Thursday, January 04, 2007

Revive la France

[posted by Callimachus]

Christian Delacampagne, a professor of French literature and philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, writes about Robert Redeker, a small-town French high-school philosophy teacher who published an op-ed article in "Le Figaro" responding to the controversy over Pope Benedict's remarks about Islam. Redeker wrote of Islam’s attempt “to place its leaden cloak over the world.”

If Jesus was “a master of love,” he wrote, Muhammad was “a master of hatred.” Of the three “religions of the book,” Islam was the only one that overtly preached holy war. “Whereas Judaism and Christianity are religions whose rites reject and delegitimize violence,” Redeker concluded, “Islam is a religion that, in its own sacred text, as well as in its everyday rites, exalts violence and hatred.”

Having been posted online, the article was read all across France and in other countries as well, and was quickly translated into Arabic. Denunciations of Redeker’s “insult of the prophet” spread across the Internet. Within a day after publication, the piece was being condemned on al Jazeera by the popular on-air preacher (and unofficial voice of Osama bin Laden) