Sunday, February 1, 2015

French Free Speech Victory - Andrew Harrod

by Andrew Harrod

While the world mourns the Charlie Hebdo victims, at least French law for now remains on the side of the right to openly discuss and debate Islam, thanks to the legal efforts of individuals like Scipilliti.

A French appeals court on December 18, 2014, overturned a hate speech conviction involving Christine Tasin's condemnation of Islam. Tasin's encouraging victory, won with Legal Project aid, demonstrates that not all threats to free discussion of Islam are violent like the subsequent Paris jihadist Charlie Hebdomassacre.

The retired classics teacher Tasin had appeared on October 15, 2013, in a parking lot before a temporary tent abattoir in use by local Muslims in the French city of Belfort near the Swiss border. During the ritual animal slaughter for the Eid al Adha ("Festival of Sacrifice") Muslim festival, Tasin before Muslim bystanders had criticized Islam's halal slaughter as unsanitary and cruel to animals. In an ensuing argument filmed and uploaded to the internet, she received "Islamophobe" accusations.

"Yes I am an Islamophobe, so what? It's normal!" answered Tasin. "I'm against Islam that causes problems. I don't find it normal to torture animals" or "to veil women. I'm talking about a serious problem." Tasin considered "outrageous that everyone has to eat Halal without knowing it . . . sixty percent of animals killed in France are killed ritually in line with Islam." "I am proud of hatred of Islam," Tasin concluded. "Islam is piece of sh*t . . . a danger for France."

Tasin's words brought her prosecution under an 1881 law prohibiting in its Article 24 speech provoking "discrimination, hatred, or violence . . . on the basis of . . . a specific ethnicity, nation, race, or religion." At Tasin's July 2, 2014, trial opening, prosecutor Alexandre Chevrier said she had violated French law with her "extremely strong" words of a "nature to incite the rejection of Muslims." Nordine Gherbi, a lawyer for two Muslim civil complainants against Tasin, emphasized that her "hateful discourse" occurred during "one of the most important festivals for the Muslim community."

Dressed in the French national colors of red, white, and blue, Tasin at trial expressed her "fear of Islam." Yet she distinguished her "battles against the Islamization of France" and "Islam and not against Muslims." Her defense attorney, Joseph Scipilliti, also noted that "Islam is not Muslims," a "specific group," thus ruling out any conviction of Tasin for her "liberty of expression."

Nonetheless, Tasin's August 8, 2014 conviction imposed a suspended three-month prison sentence and a 3000 Euro fine, half of which was also suspended. Scipilliti found the "judgment incomprehensible." He recalled a 2009 case in which the appeals court overturned the conviction of the black French rapper Richard Makela ("Monsieur R") for "words of the same order as those of my client concerning France."

The incriminated lyrics of Monsieur R's FranSSe, among other things, stated that "France is a bitch, do not forget to screw her until exhaustion." Makela's litany of social ills included the complaint that "my Muslim brothers are hated like my Jewish brothers during the epoch of the Reich at the hands of the Nazis." The appeals court, however, determined that Makela merely made a "committed, enraged criticism of the state" of France and "not an insult or an appeal for hate against the French in their entirety." Indeed, the court noted Makela's lyrics that "when I speak of France, I do not speak of the French people, but of the leaders of the French state."

Hate speech charges also failed against French writer Michel Houellebecq in a 2002 case similar to Tasin's. In a 2001 interview, Houellebecq had called Islam the "stupidest religion" and "dangerous . . . right from the start." "When you read the Koran," he added, "you're shattered," in contrast to the "beautifully written" Bible. Yet Houellebecq distinguished at trial between having "as much contempt as ever for Islam" but not the "least contempt for Muslims." The court agreed that his comments "did not contain any intent to verbally abuse, show contempt for or insult the followers of the religion."

While the world mourns the Charlie Hebdo victims, at least French law for now remains on the side of the right to openly discuss and debate Islam, thanks to the legal efforts of individuals like Scipilliti. Tasin after her appellate win rejoiced in her vindicated right to "think and say that Islam is a threat to France." "The Resistance to Islam and all those who, in France, fear that freedom of expression is disappearing, and that blasphemy has become a crime again are relieved," she explained.

Tasin's case shows that both lethal and legal threats to freedom exist, as some Muslims deceptively claim that attacking the idea of Islam is equivalent to attacking the individuals who identify with it. Yet all phenomena, however venerated, should be equally open to critique by various opposing forces, whether the French state or Islam. The world's free citizens must prepare for more such battles against backdoor imposition of Islamic blasphemy laws to come.

 This article was commissioned by The Legal Project, an activity of the Middle East Forum

Andrew Harrod, JD, PhD, is an independent researcher and a fellow at The Lawfare Project .


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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