“I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.”
That maxim of Voltaire was among those most invoked by the marching millions in Sunday’s mammoth “Je Suis Charlie” rally in Paris.
This week, in the spirit of Voltaire, French authorities arrested and charged Cameroonian comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, and 54 others, with “hate speech.”
Yes, Monsieur Voltaire, there are limits to free speech in France.
Dieudonne’s crime? He tweeted, “I am Charlie Coulibaly,” the last name of the killer of four innocent Jews in that kosher market.
A wounding wicked remark.
And what are now the limits of free speech in France?
Prime Minister Manuel Vals lists four. “There is a fundamental difference between the freedom to be impertinent and anti-Semitism, racism, glorification of terrorist acts, and Holocaust denial, all of which are crimes, that justice should punish with the most severity.”
Vals’ list brings to mind another quote of Voltaire’s, “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”
Why did Vals not include slanders against Catholicism and Islam, the world’s largest religions, both of which have been repeatedly insulted by Charlie Hebdo? In the banlieues north of Paris, they wish to know.
Pope Francis himself said yesterday, “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. … If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch.”
Is our new Pope offering preemptive dispensations to Catholics who sock those who mock their faith? That’s pre-Vatican II thinking.
Back to Vals’ list. Who decides what is “anti-Semitism” and what is “racism”? In America, these terms are tossed around with abandon.
As for the “glorification of terrorist acts,” Israel’s Menachem Begin, the ANC’s Nelson Mandela, and the PLO’s Yasser Arafat were all credibly charged with acts of terrorism in their liberation struggles.
And all three won the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Millions of Algerians reside in France. Is it impermissible for them to celebrate the FLN in Algeria and the often-terrible deeds that won their independence? Algerians did not fight the French in stand-up battles, but rather with bombs in cafes and movie theaters.
Did not the maquisards and French Resistance, during and after the Nazi occupation, exact savage reprisals, of which some in France are today ashamed?
Who decides which historical events are off-limits for debate?
Even before the Paris march, Vals had declared “war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.”
But does not the renewed publication of cartoons that insult the Prophet undermine the fraternity and solidarity of French Muslims, Christians and secularists in Val’s war on terrorism?
Has Charlie Hebdo really helped to unite the West and the Islamic world in the “war … against jihadism, against radical Islam”? Or has it divided us?
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, our ally who ousted the Muslim Brotherhood, killed hundreds, and imprisoned thousands, just issued a decree allowing him to ban foreign publications offensive to Islam.
Why might President Sissi regard Charlie Hebdo as toxic?
According to a 2013 Pew Poll, 80 percent of Egyptians favor the stoning of adulterers and 88 percent the death penalty for apostates.
The figures are comparable for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. Across the Middle East, majorities favor the adoption of sharia law. Many support beheadings, stonings, the lash and amputations of limbs for lesser offenses.
What does these polls tell us?
First, if we insist that freedom of the press means standing behind the blasphemies of Charlie Hebdo, we should anticipate the hatred and hostility of majorities in the Islamic world to whom faith and family are everything â€” and our First Amendment is nothing.
Second, the idea that, by sending armies of Americans into that part of the world for a decade or two, we could convert these peoples, steeped in a 1,500-year-old faith, to share our embrace of religious, cultural and moral pluralism and secularism was utopian madness.
Third, as Islamic peoples grow in number and militancy, while the peoples of Europe age and pass on, and the migrants continue to come from the Maghreb and Middle East, Europe will have to adapt to Muslim demands or face endless civil and cultural conflict on the Old Continent.
The moral befuddlement in France mirrors that of the West.
In welcoming the return to the newsstands of Charlie Hebdo, with a cartoon mocking the Prophet on its cover, President Hollande said, “You can murder men and women, but you can never kill their ideas.”
True. And anti-Islamism is an idea. As is the “radical Islam” against which France has declared war.
And which of the two ideas appears today to have more adherents willing not only to march for it on Sundays, but to die for it?