Insulting religions and freedom of expression
Blasphemy has taken on different meanings for different people. This is made very clear by how France has dealt with the murder of Samuel Paty versus how it dealt with Instagrammer Mila’s blasphemy.
This article is part of our series on normativity in Europe.
The 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris showed that the consensus in favour of freedom of expression cannot be taken for granted. A typical example was given by the Al Jazeera editor who argued that “[d]efending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile.”
There is admittedly a huge tension, if not a paradox, within the French government’s policy on religions. Since the 19th century, the Republic has prohibited hatred on the grounds of religion while implementing freedom of expression and freedom of religion. However, what kind of balance have public policies enforced?
The return of ‘blasphemy’
In February 2020, young Instagrammer Mila live-streamed a video where she declared: “The Koran is a religion of hatred, there is only hatred in it. Islam is s**t, your religion is s**t.” She later explained she was blaspheming to defend her right to freedom of expression.
Considering that the crime of blasphemy was banned following the French Revolution, the argument immediately hit home. A #JesuisMila hashtag was created and supported by a majority of French citizens. Adopting the principle of freedom of expression in 1789 and banishing blasphemy from its penal code in 1791, France quite clearly dissociated law and religion. By definition, blasphemy can offend religions as well as identities and political systems. All sorts of sacredness were originally targeted. Caricatures and insults affected any place of power – including Republican institutions.
Since the Republic does not control and censor blasphemy, “it is not the public authority that declares what blasphemy is. It is the person who feels ‘blasphemised’, who feels the values they build their existence and belief around are affected,” says historian Alain Cabantous. Today, the notion of blasphemy has taken on different meanings for different people. More importantly, blasphemous and anti-blasphemous discourses are becoming prominent.
‘Blasphemy’, a pretext for hate speech?
Mila’s defence has not stood the test of time. While her trial against her harassers still receives public support, her political stance for blasphemy is now rather overlooked by major political parties and institutions. Only far-right politicians and media keep presenting her as a defender of freedom of expression. Despite continuous death threats, a member of the government only recently promised to find a way to let her have a normal life again.
In contrast, Samuel Paty was transformed into a national figure and protector of freedom of expression. In October 2020, Paty, a history teacher, was murdered for showing his students two caricatures of Muhammad during a civic education class. On the occasion of a national hommage, President Macron said that Paty was “the face of the Republic.”
One of the reasons the two narratives largely differ is that there was nothing divisive in Paty’s action. On the contrary, Mila blurs the limit between blasphemy and hatred on the grounds of religion. After a public prosecutor had asked the court if Mila should be sued for hate speech, her ‘rejection of all religions’ was acknowledged as a personal opinion. Therefore, according to the jury, Mila is innocent. Still, 42% of French citizens felt her words provoked racial and religious hatred. If her statements do not provoke hatred, they provoke disunion.
National unity over freedoms of all kind
Though they both question the balance between freedom of religion and freedom of expression, these two events were not treated the same by public authorities. In Mila’s case, the government decided not to take sides, while it deliberately sided with Paty. It did so not only for itself as a political group, but in the name of the whole nation.
After a period of clumsy public communication, the government almost completely withdrew from Mila’s situation. It was then framed as an individual problem that demanded ‘solidarity’. On the contrary, the circumstances of Paty’s blasphemy were highly politicised and his personal values were generalised as being ‘the French values’.
One can only assume that national cohesion was prioritised. Whatever could strengthen it would be favoured. Whatever would put it at risk would be marginalised. With a legal and juridical system re-asserting that blasphemy is not a crime, and that caricaturists and detractors of all kinds are innocent, the compatibility (or rather absence of incompatibility) between freedom of religion and freedom of expression is solidified. But in the meantime, this disinterest of the Republic for insults and outrage makes living together harder. Daily adjustments in public communication on specific events help to keep the balance in check. Aside from the ongoing trial, this national disunion makes Mila’s blasphemy an enduring hot topic.
The controversy over blasphemy fragments religious and political groups from within. It does not oppose religions to the State, as one might think. On the contrary, freedom of religion and freedom of expression both release these institutions from any concern of blasphemy. Balance has been found, therefore, in prioritising national unity and juggling freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
Cases like that of Mila do not impair this moving balance. They put it into perspective, forcing religious and political authorities to restate their non-involvement in such situations.
Our team of analysts conducts research on topics relating to religion and society. In the second half of 2021, we are focusing on the subject of normativity. Find out more on the EARS Dashboard.