The brutal Paris attacks have been rightly condemned. Yet the tragedy has been exploited to distort the very right it’s become an emblem for – freedom of expression – while details contradicting the official narrative are suppressed. This article examines the selective defence of free speech in the aftermath, and how the French Government’s long-running crackdown on alternative spirituality violates the principle of liberty it claims to uphold.
France is known as the land of liberty, equality and fraternity. The brutal murder of 12 people at the office of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and the killing of five more in related shootings, was viewed as a direct assault on the country’s values. Charlie Hebdo is renowned for political satire, which has a proud history in France, with its cartoons frequently caricaturing politicians and religious figures, including Islam’s prophet Muhammad.
Islam forbids its prophet being illustrated in anyway, let alone ridiculed. In the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the Parisian tradition of free speech and political satire apparently collided with Islamic extremism. The gunmen, who killed 10 people and 2 policemen before being hunted down and shot dead by law enforcement, reportedly shouted they had “avenged Muhammad” as they left the scene. The paper had depicted him naked in a pornographic pose.
In the West, the Charlie Hebdo attacks have become an emblem for the cause of free speech. The initial consensus was that freedom of expression is an unconditional right with no exceptions, and this freedom includes the right to offend. The slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) was adopted by free speech supporters in the aftermath, with millions turning out for peaceful marches across France in defence of the right to offensive free speech. Charlie Hebdo responded to the attack by depicting Muhammad on its first edition after the massacre, which subsequently sold millions of extra copies in a show of solidarity for the free speech cause.
But the media and political elite’s supposed espousal of unconditional acceptance for offensive free speech in the aftermath of this tragedy has been very selective and hypocritical. A narrative has been spun to suit an agenda while obvious contradictions are ignored. While leaders and media pundits rally behind the banner of free speech, little attention is given to the fact that France has among the most restrictive laws on spiritual expression of any Western country, and the laws governing free expression are unequally applied. The cause of free speech comes with many caveats in the “Republic of Liberté”, where the government is waging a little-known secular inquisition against modern heretics whose right to freely express their beliefs is suppressed.
Before we take a look at those restrictions, let’s examine the background and context to the Charlie Hebdo attacks from which a free speech narrative has arisen that is sweeping aside blatant contradictions as it’s proliferated.
The Global Elite’s Free Speech Double Standards
An obvious indication the global elite’s embracement of free speech was highly selective and duplicitous, came in a staged photo-op in where they joined arms to march in Paris. World leaders did not actually lead a public march as some reports claimed, but marched separately away from the public. They included representatives of regimes that have terrible free speech records. Examples include NATO allies Saudi Arabia, which beheads more people than ISIS and brutally punishes dissent, and the government of Egypt, which took power via a coup and is currently imprisoning foreign journalists.
A number of governments present in the march have moved to rush through increased internet surveillance measures in the tragedy’s wake, with UK Prime Minister David Cameron even floating banning encryption. Mass surveillance is not conducive to free speech. Nor is punishing free speech that exposes state malfeasance, as the US government does to whistle-blowers. And while governments and intelligence agencies call for more powers to prevent such attacks, they cannot explain how spying on everyone will thwart individuals they already monitor. The perpetrators of this attack were well-known to intelligence services and already on a watch list. In the case of the FBI, many terror plots they thwart have been funded and organised by themselves.
Question Marks over the Official Story
The Charlie Hebdo gunmen had returned to France from fighting the Assad government in the Syrian civil war – the same Syrian government that NATO members (including the government of France) wanted to bomb and overthrow two years ago. Support for direct intervention faltered, but the US government and its allies armed, trained and funded jihadist-linked “moderate rebels” to fight the Syrian government in a proxy war instead. In many instances these same trained militants and weapons have ended up in the ranks of ISIS, now calling itself the Islamic State, which is also fighting the Syrian government. Fighting the Islamic State has given NATO a rationale to directly intervene militarily in the region again with airstrikes to halt their advance. Yet even as ISIS is bombed in Iraq and Syria on the one hand, jihadist-linked militants continue to be trained by the US military on the other even while they continue to mass-defect to ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Questioning the foreign policy wisdom of arming jihadist-linked militants to fight proxy wars who later become terrorists enemies – a precedent that goes back to the 70s when the US government backed the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan which spawned Al Qaeda – has not been a major component of mainstream media coverage, even as the covert arming, training and funding of jihadist-linked militants continues. Instead, the same governments and intelligence agencies involved in these questionable covert machinations have called for further powers, restrictive laws, and funding to fight the terrorists their foreign policy supports.
Neither has there been much use of free speech in the media to question the official story of the Paris attacks, such as probing into how and why a police chief investigating them suddenly and inexplicably committed suicide while working on the report, or why the trained killers conveniently left identification in the back of a getaway car, or why the alleged perpetrators were simply able to return from a NATO proxy-warzone and carry out an attack on French soil while on a terrorist watch list. Other details are ignored too. A video which seems to show a policeman was not actually executed at close range by a shot to the head, as reported in the mainstream media, was censored by YouTube’s “safety mode”, while the French version was removed by Google completely.
