Free speech vs Blasphemy: What Should France Do?
February 21, 2021 0

Has France gone too far? Where do we draw the line?

While freedom of speech is considered a paramount right in Western liberal democracies, like many others, it still has its curtailment. These limits are normally explicit and enforced by law, including practices of defamation, incitement, and copyright violations, to name a few. They are usually also widely accepted and exercised often, to an extent that allows a private to restrict the freedom of speech of the Leader of the Free World, during his presidency and later ban his account permanently, namely; Twitter blocking Donald J. Trump. That been said, other limitations are still far from being clearly established, with different countries taking various stances on them and heated debates currently taking central stage on the issue. One key area of this discussion is drawing the limits when defining blasphemy.

Blasphemy is the term that used to describe the deliberate act of insult or contempt towards what is considered sacred or inviolable. In Islam, this entails Allah (God), the Prophet (Mohammed), and other key aspects of the religion. While laws prohibiting blasphemy are continuously  being demolished in liberal democracies – seven democracies have actively abolished their blasphemy laws since 2015 –, around  40 countries are still enforcing strict laws against blasphemy that could potentially lead to prison sentences. The question here remains, can we have freedom of speech while also protecting religions from unjust attacks and insults?

There are many arguments regarding blasphemy laws from the religious perspective including the Muslims’, but this article will explore this discussion from the French point of view instead. In fact, it will attempt to critically analyze the multiple factors that affect the reaction of the French government’s, as this perspective will allow for a deeper understanding of the issue, since the values of the Republic of France differ significantly from those of the Muslim world.  Furthermore, while there is no indication that France will change its position on the topic, for the purposes of sound argumentation, this article will still examine the issue for and against a change in France’s position towards blasphemy laws. It will, as such, set out to explore impact of blasphemy laws on three themes, both in the affirmative and the opposing arguments, which are: 1) political tension, 2) the believers’ right of not to be offended, and 3) societal harmony.
The question then becomes:

“Should France restrict the freedom to blasphemy?”

Arguments supporting the restriction of freedom towards blasphemy:

Creating political tension with the Muslim world and harming the economy

It goes without saying that acts of terror are not justified. Nonetheless, responding to it by officially supporting blasphemy acts offend the entire Muslim population, which is estimated to be a total of 1.8 billion people. A massive backlash from the Muslim world came following the French President Macron’s statements in the memorial of teacher Samuel Paty, which was made in honor of him, after being beheaded for showing “insulting” cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in class. In his speech, President Macron vowed to “not give up cartoons” and announced his plans to compact Islamism. All of these events came after Charlie Hebdo republished their sarcastic and “disrespectful” cartoons of the Prophet. Republishing the cartoons, according to the French expert on the Arab world Anne Giudicelli, is worse than the initial publication in 2015. According to Giudicelli, the republication of the cartoons depicted an intention to continue to humiliate the Muslims, which insinuates that France has a problem with Islam and not just the terrorist attacks. President Macron’s statement was followed by many French official statements that supported the same idea, including the regional leader’s announcement that they shall distribute booklets with the cartoons to students as a way of supporting their Republic values.  The huge backlash came in the form of political statements by Muslim leaders, and an economic boycott that targeted French products and businesses.

The boycott was widespread and took different forms where major supermarkets in Kuwait, Jordan, and Qatar removed French product from their shelves. In addition to 430 travel agencies in Kuwait suspending all flights bookings to France, as well as the University of Qatar postponing its French cultural week as a result of “a deliberate attack on Islam and its symbols”. This led to the French Foreign Ministry releasing a statement urging Arab countries to stop the “baseless” boycott. Moreover, Muslim leaders in Turkey and Pakistan responded to Macron’s statements and labeled it to be a disrespect to the freedom of religion. The Turkish President, who has many conflicts with Macron, even questioned the French President’s mental abilities. These issues harm the French relations with the Muslim world and harms the French economy. These avoidable harms gives reasons from a utilitarian point of view for France to reconsider its position.

Having the right not to be offended

An automatic position that we assume whenever drawing limits is put into question is “one person’s freedom ends where another’s begins”. This, however, does not draw any actual lines, because people’s rights simply overlap. One way to solve this conundrum could be to weigh the importance of having the right for each of the conflicting parties and draw the line based on that. In the issue at hand, supporting blasphemy laws is viewed from the French side as supporting the freedom of speech. However, from the Muslim minority’s side and the rest of the Muslim world, it is considered to be disrespectful to their Prophet, whom they consider sacred. This comes in a context where the Muslim community is being marginalized and discriminated against, in the West and in France in specific. Amnesty International issued a statement urging the French authorities to react in the face of discrimination against Muslims in their country. Even though the right not to be offended is not constitutional as the right of free speech, the massive effect of the blasphemy acts on the French Muslims supports why France may reconsider its reaction to these repeated incidents. This stems from the need to protect individuals from any undue attacks or incitements that are based on their beliefs.

