Civil Liberties

Sins of the Author

Hate and free speech


"The dumbest religion, after all, is Islam."

So spoke best-selling French author and provocateur Michel Houellebecq just days before September 11, 2001, in an interview with the magazine Lire. He also called the Koran "mediocre" and said he considers the scriptures of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all to be "texts of hate." His statements, not surprisingly, infuriated Muslim organizations. Here's what is surprising: In September 2002, Houellebecq was brought before a criminal court for uttering those words. He faced up to a year in prison or a $51,000 fine.

In the U.S., Houellebecq would be protected by the First Amendment. Not so in France. Four Muslim groups, along with an organization called the Human Rights League, pressed charges, arguing that the author's statements incited racism. A 1972 law "bans hate speech, making racial defamation and provocation to racial hatred or violence punishable by criminal law," according to a 2001 Brookings Institution paper cited on the weblog Lire was also charged for publishing the interview.

Houellebecq has said the interview was "crooked," indicating that the magazine edited his words to imply that he—like the lead character in his most recent novel, Plateform—was "obsessed with Islam." The author also has argued that his statements were against Islam, not against Muslims. "I do not see how criticizing a religion in an acerbic manner involves them as people," he said.

But Dalil Boubakeur of the Paris Mosque told the court: "Freedom of expression stops where it can do harm….I believe my community is humiliated, my religion is insulted, I ask for justice."

At press time, the court had yet to make its ruling. Judging by the brigade of intellectuals who showed up to testify in Houellebecq's defense, he is unlikely to be found guilty. Nevertheless, taxpayers can look forward to footing the bill for more of such cases. Next up: French Muslim groups plan to file charges against Italian journalist Orianna Fallaci for calling Muslims "a billion rats." r