The life of a young French woman has not been the same for more than three years: she posted the following words on her Instagram account: “I hate religion, the Quran is full of hate… Your religion is shit”. The reason for her statement was a meeting in public at the time, where she exchanged views with a lesbian friend about the beauty of Arab women. A Muslim man is said to have interfered and called them “filthy lesbians”. That is why she recorded her video, with which she expressed her opinion about religions in general and Islam in particular. “I say what I think. I’m not a racist. I have the right to say what I think, I have no regrets,” she said. After the post went viral, she received death threats and had to “go into hiding” with relatives on the advice of the police. She couldn’t go to school because anonymous propagandists revealed the address of her high school on the Internet and called for the “godless slut” to be punished.
“You can’t be racist towards a religion. I said what I think I have every right to say. I don’t regret it at all,” she explained her criticism of Islam. After the beheading of history teacher Samuel Paty by an Islamist, she reiterated her condemnation of Islam in a TikTok video in November 2020. She has since published a book about her experiences, evocatively titled “Je suis le prix de votre liberté” (Grasset Paris publishers). She has lost her youthful exuberance, she writes in it. At the same time, however, she emphasized that her statements at the time were vulgar, for which she apologizes.
Against the death threats, the young woman decided to go to court. The attacks against her were signed by people with their real names, so she had the opportunity to take legal action. In court in Paris, the defendants admitted to having originated the messages, but denied having acted as part of an intimidation campaign. “Social networks are like the open road,” warned the presiding judge at the verdict. “If you meet someone on the street, you would not insult, threaten or make fun of them.” The court ordered the defendants to pay 1,500 euros in compensation each and to assume court costs of 1,000 euros each. Before the judge, the plaintiff again defended her right to continue using social networks. “Banning me from social media is like telling a raped woman not to go out on the streets again, lest she be raped again,” she said. “I just want to exist and enjoy the time I have left.”
After the verdict, however, normality did not occur for the French woman. For safety reasons, she has not been able to live with her family near Grenoble for a long time. She was enrolled in a French army boarding school in strict secrecy. But through careless messages on social networks, she gave clues to her accommodation. The head of the military boarding school expelled her from the school because it endangered the other 750 students. Since then she has had to constantly change her place of residence. While the perpetrators got away with suspended sentences, the woman will probably need police protection for a long time. Only recently she gave an interview on the radio: “We won and we will continue to win.” But her future is anything but secure, as her lawyer Richard Malka admitted. “I don’t know what her future will be like. Everything is complicated. If even the army thinks they can’t protect them in military boarding school, who can protect them?”
France has not yet succeeded in passing a law against hate speech online. A corresponding attempt failed due to the objections of the Constitutional Council. The court declared large parts of the law to combat hate content on the Internet to be unconstitutional. It was the first article to require platforms to remove content that was “obviously unlawful” within an hour. The constitutional authorities complained that the interpretation of the “obvious illegality” was left to the platforms. This was a restriction on freedom of expression that was “unreasonable, unnecessary and disproportionate”.
The case has sparked heated debate in France after CFCM secretary general Abdallah Zekri repeatedly justified the threats against the young woman. Zekri said she provoked the reactions and now has to deal with it herself. “Anyone who sows wind must reckon with the storm,” he said in the media. “The girl knows what she’s saying. She has offended religion, now she must bear the consequences of her words”. Zekri also heads the French Observatory on Islamophobia.
Even President Emmanuel Macron could not remain silent. He said there was a “right to blaspheme” in France. It also includes the freedom to “criticize and caricature religions”. “Mila is a teenager and we owe her protection at school, in her everyday life and when traveling.” He emphasized that minors must be better protected against “new forms of hate and bullying on the Internet”.
There was no dialogue from the Islamic side. The leaders of the Muslim associations also remained silent about the threats of murder and rape from their fellow believers. They would have had the chance to say something about the question of “blasphemy” from a theological point of view in this scandal, which was heavily discussed in public, because the Charlie Hebdo murders were not that long ago, and the murder of the teacher Paty was also associated with “insulting the Prophet”.
Extremists repeatedly justify their death threats by wanting to restore Islam’s honor. No insult scorns Islam like the behavior of religious fanatics who seem ignorant of their holy book. The Quran addresses blasphemy in five places. Not once is worldly punishment called for, rather Muslims are urged to remain calm and merely turn away when their religion is offended. In none of these passages is violence or even vigilantism called for, on the contrary, it says very clearly: “And endure everything they say with patience; and part with them in a fitting way.”
Despite this clarity, the statements in the Quran on blasphemy are interpreted differently by hardliners: one reason why blasphemy is punished in about half of the so-called Islamic countries, sometimes even with death. In any case, there is no lack of theological arguments for a more tolerant approach to criticism, as is also shown by traditions from the life of the Prophet. In a famous tradition, one of the Prophet’s companions, Abu Bakr, who would later become the first caliph of Islam, was rudely insulted by a critic of Islam. At first, Abu Bakr listens calmly. But when he answers the mocker, the prophet leaves the meeting. Abu Bakr is irritated, the Prophet explains: “When you were silent, an angel answered for you. But when you resisted, Satan took his place, so I left.”
Self-proclaimed “fighters against Islamophobia”, but also right-wing extremists must understand one thing: With their vulgar outbursts and threats, they make themselves extremely unbelievable. Anyone who is interested in a substantive discussion can do without insults and threatening gestures. Everyone else makes themselves suspicious of not having valid arguments. Hate is always an expression of ignorance. If we want to meet hate meaningfully, enlightenment is a first means.
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