The many anomalies have led some to suspect a wider agenda in these attacks, and posit the possibility it may have been a false flag operation pinned on French-born militant “patsies” trained in the Syrian proxy war.
Whatever the case may be, what is clear is that the attack’s narrative has been heavily controlled and exploited to serve an agenda while other facts and questionable government actions are ignored.
What’s also clear is that the “free speech” cause has been hijacked and manipulated by those who attack this principle themselves, or apply it very selectively. This is evident when you look at the flagrant double standards and restrictions that apply to free spiritual expression in France, which are amongst the harshest of Western countries.
Selective Liberty: Free Speech, Hate Speech and Religious Expression
The same human rights provisions that protect freedom of speech in France also protect freedom of religious expression:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
Article 9 of European Convention of Human Rights:
“France … shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law … It shall respect all beliefs.”
Article 2, Constitution of France.
France has attracted criticism for its 2004 law forbidding overt religious expression in public schools. Although known as the “French headscarf ban” the law actually bans any overt religious attire, such as the crucifix or the Sikh turban, being worn at public schools. The ban on face coverings introduced in 2012 goes further, banning the Muslim veil from being worn anywhere in public. The legislation does not directly single out the Muslim veil, but was widely understood to have been written for that objective.
Human rights groups have criticised both laws for curtailing freedom of religious expression. Whatever you may think of a particular religion or the veil, if you advocate freedom of expression even when it is offensive, then it is hypocritical to argue that it is OK to publicly vilify a religion, but not OK to publicly express your religious beliefs peacefully.
These double standards are also apparent in the selective application of laws and social conventions about hate speech. A week after the French government backed the right to offensive free speech, it arrested 54 people for offensive comments (not actions) deemed to be “defending” or “glorifying” terrorism.
Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept caused a stir when he pointed out the more extreme cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo would certainly be considered hate speech if directed at Judaism. To demonstrate this point, the online publication tried to find an illustrator willing to “create cartoons that mock Judaism and malign sacred figures to Jews the way Charlie Hebdo did to Muslims” but no cartoonist was found willing because “doing so would instantly and permanently destroy their career, at least.”
Greenwald later wrote about the government’s hypocrisy of arresting an offensive French comedian for his controversial views after defending the right to offensive free speech:
“France is about as legitimate a symbol of free expression as Charlie Hebdo, which fired one of its writers in 2009 for a single supposedly anti-Semitic sentence in the midst of publishing an orgy of anti-Muslim (not just anti-Islam) content. This week’s celebration of France – and the gaggle of tyrannical leaders who joined it – had little to do with free speech and much to do with suppressing ideas they dislike while venerating ideas they prefer.”
Perhaps they prefer certain ideas because they spur on and validate the open-ended war on terror?
The debate over whether free speech should have any limits, and whether “hate speech” laws should exist at all to restrict it, is an old one, and views can be taken either way without condoning violence. But whatever view you take, most would agree that whatever laws exist should be applied equally and without discrimination. It is hypocritical to condone and celebrate vilification in one instance while cracking down on it in another. Equality before the law is another fundamental right that is supposed to be protected in western nations, alongside freedom of expression.
Targeting Alternative Spiritual Groups: A Secular Inquisition
But there is another double standard in France that get less attention, and that is the discriminatory treatment of small spiritual groups targeted and harassed by the mainstream media and the government. France does what has not been done in a western country since the Inquisition: separate beliefs into acceptable and unacceptable categories by essentially setting up a blacklist of “deviant sects”.
“In 1996, 7 members of the French parliament published a list of 172 so-called “sects”. This list was then strongly criticized by international Governmental institutions, for being a blacklist of religious movements. In 2005 the French Prime Minister issued a circular stating that this list had no legal value and should no longer be used. However, since that date, the list is still in use by some government officials, and of course by journalists and police.”
The label “sect” is an equivalent pejorative to the label “cult” in English-speaking nations. Many of the groups on it are considered mainstream religious denominations in other countries. Because the blacklist has been widely circulated, people involved in the groups can have their freedom of belief and association curtailed in many ways. According to Human Rights Without Frontiers:
“The groups were raided by police and military squadrons, their offices searched, the leaders arrested, and the groups were banned from participating in community festivals and from renting conference rooms. Many of their members, French citizens, lost their jobs or were denied promotions once their affiliation with a so-called sect was unmasked.”
Human Rights Without Frontiers (source)
EIFREF reports that parents have lost custody of their children based on holding a belief deemed heretical by the State, people have been driven to suicide from harassment, and religious premises have been vandalised with impunity because the vandals feel they have the protection of the government which has labelled that group “bad”.
