Much has been made about the absence of President Obama, and any significant U.S. official, at the Paris Unity Rally Sunday in reaction to the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. Considering the cause of the march, equal attention is worth paying to those who did attend.
While a line of prominent officials from countries around the world leading a legion of thousands through the streets of Paris in a show of “unity” makes for an evocative image, it shouldn’t go without a reminder that many of those same countries would prosecute the slain editors for the very cartoons over which they were murdered.
Journalists around the world have decried the Charlie Hebdo massacre as an attack on free speech. But free-speech laws, at least as Americans understand them, do not merely reserve one’s right to offend. They guarantee the citizenry’s protection from government persecution for voicing opinions critical of or contrary to the government’s actions. While there are general limits (shouting “fire” in a crowded theater when none exists, libel, slander), opinions and provably true statements are legally protected.
In Many Nations, ‘Blasphemy’ Is a Crime
The terrorists who murdered Charlie Hebdo’s editors didn’t care about their victims’ political views. They did not want to take control of Charlie Hebdo or change its message to their own. Charlie Hebdo wasn’t attacked because they it criticized a government or libeled a living individual. This wasn’t an attempt to silence people who had different opinions or even to take revenge on behalf of the variety of beliefs Charlie Hebdo had ridiculed over the years.
This attack was not so much an attack on free speech as it was an attempt to enforce Sharia blasphemy laws. It was about destroying those who blasphemed “the prophet.” In that sense, the world leaders who did attend the Paris unity rally are an ironic group.
Jordan prohibits blasphemy against Islam and Muhammad, even beyond its borders. In 2008, Jordan charged Dutch politician Geert Wilders for blasphemy over his movie, “Fitna,” which linked the Koran with worldwide Islamic terrorism. Wilders was in the Netherlands, not Jordan, at the time. King Abdullah II and Queen Rania represented Jordan at the Paris rally Sunday.
The United Arab Emirates has separate civil and Sharia courts. Blasphemy is, of course, prohibited under Sharia law. One case of blasphemy prosecution involved immigrant workers, which make up a large percentage of the UAE population. In the course of a workplace dispute, three Filipinos were charged with ripping a page out of the Koran and scribbling on it. Their work permits were revoked, a precursor to deportation. Foreign Minister Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan represented UAE at the rally.
The Global Hypocrisy Didn’t End There
The state religion of Algeria is Islam, and “offending the Prophet Mohammad” is a criminal offense. In 2012, a Christian convert was tried and sentenced to five years in prison for this offense. Algeria’s Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra was at the unity rally in Paris.
Egypt has a slew of notable cases involving blasphemy against Islam. Perhaps the most recent high-profile one was in 2012, where seven Christians were sentenced to death for participating in the movie, “The Innocence of Muslims.” That same year, less famously, two boys aged 9 and 10 were arrested for “insulting Islam.” They were found near a trash pile tearing up some pages of the Koran (possibly from a copy discarded in that very trash pile). Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, was at the unity rally on Sunday.
Turkey’s last prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, publicly advocated for international blasphemy laws specifically to protect Muslims’ sensibilities. Turkey itself already has laws in place forbidding the “denigration of religious values.” Erdoğan’s term ended in 2014, and current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was at the unity rally in Paris on Sunday.
Danish writer Lars Hedegaard was charged in 2011 for making critical remarks against Islam. The sentence could have been two years in prison. He was convicted, but his conviction was overturned through appeal. In 2013, he survived an assassination attempt by an Islamist. The assailant was found, but at the end of last year was released to the Islamic State as part of a prisoner swap. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt was part of the rally on Sunday.
Tunisia’s constitution is young, but blasphemy is actively prosecuted there. In 2012, two men were sentenced to seven years in prison each for satirizing Islam and Mohammed. A court of appeals upheld their conviction. The Prime Minister of Tunisia, Mehdi Jomaa, attended the unity rally on Sunday.
With more than 40 world leaders reported as having attended the unity rally, there are certainly other examples available. As such, the Paris Unity rally—and the presence of those in attendance—can be seen as a grand gesture of grief over the slain and condolence for France, but should not be assumed to be a statement of support for the freedoms of speech and protections from persecution so many in the world took it to be.