TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Free Speech Fades Away: France and the New Repression

The action of the French National Assembly, to criminalize any statements that deny that the mass killings of Armenians during and after the First World War constituted genocide, raises many problems, but foremost among them is the threat to free speech.

To be sure, this bill is not yet law, and it may never become law. While the vote was lopsided in favor (106 to 19), most of the 577-member chamber did not vote at all. Nor is it likely that the proposal will proceed successfully through the upper house or be adopted by the Chirac government, which has criticized it. When all is said and done, this may have only been an electoral ploy by the Left (which supported the bill): it is a way to jump on the popular bandwagon against the expansion of the EU to include Turkey, without fishing in the racist waters of the far right or adopting theological arguments about a Christian Europe. It’s ideologically easier to irritate the Turks through a symbolic gesture about Armenia, in the hope that an irritated Turkey will then turn away from Europe.

Or perhaps the French socialists were just angling for the Armenian vote (a large community in France).

Nonetheless the matter needs to be taken on face-value as well. Whatever the ulterior motives, the important chamber of a major parliamentary democracy has now declared certain speech acts, historical claims, to be so inimical to the values of society that they would warrant incarceration and a significant monetary fine. This was not a matter of the National Assembly declaring its own esteemed understanding of early twentieth-century history in a hypothetical statement that might have condemned the genocide. Nor does this involve a judgment on statements of whether or not the killings took place (as in standard Holocaust denial). Rather, the newly defined crime would involve the articulation of doubts as to whether such killing “rose” to the level of genocide. While—to make my position clear—this author accepts the historiographical consensus that the catastrophe that befell the Armenians was indeed genocide, the logic of freezing such debate through a criminalization of expressions of alternative opinion seems dangerous indeed. Dangerous because it will necessarily poison the atmosphere around this question between Turks and Armenians; dangerous because it sets a precedent of providing legislative sanction to matters of historiographical judgment; but also, and most importantly dangerous because the august stage of the National Assembly of the French Republic has now become the most prominent venue to date on which the value of free speech has come under such systematic attack.

Given the tendency in European jurisprudence toward universal jurisdiction—the capacity of Spanish courts to sit in judgment on Latin American matters or for a suit against former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to be brought in Belgium—we can imagine the long shadow of such a French law stretching all the way to Istanbul. If, for example, a journalist in Turkey were to question the genocide hypothesis and then later travel to France, the French police might subsequently be obligated to arrest him: for speech crimes “committed” on another continent. The tragic absurdity of this attack on free speech became sublimely clear through a breathtaking accident of fate: on the very same day, Thursday, October 12, that the National Assembly decided to prohibit certain statements about the treatment of Armenians by Turkey, it was announced that the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature would be awarded to Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish author who has had to face prosecution in his homeland for—statements about the treatment of Armenians by Turkey.

Of course the statements at stake are diametrically opposed: the French hope to criminalize doubt about the status of the killing as genocide, while Pamuk was accused of making statements which, acknowledging the killings, cast aspersion on Turkey. If there is a spirit in history, could it have been any clearer in its demonstration of the equally reprehensible character of restrictions on free speech, whether from the Left (Paris) or the Right (Turkey)? If the French Republic can engage in this sort of thoughtless repression, it loses any moral high ground in the other debates of the age. There is no longer any basis on which to condemn the claims, for example, that the Mohammed cartoons should have been censored. The leaders of European liberty turn out to have a capacity for repression akin if not identical to the crowds who attacked Danish embassies in retaliation for the publication of the cartoons or the Somali killers who displayed their brave manhood by shooting a nun in the back because of the statements of Benedict XVI.

The geography of liberty is shifting. For all the profound differences between the European West and the Islamic world, it is no longer a matter of simply mapping freedom and repression onto the opposite poles. There is a repression a foot in the heart of the West that wears away at the superficial evaluation of a binary clash of civilizations. In that clash, the West is now sliding toward an imitation of the enemy it imagines. Indeed the same logic plays out across the Atlantic: as Europe steps away from free speech, it reproduces the measures of repression that it loves to discover and denounce in American policies. The real story of the day is precisely this spread of repression and the erosion of liberty in all regions, as Jean-Claude Paye suggests in his work that has appeared in Telos and in his forthcoming Telos Press book, The Global War on Liberty.

The decision of the National Assembly to police discussions about the history of the First World War and the proper terminology in the characterization of the violence against the Armenians betrays a wider rhetorical crime. As Norman Naimark shows in Telos 136, the term genocide was a contested and then restricted neologism. The Soviet Union, in particular, was eager to limit its usage and to exclude mass killings associated with social class. The term was damaged at its moment of inception; facing any real genocide, governments run away from the characterization. Hence the obsessively careful parsing of the term in the debates around Darfur. Designating mass killing as “genocide” might obligate world opinion to take some action, so it is therefore avoided—it is precisely also therefore easy for the National Assembly to take a heroic stance on a genocidal war long since concluded, ninety years too late, while the world twiddles its thumbs in the face of the real genocide in Darfur. Dare one imagine that the National Assembly might have alternatively considered criminalizing genocide-denial in Africa and then request that the Interior Minister Sarkozy arrest the Sudanese government? Not to mention the systematic killings carried out by governments in Iran and North Korea. No National Assembly votes on these topics, odd as it may sound. The political class picks its fights, while it is engaged in a routinized bureaucratic politics, solely semiotic, without action or responsibility. Yet this lack of sincerity or ardor, this pale skin of apathy, chills the political culture, and liberty flickers. Not brave enough to attack the genocides and mass killings of our own day, the National Assembly cowers in historicism and sacrifices free speech without a second thought. It is a farce that has become tragic.

