Whenever I’m in France, I leaf through – and sometimes even purchase – the left wing satirical rag, Charlie Hebdo. To my enormous shame, my French is so poor that I’m barely able to understand it. Fortunately, it has a lot of easy to grasp, and usually scatalogical, cartoons: and so I’m able to to get something out of it.
I like Charlie Hebdo.
So I’m particularly favourable inclined to them over this:
The Grand Mosque, World Islamic League and Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF) sued the magazine for printing two of the Danish caricatures — which sparked violence in the Muslim world causing 50 deaths — and adding one of its own.
The Muslim groups said the cartoon showing a bomb in the Prophet’s turban slandered all Muslims as terrorists, as did Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon showing the Prophet reacting to Islamist militants by saying: “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.”
I bought the edition in question. As well as including these cartoons:
the magazine added a number of other cartoons lampooning a wide range of religious figures. For balance, like.
“Sued” isn’t an entirely accurate description of what is going on. Charlie Hebdo is the subject of a private prosecution for a species of criminal libel: specifically making “public insults against a group of people because they belong to a religion”.
The magazine and its publications director, Philippe Val, face the defamation charge, which carries a possible six-month prison sentence and a fine of up to €22,000 (£14,500).
That charge does not approximate to the religious concern over the cartoons. The objection was, first, that the Sunni taboo on depicting Mohammed had been breached, and secondly, that to depict a beloved religious figure in an unflattering light, was hurtful to the sensibilities of those who love him.
Insulting a dead religious figure is distinct from insulting, or inciting hostility to, a group of people. I therefore expect the prosecution will fail, and that the failure itself will be used as a radicalising campaigning tool, to argue that the French state, and the principle of Laïcité itself, is an assault on muslims.
What is reassuring about this absurd and facile case, is that the French political establishment – the usual target of Hebdo’s vicious wit – appears to have come together to defend the magazine:
The French satirical magazine in court today defending itself against defamation charge over reprinting the Danish Muhammad cartoons has received support from presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy.
A lawyer acting for Charlie Hebdo read out a letter in the Paris court where the case is being heard from Mr Sarkozy, who noted that he is often targeted by the magazine’s cartoonists, but said he preferred “too many caricatures to an absence of caricature”.
The leader of the French Socialist Party, Francois Hollande, and a centre-right candidate in the country’s forthcoming presidential elections, Francois Bayrou, are also expected to testify on behalf of Charlie Hebdo.
Its first witness, Paris University philosopher Abdel Wahhab Meddeb said he laughed when he saw Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon. “I urge Muslims to adapt to Europe and not the other way around. That would be catastrophic,” he told the court.
“The trial against Charlie Hebdo is one of a different age,” the daily Le Monde wrote in an editorial. “In a secular state, no religion and no ideology is above the law. Where religion makes the law, one is close to totalitarianism.”
In opening arguments in the defamation trial today Mr Val defended publication of the cartoons, saying they were aimed “at ideas, not men”.
“If we no longer have the right to laugh at terrorists, what arms are citizens left with?” he added. “How is making fun of those who commit terrorist acts throwing oil on the fire?”
“What is sacred for a religion is sacred only for believers of that religion,” he told the court. “If we respected all the taboos of all religions, where would we be?”
Those who have brought the case have reacted with absurdity and fury:
A representative for the French Council of the Muslim Faith, an umbrella organization of Muslim groups, branded interior minister Mr Sarkozy’s support of the magazine “unacceptable”.
“It’s out of the question for a minister for religious affairs to take such a position. There’s no neutrality,” Abdallah Zekri said. In France, religious affairs fall under the mandate of the interior minister.
Rubbish. This is precisely how a modern state should react to a challenge such as this. It is a proud moment for France.