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Freedom of speech: need conditions apply?

[Read the original article in French here]

The anger caused during the week of September 11th 2012 in Muslim countries, by the Islamophobic movie Innocence of Muslims made by an American, reignited on September 19th, following the publication of caricatures of the prophet Mohammed by the French weekly Charlie Hebdo. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims protested in indignation, qualifying these publications as blasphemous, outrageous, and sacrilegious. The violence of certain participants in these protests led to the death of about a hundred protesters, and of American ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, along with three of his security guards.

In order to express their discontent and outrage, protesters attacked American and French embassies. They even went so far as to assault a Libyan school as well as American fast-food restaurants in Lebanon, in addition to burning a multitude of star-spangled banners. Hundreds of soldiers have since been stationed in front of these embassies, in order to ensure an “enforced security”. In about twenty Muslim countries, schools have been closed, and local expatriates told to be vigilant.

Even in France, certain Muslims wished to express their opposition by converging in front of the American embassy in Paris. The French Council for the Muslim Cult (Conseil français du culte musulman – CFCM), while considering these publications as “insulting towards Islam”, calls upon Muslims to ignore this provocation. Others are less indulgent, such as the Pakistani minister Ghulan Ahmed Bilour, who promises a sum of “$100,000 to whoever kills [the director of Islamophobic movie Innocence of Muslims], this blasphemous man who has outraged the holy prophet”.

Such tensions born from the release of a movie and a newspaper article raise the question of the universality and indisputable nature of freedom of speech (article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights) when it comes to what is considered sacred. Indeed, it is not the first time (and probably not the last) that the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo will cause controversy. Caricatures and articles that turn current events to derision are its business model. In 2007, its drawings mocking the prophet Mohammed caused it to be sued by the Great Mosque of Paris, the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (in French UOIF), and the Muslim World League (this trial had lead to nothing). Thus, this publication was in full understanding of exactly what it was doing when these editors dared to play the provocation card again. Opinions on this act vary: some admire the journalists’ courage, while others denounce these cartoons as immature attention-seeking, or even a marketing gimmick.

In addition, the anti-Islam movie, whose director has a shady identity, does not honor the 19th article of the Declaration of Human Rights. This amateur production has as its only goal an incitement of hatred towards the Muslim religion, and was condemned by the American government.

In Nigeria, Mohammed Turi, the leader of a protest against this production, called upon the American government on September 22nd to “stop further blasphemies against Islam”. However, the creators of this film were not sanctioned by American or French authorities, which respect freedom of speech, even when disapproving of the film’s message. Indeed, the application of this right implies the disengagement of the country and of its population in any expression of opinion by one of its citizens, with the exception of an invitation to violence.

In short, who is to blame – the excessive laxness of French and American societies, or the extreme sensitivity of certain Muslim communities around the world?

Anne-Hélène Mai (translated from French by Matthieu Charriaud)


(Featured Image: Paternité Dreamwhile, Flickr, Creative Commons)


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