As free speech becomes illegal, free speakers have to live like criminals. This brings us again to the case of Robert Redeker, an author, philosopher and teacher, discussed here previously and widely elsewhere: after publishing an article critical of aspects of Islam, he received numerous death threats, his address was posted on jihadist websites, and he is now in hiding, under police protection. While the notables of the French Republic condemned his persecution, in fact the defense they offered was at best lukewarm, and often came close to an apology for his would-be killers.. A compelling commentary appeared on an adamantly secularist and atheistic French website, parts of which are worth translating here:

In the face of this Islamic fascism, the least one can say is that observed support [for Redeker] is far from what might have been expected. The National Minister of Education, Gilles de Robien, committed the infamy of declaring that while he can affirm his “solidarity” with the teacher, “a functionary must behave prudently and moderation in all circumstances.” (Le Figaro, September 29, 2006).

In other words, the teacher as a “functionary” has no claim on a space outside the job where he might think or act as a citizen.

The political class has led the defenders of liberty to expect such treason since the affair around the Mohammed caricatures. Jacques Chirac, Dominique de Villepin and Francois Bayrou certainly declared their unwavering attachment to the liberty of expression, while also limiting it by a need to respect religious beliefs. It gets worse: after the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini which condemned Salman Rushdie to death, Jacques Chirac declared his contempt for Rushdie and broadcast his understanding for the Muslim masses who felt that their faith had been insulted (L’Humanité, March 21, 1995); while he certainly condemned the calls for Rushdie’s murder, he also condemned “all those who use blasphemy for commercial purposes” (France 5). In the same vein, when [the Bangladeshi poet] Taslima Nasrin faced death threats in her country, certain opinion-makers in the French press minimized the events (see Taslima Nasreen, une femme contre las fanatismes, Sylvie Leprince et Benoit Mély, Bibiliothèque de Travail, 1995). No! Religions are not necessarily respectable when they participate in a set of authoritarian prescriptions such as so-called sacred texts. Respect for the right to believe does not imply respect for the object of such beliefs.

The last is a point at the heart of a free society: respect for your right to speak does not obligate me to respect the content of your statements. I may believe firmly that your statements are reprehensible, without feeling the need that the police arrest you for speech acts, no matter how valueless they seem. Mutatis mutandis for religion.

The argument continues with an analysis of a French Left willing to sacrifice any liberal values in order to participate in a stereotypical anti-imperialist solidarity. The issue here then is not Islamic extremists themselves, but the useful idiots who populate western politics and culture and who consistently refuse to stand up for liberty.

After Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Theo van Gogh, the Danish cartoonists and many others, Robert Redeker is a new victim of Islamic fascism, a religious imperialism which the regular anti-fascists refuse to recognize as such. For some short-sighted anti-racists, it is easier to shout “No pasaran!” while brandishing a placard against [Jean-Marie LePen’s] National Front than to reject with the same force the identical tyranny of the Qu’ran, currently being spread on all continents by murder, accusations of blasphemy and the imposition of the veil. In the same rush into an open grave, the Greens, the [anti-racist movement] MRAP and [the young Communist league] JCR demonstrated side by side with veiled Muslims against the prohibition of the veil in school; meanwhile part of the left, blind for decades to the crimes of Stalinism, persists in its denials in the face of Islam. Thus MRAP commented with regard to Redeker that “provocation leads to the inacceptable” (Libération, September 30, 2006), a line that is, as usual, similar to that of Muslim leaders.

There is a critique of the political leadership, and there is a critique of the Left, and they are not the same, although both end up failing to defend liberty in order to pursue a policy of appeasement. The conservatives around Chirac find Muslim opposition to Rushdie an opportune cover to regress to their own congenital suspicion of free artistic expression, while the Left—which one might have hoped would have been the carrier of a liberal spirit—has been deeply, perhaps irreversibly broken by its decades of obsequiousness to Stalinism. There is a kind of political corruption, which can never be cured. When the Left votes to restrict freedom of speech, because it is politically useful in the debates around EU expansion, it is simply reverting to a behavior pattern learned well in the course of its miserable twentieth century.

What is interesting about this juxtaposition of the two cases—the criminalization of genocide denial and the betrayal of Redeker—is that their ostensible political tendencies are quite distinct. The former might be seen as anti-Turkish, and perhaps implicitly anti-Islamic; the latter, the refusal to come to Redeker’s defense, is in tendency at least pro-Islamic (or at least anti-anti-Islamic). The issue therefore is precisely not the particular tendency but a creeping erosion of a commitment to liberty across the full range of the spectrum. This renunciation of freedom has taken the form of a growing self-censorship throughout the West, and (as Amir Taheri calls it) a “preemptive obedience” to what is imagined to be Islamic sensibility. Parts of the West are eager to cave in to Muslim demands—even if there are no such demands. Islam becomes a pretext for Western repression.

The Islamic extremism that repeatedly resorts to violence in response to insults, real and imagined, is undoubtedly a grievous problem. It is linked to a complex interaction between Islam and the West in this age of globalization. Yet, this Islamic dynamic is compounded by another: the lack of will in the West to defend its own freedoms, values and culture. A predisposition to collapse in the face of jihadist extremism has resulted from a relativist multiculturalism that insists on respecting all cultures except our own. Yet it is in fact even worse: there is a Western retreat from freedom even in the absence of Muslim objections. This was the case of the banned Mozart opera in Berlin, and in the removal of the works of art by the surrealist Hans Bellmer from a gallery in London.

Beyond a doubt, there is certainly a real and dangerous enemy of the West, ready to hijack planes and explode trains; but there is another enemy, a logic of fear and repression, which uses Islam as a pretext to develop a new culture of control. This is the retreat of the West: unless it becomes willing to defend its freedoms at home, it will surely not fight for them against an external enemy in the East because: liberty is indivisible.

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