A court case in France is causing a stir over allegations that a well-known author has incited religious hatred against Muslims. The writer, Michel Houellebecq, was quoted in a magazine as calling Islam "the most stupid" of the major monotheistic religions. The outrage of the local Muslim community over that remark has been heightened by the prosecutor's recommendation that the court dismiss the charges.
Prague, 20 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The present era, at least in the Western world, is one of unprecedented freedom of expression. A mere half century ago, social taboos prevented open discussion of many human issues, for instance sex and sexual orientation, abortion, mental illness, alternative lifestyles, and religion.
A consequence of this practice was that society, in the 1950s, for example, appeared to have a relatively smooth, uniform appearance, because many personal conflicts were kept out of sight. But the conflicts existed, under the surface.
Today, the changed social setting allows open and fierce expression of opinion on all these topics and more. But this openness naturally entails the heightened risk of disputes arising between individuals and groups that may have strongly contrasting views on sensitive issues. And it raises many questions on the limits of what is permissible, both in terms of social acceptability and legality.
Religion is a particularly sensitive topic. In France, there is presently a court case in which writer Michel Houellebecq is accused of inciting hatred against Muslims, a charge that could lead to a prison term and a heavy fine.
French Muslim and human rights organizations brought the case against Houellebecq after a literary magazine quoted him as calling Islam "the most stupid" of the world's major monotheistic religions.
In the interview, which was published before the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, Houellebecq said he had rejected monotheism, adding: "I told myself that the act of believing in a single god was the act of a cretin -- I couldn't find another word. And the most stupid religion of all is Islam."
He went on to say that reading the Koran was a "shattering" experience, adding that "Islam is a dangerous religion, and has been since its inception."
During his trial this week in Paris, Houellebecq told the court that "I have never shown the slightest contempt for Muslims but I still have as much contempt for Islam." He said he believes the founding texts of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all promote hate. He also said he believes he has the right of free speech to make such criticisms.
The state prosecutor obviously agreed with him on the last point, because she asked the court to drop the charges. She said under French law, people may criticize a religion as long as they do not defame actual followers of that faith. It seems likely, therefore, that the case will be dismissed, but that decision lies with the panel of judges in the case, who may rule as early as next month.
Muslims say they feel humiliated as a group by Houellebecq's remarks. Expressing solidarity, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, Inayat Bunglawala, said: "I don't think it is a matter of culture, not understanding one another. I think it's really this old canard [riddle] of free speech, as to how far you can go. Does it also include the ability to insult others, and insult entire communities? That is the problem that we, in a multicultural society -- as Europe now is -- are having to face up to."
Bunglawala said there are numerous scholarly books readily available that criticize Islam. But he said comments like those of Houellebecq are of a different order. "What Islam urges us to stay away from is just open insults. Insults are not a contribution to debate, but are designed to hurt. And if you think you want to hurt others then you should not be surprised if they try [to] hurt you back," Bunglawala said.
In Paris, international-affairs analyst Alexander Smolar said the whole issue of free speech and human rights has come under renewed debate since the terrorist attacks on the United States a year ago. Many feel those attacks indicated the Western world is under an external threat, and a sharpening of prejudices and increased pressure to curb some civil rights have ensued.
Smolar pointed out that during that time, Islam has been the subject of much critical comment. He recounted one line of thinking. "There are a lot of words after September 11 which are posing the case that Islam is the monotheistic religion which is having the most difficulty adapting itself to the modern world, in economic terms, and in political terms, to democratic conditions. [And it has been suggested that Islam] is much less tolerant than Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism," Smolar said.
There are those who support and those who reject this hypothesis, he said. But Smolar went on to say that from the moral and political points of view, and from the point of view of the foundation of Western civilization, "we cannot assume that there are some fundamental differences [with Islam] which cannot be overcome."
Returning to the Houellebecq trial, a rather different view of the affair comes from French Islamic expert Olivier Roy. He said the average Muslim in France is not at all concerned by Houellebecq's remarks, but instead takes them in stride.
Roy said it's the leaders of the Muslim community that brought the case to court, but without strong popular backing. And the imams, he said, have long been part of the upper-crust Parisian scene. "[The imams] are part of the establishment, of the French Parisian establishment. So it's a debate between Parisian elites; it has nothing to do with popular protests," Roy said.
So for Roy, at least, the entire issue is a tempest in a teacup.