February 28, 2019

After two radicalized Muslim assailants killed twelve people in their attack on Charlie Hebdo five years ago, the #jesuischarlie hashtag took over France and much of the Western world. The #jesuis*insert name* has become a catch phrase ever since for social media users expressing support to those who have been victimized.  Earlier this year, for example, #jesuismila trended in France, in support of a young girl who had criticized Islam in an Instagram post. However, support has been far less unanimous than was the case five years ago, opening debate about the limits of online speech in France.

Last January, Mila, a 16-year old from Lyon, France, talked about topics including her sexual preference (she is gay), fashion, music and her (purple) hair color during a live video session on Instagram. When a viewer expressed a romantic interest, she rebuffed him and pointed out she prefers girls. The young man replied with insults; calling her a dirty lesbian, a racist and Islamophobe, among other things.

Shortly thereafter, the girl posted another clip in which she addressed the confrontation and defended herself by claiming that she detests religion, that the Koran is a religion of hate (sic.), and that Islam “c’est de la merde” (“it is shit.”) She continued by pointing out she is not racist, and signs off with these choice words: “Your God, I put a finger in his ass, thank you and goodbye.”

As was to be expected, vitriol, death threats, and doxing followed. After her school’s address was made public, police suggested she stay away from school for a while. Authorities started an investigation, not only into the threats she received, but also to figure out if Mila’s speech amounted to incitement of religion-based hate, a punishable crime in France. The investigation concluded that since her speech was directed at a religion and not at specific people or groups of people, it did not violate French law.  

The extreme right, anti-immigrant, and anti-Islam groups immediately threw their support behind Mila by starting a Facebook page, and launching the #jesuisMila hashtag. Other groups in society were less eager to embrace the cause, and the counter hashtag #jenesuispasMila quickly gained support. Some gay activists called on her to remove the rainbow flag from her profile.

Abdallah Zekri, the secretary general of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, while denouncing the threats, argued that Mila “knows very well what she is doing. Who sows the wind harvests the tempest.” The French minister of Justice Nicole Belloubet stated that “insulting religion is an obvious attack to the freedom of thought (“conscience”). This remark caused an uproar in France and galvanized public opinion behind Mila, forcing the minister to apologize for the statement. This episode has renewed the debate about the limits of speech in France, and the right to insult religion.

Whatever one might think of the choice of words used by this child, arguing that she somehow bears the responsibility for the illegal threats that came her way is victim blaming. We do not (morally) accept it in other contexts, and it should not be done so here. Blasphemy is not a crime in France and in many other secular nations, but threatening someone is.  A clear line, both as a matter of ethics and a matter of law, needs to be drawn between these two, and the first can never serve as a justification for the second.

Those who do engage in this type of victim blaming invariably qualify it by stating they denounce the threats or violence that befall the speaker as a result of their speech, but they do in fact the opposite, they legitimize it by presenting it as a natural inevitability, thereby subtly shifting responsibility away from the perpetrator. Because who could be held responsible for actions that are presented as a natural and unavoidable reaction to a provocation? A similar narrative also emerged in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Take for example this quote from an opinion piece in Time Magazine from 2011:

Sorry for your loss, Charlie, and there’s no justification of such an illegitimate response to your current edition. But do you still think the price you paid for printing an offensive, shameful, and singularly humor-deficient parody on the logic of “because we can” was so worthwhile? If so, good luck with those charcoal drawings your pages will now be featuring.

Naturally, freedom of speech includes the right to speak critical of other people and of the French legal framework that allows blasphemy but bars holocaust denial (though this does not seem inconsistent to me). And yes, this right also includes the right to implicitly justify murder and threats to people who said something that offended you as an inevitability. Even though this statement is, at least to me as a secular humanist, more offensive than anything anyone could ever say about religion. But I recognize that my standards for offensiveness cannot be imposed on everyone, as blasphemy laws tend to do. #jesuismila.

Bastiaan Vanacker's 
work focuses on media ethics and law and international communication. He has been published in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics. He is the author of Global Medium, Local Laws: Regulating Cross-border Cyberhate and the editor of Ethics for a Digital Age.