je suis charlie

My latest column for the International New York Times is about Charlie Hebdo, Dieudonné and double standards in free speech. Here are the opening paragraphs. Read the full article in the INYT.

On Tuesday, the French police arrested the controversial French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. He had written on Facebook ‘I feel like Charlie Coulibaly’ — a mash-up of Charlie Hebdo and Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed four Jewish hostages in a kosher supermarket in Paris, in an attack linked to the Charlie Hebdo killers. Dieudonné, the police say, is being investigated for ‘defending terrorism’.

This is not the first time that he has been targeted by the authorities. Last year, the courts banned his stage show, and he has been convicted several times for anti-Semitic hate speech. But for his supporters, many of whom live on the outskirts of French cities in the banlieues that are home to much of France’s North African population, the attempts to silence Dieudonné exemplify the double standards of French society. The right of a satirical magazine to mock Islam is held sacred, they argue, yet Muslims are forbidden to express views that others may consider offensive.

The cases of Charlie Hebdo and Dieudonné are not directly comparable. One published cartoons that many found objectionable because it lampooned their faith, the other seemingly identified with a terrorist who had killed Jews simply because they were Jews. Nevertheless, the arrest of Dieudonné after all the eulogizing of free speech over the past week suggests that the French authorities still do not understand what it means.

France’s attitude to free speech is fraught. On one hand, the republic prides itself as the nation of Voltaire, with a tradition of trenchant social satire — to which Charlie Hebdo clearly saw itself as heir. On the other hand, France has restrictive privacy laws, some of the toughest hate speech laws in the European Union and a ban on Holocaust denial. This combination of Voltairean bravado and restrictive measures has created a deeply contradictory attitude toward free speech.

Continue reading the article in the International New York Times.


  1. Fayyaz

    The Muslim community in France is discriminated at every level. There are very few jobs are available for the Muslims and their communities has been turned into ghettos by the discriminatory policies of the French society.Charlie Hebdo was part of this culture and more focused on insulting Islam than any religion. After Charlie Hebdo was sued by Jewish community, it remained clear of antisemitism but it continued relentlessness insults on Muslims despite governments’ warnings. There is no difference between Charlie Hebdo and Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Both are racists, part of a deeply racist French society, but both hace freedom of speech.

    • Larry & co.

      “Deeply racist French society”??? This is with this type of shortcuts that racism begins, doesn’t it? Pffff…

  2. Priest_Of_Ramen

    I fear that this piece a bit short of your usual incisive and accurate analysis, Kenan.

    You say “The cases of Charlie Hebdo and Dieudonné are not directly comparable.”

    I would argue that they’re not comparable at all. I don’t see any equivalency between mocking a religious prophet – ie, an idea – and glorifying murderers and terrorists or, less serious but also vile, incitement to persecute an entire segment of society just because of their culture, race or religion.

    I completely agree with your analysis of how North Africans in France feel, and why they think France is applying double standards. But you have gone further than just explaining their feelings and have said, or suggested, that you yourself think that France is doing so. The examples given, and others I have seen elsewhere, don’t stand up to scrutiny and are a million miles away from each other morally and, more importantly when assessing this claim, legally.

    For France to be truly applying double-standards, we need examples of where people have said the same sort of thing about Muslims that Dieudonne has said about Jews in order to compare the state’s reaction properly.

    If you are a free speech fundamentalist and think that there should be no curbs on speech at all then that’s a subtly different discussion. I don’t understand that position though – none of our freedoms are absolute, as they all stop once they impinge on others’. People have the right to live without others threatening or glorifying their persecution or murder.

    • You observe that there is a distinction between causing offence and hate speech. I make the same observation in my article, and more than once. My point is that, partly for historical reasons, writers and cartoonists are far more wary of satirizing Judaism and Jews than they are about Islam and Muslims. And the outlawing of Holocaust denial criminalises the expression of an idea or belief. My point also is that if you really want to defend free speech, you need to defend the free speech of someone like Dieudonné. Yes, you are right, people should not have the right to infringe on others’ legitimate freedoms. For me, that means that the line we draw on free speech is at the point of incitement to violence. However bigoted Dieudonné may be, and however one may disagree with his views, he should have the right to express them. As for you not understanding my ‘fundamentalist’ position, here’s an interview gave on Why Hate Speech Should Not Be Banned.

  3. I would like to have read the whole piece to make assessment.
    An interesting point that No one seems to be mentioning though I am sure is true is there are strict rules about how papers can discuss the government to ensure that the press speak positively about the government- these rules go far beyond that of stopping libel to the extent of no being able to express negative opinions about Grench government. This is a huge area where freedom of speech should be allowed but is withheld.
    I studied racism in France and the subtle actions of discrimination like difficulties getting jobs appear true and much worse than other countries.
    There are things which should be denied freedom of speech such as inciting violence, but there are huge double standards not just in France but everywhere that still need addressing.
    Thanks for sharing

  4. damon

    It seems to me now, that whatever Charlie Hebdo thought they were doing was completely lost on the majority of Muslims. The magazine was anti-racist and only against what they saw as backward conservative ideas and beliefs. But too many Muslims see what they did as pure Islamophobic racism …. and double standards of course.
    As humans, collectively were not up to much yet it seems. At the point of popular intelligence and understanding. You can explain your case, like here with free speech, and you will still get millions disagreeing. So while Charlie Hebdo might have been right in principle, they could have been wrong in practice.
    The George Galloway view of this is going to be more popular than the free speech one amongst anyone religiously or culturally Muslim, unfortunately.
    In France there were even school students refusing to have a minute’s silence for the murdered people.

    • Fayyaz

      Charlie Hebdo was wrong both in principle and in practice when it stooped satirizing Jews and obsessively focused on Muslims.

  5. damon

    I’ve just been reading about someone who’s supposedly a friend of Dieudonné – a cartoonist called Joe le Corbeau. He has done complete take-offs of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but subverted them by changing some of subjects for Jews. The Berliner Zeitung even reproduced one of his thinking it was a Charlie Hebdo original and had to make an apology.

    Explaining the difference to people who are saying there are double standards at play is quite difficult I presume.

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