Civil Liberties

Criminal Offense

Should religious insults put you in jail?


Michel Houellebecq may have been guilty, but I'm still glad he was acquitted. The award-winning novelist, who has been dubbed "a literary Eminem" and "the Ozzy Osbourne of modern French letters," stood accused of inciting religious hatred, an offense that in France carries a sentence of up to 18 months. The evidence against him consisted of derogatory remarks about Islam.

In a 2001 interview with the literary magazine Lire, Houellebecq described a "revelation" he had experienced in the Sinai desert: "I said to myself that the idea of believing in only one God was cretinous." He added that "the stupidest religion of all is Islam."

Houellebecq also asserted that Islam was "a dangerous religion from the start." Worse, it was boring. "When you read the Koran, you give up," he said. "The Bible at least is beautifully written because the Jews have a heck of a literary talent."

Four Islamic organizations—two French mosques, the World Islamic League, and the National Federation of French Muslims—reacted to Houellebecq's comments by filing a lawsuit that led to a trial last month. On Tuesday, a three-judge panel rejected the charges against him, finding that the novelist's condemnation of Islam "does not contain any intent to verbally abuse, show contempt for, or insult the followers of the religion in question."

Understandably, many Muslims disagree. "I have never displayed the least contempt for Muslims," Houellebecq insisted during the trial, "but I have as much contempt as ever for Islam." Asked if he thought Muslims were stupid, he replied: "I didn't say that. I said they practiced a stupid religion."

In effect, Houellebecq was saying: "Nothing personal, but your religion is idiotic." How could such a judgment about one's deeply held beliefs not be taken as an insult?

"To call Islam 'the dumbest religion'…is a provocation," said a lawyer for one of the mosques. "We still believe that Michel Houellebecq's remarks served to feed Islamophobia and the stigmatization of the Muslim faith," said another.

Although it's hard to disagree with those assessments, that does not mean Houellebecq belongs in jail. Muslims have every right to feel offended, but they do not have a right to be shielded from insults.

The public prosecutors in the Houellebecq case, who urged the judges to dismiss the charges against him, tried to finesse this point. "We cannot say that when we express an opinion on Islam it implies that we are attacking the Muslim community," one of them said. "We are not here to be moral but to punish crimes."

Fair enough, but "attacking the Muslim community," if it simply means saying something that offends Muslims, should not be a crime. The tradition of free speech and free inquiry relies on a distinction between the wounded feelings caused by "verbal abuse" and the wounded bodies caused by physical attacks.

The plaintiffs who tried to have Houellebecq locked up seem oblivious to this distinction. "Words have a price," said Dalil Boubakeur, rector at the Mosque of Paris. "One can kill with a word. Freedom of expression stops at the point at which it does damage and the Muslim community feels insulted."

This position is completely at odds with the principles of a free society, but its logic underlies France's law against incitement of religious hatred. The judges were able to acquit Houellebecq only by pretending otherwise.

The Paris-based Human Rights League, which initially sided with the Muslim groups, displayed a similar blindness. After accusing Houellebecq of "Islamophobia," the organization said it was pleased by his acquittal.

"We didn't want to condemn Mr. Houellebecq," Agnes Tricoire, a lawyer with the league, told the Associated Press. "We wanted to clarify the debate. We were against the fact that Mr. Houellebecq hid behind his writer's identity to say whatever he wanted during an interview."

According to Tricoire, the turning point came when the plaintiffs cited nasty comments about Muslims by characters in Houellebecq's most recent novel, Platform, as evidence of his criminal intent. "Nobody can feel attacked by a character because he's fictional, he's not real," she told UPI. "It's very important that art be able to talk about what happens in society." Art can talk, apparently, but artists need to keep their mouths shut.

And what about journalists? The Italian writer Oriana Fallaci faces charges in France because of The Rage and the Pride, her post-9/11 polemic against Islam. Too bad for her she's not a fictional character.