A legal distinction between “good” and “bad” beliefs was passed with the About-Picard law in 2001, also known as the anti-sect or anti-cult law, which seeks to distinguish an acceptable religion from a sect. Such a distinction is discriminatory and arbitrary and it is not the place of a government in a “free” country to assess and police the legitimacy of beliefs. Although done in the name of “Laïcité” (French secularity), this actually goes against the principles of secularism: the separation of church and State goes both ways, and is also supposed to ensure that government does not interfere in private citizens’ religious liberties. In France, secularism has morphed from a separation of religion from the state into a crusade to separate heretical beliefs from society altogether.
There has long been an anti-religious streak in France ever since the French revolution with its reign of terror and religious suppression. The irony now is that the supposedly enlightened secular State has taken a leaf out of the medieval inquisition playbook of the Church it overthrew. Today, so-called “sectarian” groups are treated as modern-day heretics in what is basically a secular inquisition, enforced by the government agency MIVILUDES with the support of the media. The agency’s full Orwellian name translates into English as “Inter-ministerial Mission for Vigilance and Fighting against Sectarian Deviances”. According to EIFRF:
“MIVILUDES, throughout the years, has engaged in numerous campaigns not only against new religious movements targeted as “sects”, but also against small communities of older religions, whether Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical or other. They have even organized raids in communities, arriving with journalists and making strong derogatory comments in order to further their agenda of labelling these communities as “sects”.
someone could think that this only applies to new groups, small unusual groups, New Age or Satanist or any small religion, and think that “this will only happen to others”. The truth is that MIVILUDES and anti-sect associations have been targeting Catholic communities, Evangelical Christians, Hindu communities, amongst others, as “sects”. The sect is the religion someone wants to get the rid of.”
In 2009 at the first MIVILUDES conference, the French Secretary of State compared groups guilty of “sectarian deviances” to “mutating viruses”. The government has claimed a group is guilty of “deviances” if it commits “mental manipulation” which occurs when “one or more people start to believe in certain ideas which differ from the ideas generally accepted by society”.
Just think for a moment about how inconsistent that is with the government’s supposed support for freedom of expression even when it is offensive – you are guilty of “deviancy” for having and expressing beliefs and ideas which differ from the status quo, and if “one or more” people agree with you the government can raid your premises and destroy your life.
Not surprisingly, these measures find commonality with authoritarian regimes. The slippery concept of “mental manipulation” in France has its precedent in the offence of “plaggio” enacted under Mussolini in Italy in 1930, which he used to target political opponents and dissidents who were accused of the psychological “subjugation” of others.
When passed, the French anti-cult laws found strong support in China which only sanctions five government-controlled religions, and cracks down on any other groups which the government labels “evil cults”. As reported in The Washington Post in 2001:
“China’s Communist leaders have finally found a Western human rights model they like: France’s new anti-cult law making “mental manipulation” a crime. Hong Kong’s Tung Chee-hwa indicated he is studying the French precedent for possible use against the Falun Gong movement because it has “more or less the characteristics of an evil cult”; he pledged to “keep a close eye on their every move.” Mainland authorities have already cracked down on the group and other spiritual and religious practitioners who resist government thought control.
Chinese officials now triumphantly canvass American academics, touting the French law as partial vindication for China’s much-criticized human rights posture. They delight in noting that France’s National Assembly passed the measure unanimously and with widespread popular support.”
When the laws of the “Republic of Liberté’” are welcomed by an authoritarian communist government that persecutes religious minorities with live organ harvesting, we have problem.
Liberty, equality, fraternity?
Freedom of expression was supposedly extolled in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but while the government actively defends “offensive” free speech on one hand, it represses the expression of beliefs, ideas and opinions it finds offensive on the other.
It seems points of view that play into the manufactured “clash of civilisations” narrative and the global “war on terror” are exalted, no matter how vilifying they are, while equivalent expression directed elsewhere is muzzled as “hate speech”. And when “free speech” vilifies a group or ideas within society the elite wishes to criticise, such as “sects”, then it is celebrated, and the government even enacts laws to selectively discriminate against and suppress the groups and ideas it finds offensive, with mass media support, stifling their freedom of expression. When minority religious groups are actively suppressed and harassed by a State and media apparatus for their thought crime – as heretics of a modern-day inquisition – is the government really living up to its motto of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (liberty, equality and fraternity)?
In France, all people, beliefs and ideas are treated equally, but some it seems are much more equal than others.
While the support for free speech is highly selective and conditional in France, it is not alone in the Western world for employing double standards concerning the free expression of beliefs and ideas which are outside the status quo. A similar suppression occurs in other western countries through fomenting fear and paranoia toward alternative spirituality with support of the media, and exploiting suspicious isolated tragedies to fuel a far-reaching backlash. This results in minorities being tarred with the same brush due to the actions of a few, and treated in ways that would never be acceptable to favoured groups within society. These attitudes and double standards are widespread in the West; France has just gone a step further by putting this prejudice into law.
Unless the laws and social conventions concerning free speech, hate speech and religious freedom and expression are applied equally in the West, than any claims we make to being the bastion of liberty and freedom of expression will ring hollow.