laws and discriminatory laws like the burqa ban, authorities would be on firmer ground to insist on the sanctity of individual freedom and to uphold the rule of law (for example, to regain control of Islamist-controlled urban regions). Resistance to Islamist totalitarianism would be a clearer struggle if the state were not also in the business of stifling free speech and enforcing cultural conformity.
______________ Aaron Rhodes is President of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe and a founder of the Freedom Rights Project. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights 1993-2007.