Teenager’s attack on Islam tests France’s stance on religion

After two years of delay, Macron is reportedly about to announce proposals for combating a “political Islam” incompatible with France’s republican values.
Sunday 16/02/2020
A Muslim arrives at the Grande Mosquee de Paris (Great Mosque of Paris) in Paris on May 18, 2017 for the first Friday prayers of the holy month of Ramadan. (AFP)
A Muslim arrives at the Grande Mosquee de Paris (Great Mosque of Paris) in Paris on May 18, 2017 for the first Friday prayers of the holy month of Ramadan. (AFP)

At last, the French have a distraction from strikes over pension reform, ugly clashes between police and protesters and general discontent.

The country is preoccupied by l’affaire Mila, which began as a crude online spat between teenagers but grew into a full-scale national debate on competing notions: unfettered freedom of expression versus the right to worship without fear of insult.

As French President Emmanuel Macron finally inches towards his long-promised initiative on Islam in France, a 16-year-old schoolgirl has — almost by accident — thrown a hefty spanner in the works of those striving to build a society in which Muslims and non-Muslims co-exist in mutual tolerance and respect.

With a few scurrilous words on an Instagram video, Mila trashed Islam and much about the faith that Muslims hold dear.

After expressing hatred for religion generally and claiming the Quran was full of hate, she signed off with expletives a hooligan possessing Islamophobic thoughts might use when spraying graffiti on a wall.

Contemptuous of millions of compatriots though they were, Mila’s remarks may have been no more than those of an immature girl wanting to sound tough. They assumed disproportionate significance, igniting a furious debate on freedom and blasphemy soon after the fifth anniversary of the killing of 12 people by the French-Algerian brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had published caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad.

The video was widely shared, bringing Mila a torrent of abuse and death threats, forcing police to place her under protection and officials to move her to another school. Support for her came from an unlikely front of intellectuals and the far right while a government minister and the left offer mixed messages or silence as if unsure of the correct response.

Mila attended a secondary school with a large Muslim population in Villefontaine, east of Lyon. French media have avoided fuller identification but her address and phone number have been posted on social media.

The origins of l’affaire Mila, on January 18, are banal. She reacted angrily to a boy’s unwelcome advances on Instagram. “I didn’t hesitate to put him in his place because it wasn’t the first time,” she told TMC television in the only interview she has given.

Later, she discussed her sexuality with another follower, telling her she was a lesbian. They agreed they did not especially like Arab or black girls, prompting the earlier user to return and call her a “dirty dyke,” a whore and a racist.

“He insulted me in the name of Allah,” Mila said. “I said I didn’t like Islam, that it was a religion of hatred.” She told TMC she denied racism since she was attacking a religion not an ethnic group and made it clear she regretted only her choice of words, not their message, though she did apologise to those who “practise Islam in peace.”

Blasphemy is not prohibited in France except, and then only theoretically, in Alsace and Moselle, a legacy of their previous attachment to neighbouring Germany. One well-known French commentator, Franz-Olivier Giesbert, has asked in the conservative news magazine Le Point whether growing intolerance was turning France into “the new Pakistan.”

What Mila makes of endorsements and criticism from other quarters is unclear. After trying for years to detoxify her anti-immigration party National Rally, formerly the Front National and known for its anti-Islam, anti-Semitic streaks, Marine Le Pen let the mask drop, tweeting: “This young girl is braver than the whole political class in power over the past 30 years.”

French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet said “insulting a religion is an attack on freedom of conscience,” though she later backtracked. In a rare comment from the mainstream left, the former presidential candidate Segolene Royal said she refused to regard a “disrespectful teenager” as a paragon of the freedom of expression.

Richard Malka, a lawyer who acts for Charlie Hebdo, sprang to Mila’s defence, saying she had used “words of her age and a still childish passion to express the evil she thinks of a religion,” demonstrating her belief that after centuries of combat and a revolution, the French had rid themselves of the duty of “obligatory respect” to God.

Inconveniently for intellectuals and rabble-rousers of the extreme right, Muslim complaints about collective vilification are inextricably linked to outrage at the routine demonisation of their faith.

After two years of delay, Macron is reportedly about to announce proposals for combating a “political Islam” incompatible with France’s republican values and for the organisation of Islam in France. Many in the country are counting on the president to act in line with his repeated assertions that there should be no confusion between extremism and worship.

But perhaps there is no need for French Muslims to judge the merits of the opposing Twitter hashtags, #JeSuisMila and #JeNeSuisPasMila.

Even without scholarly guidance, they could easily choose between contrasting views from the French Muslim Council. Its president, Mohammed Moussaoui, said that “no matter how offensive,” Mila’s remarks could not justify death threats. Another senior official, Abdallah Zekri, insisted she had brought them upon herself, invoking the biblical phrase: “They who sow the wind reap the whirlwind.”

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