The European Court of Human Rights, which is the highest court in Europe, ruled in favor of the right not to offend in a case that involved remarks disrespecting the Prophet Mohammed. The case involved an Austrian woman that was found guilty of offending by her remarks on Islam. The court’s reasoning was that her expression “go beyond the limits of a critical denial of other people’s religious beliefs and are likely to incite religious intolerance”. Another example of the right not to offend is when the court in the United States (US) ruled in favor of a school banning students from performing a verse of the Bible instrumentally with music only in their graduation. Even though the students wanted to use instruments only without any lyrics or words sung or printed, the school saw the piece to be religious and refused to allow the student to perform it. The court has ruled it was “reasonable” in trying to avoid offending anyone. A higher court supported this ruling in the following years stating that “school authorities can deny students’ rights to free speech just to keep some of those attending graduation from being offended.” Furthermore, the idea of limiting the freedom of speech to avoid humiliating or provoking others was supported by the Former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon. In his address  following a similar incidence of blasphemy, Ban stated that “a disgraceful act of great insensitivity has led to justifiable offense and unjustifiable violence.” From his view, the protection of the freedom of speech should not extend to its use to provoke or humiliate the values of beliefs of the others.

Harming societal harmony

Another aspect that goes against the right to blasphemy is that it endangers public safety. The danger of allowing blasphemy goes further than harming the religious minority to harm social harmony and incentivize unjustified violence. In an exceptionally diverse country such as France, societal harmony is of utmost importance. The Republic is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, with 5.4 million Muslims. Also, France colonial legacy and policies played a role in marginalizing the Muslim minority. Official statistics show that around half of the Muslims in France faced discrimination based on religion. The majority of them believe that their faith and ethnicity are perceived negatively. President Macron acknowledged the shortcomings of France in dealing with the Algerian war’s legacy and added that the French governments are to blame for enabling the radicalization by ghettoizing the Muslim minority. This has a snowball effect. The first level, blasphemy acts offend the marginalized minority, then they reply with words that create tension. The second level is when these acts incentivize unjustified offenses by extremists that are repeated and result in the loss of many innocent lives. The third level is then, when officials and institutions take it upon themselves to respond to these offenses, but also propagate the harm on the marginalized communities and expand it further to the Muslim world. All of this creates an ongoing tension and further divide society. Thus, restricting blasphemy is better viewed as a tool to achieve societal harmony and unity and not as a loss to extremists. This argument suggests that fewer offenses means more harmony and wider peace, which shall serve to the benefit of all.

Arguments opposing the notion of restricting the freedom of speech

Blasphemy laws have no place within the French Republic values and constitutions

The first and the most obvious argument against any restrictions on blasphemy stems from the French secular concept of laïcité. French secularism imposes a strict separation between the state and the private sphere of personal beliefs. This concept and the French constitution strongly support the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. The Republic’s commitment to its values is strong to the level that Imams are requested by the French authorities to sign a charter of Republican values. Another layer to this is the political pressure on the government resulting from French commitment to these values. President Macron, who will be going through the presidential election next year, cannot afford to look soft. One reason for Macron is the campaign against him for not being hard enough on Islamism, which is led by the right-wing Marine La Pen, who Macron defeated in the previous elections. All this political pressure adds additional motives to Macron, who is already passing bills and making statements against Islamism.

Placing such limits will critically endanger free speech (where to draw the line)

The main issue with any laws limiting the right to blasphemy is that it endangers free speech. Both the freedom of speech and freedom of religion can coexist in the same society without blasphemy laws. However, once restrictions are placed, then the situation is complicated and freedom of speech is limited. This is simply because many can be offended by a lot of what needs to be said by others, which shall limit the ability to critique and result in many disputes regarding the overlap between the rights and restrictions.

A legal review argues that blasphemy laws have inherent harms accompanying them. They are ambiguous due to the lack of apparent authority and definitions; they also limit the ability to critique religion, which can be necessary at times. In addition, statistics show that such restrictions on free speech have an adverse effect on social hostilities. Pierre-Henri Tavoillot, an expert on the French laïcité at the Sorbonne University states that the cartoons controversy has placed France a trap of conflicts, yet he argues that it is a good conflict to have. For him, “if French laïcité gives up on this point, it will have to give up on all the others”. That is, abandoning the blasphemy act, namely the cartoons in this case, is abandoning the freedom of expression. This is supported by the cartoon’s publishers, who stated that the timely republishing of the cartoon is a duty to inform the new generations about the crimes committed in 2015, especially that  the trials for Charlie Hebdo are currently taking place.

Restricting offensive speech shall harm societal harmony more

Limiting the ability to speak and express leads to further division and ignorance. While the conflicts that follow the acts may seem to be the problem, they are in fact a part of the solution. They offer an opportunity to understand the other and their values and how they differ. This is critical for societies to live in harmony as opposed to limiting the ability to speak and express, and therefore, limiting the ability to understand and reflect.

The head of the French Council for the Muslim Faith stated that Muslims should simply ignore the cartoons. In his address to the Muslim community, he reminded that while the law in France allows these cartoons, it “doesn’t force anyone to like them nor does it forbid anybody from hating them.” Further, former President of the US, Barak Obama, stated in a UN General Assembly during his presidency that we should defend the right of people to say “awful things”. In his opinion, while some acts might be proactive or crude, any effort they limit the freedom to express shall result in silencing the criticism and might lead to oppressing minorities. The solution to hateful speech from his opinion is, hence, not restricting speech, but more speech, which he described as “the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect”.

This is also important to correct misinformation and contrast ideas. Any restriction shall take these acts to be said behind closed doors, which create eco champers that shall reinforce these ideas and create division and hatred between the different communities. This is more problematic in France where the majority share values of freedom that go against any restrictions on blasphemy and would see any restrictions as an attack on their values.  On the contrary, an open discussion that is protected by the freedom of speech shall allow for a healthier discussion of these thoughts with the individuals behind them. Therefore, the benefit of free speech far outweighs the harms, even in the context of hate speech. 

By: Saad Elasad – Debate Instructor at QatarDebate




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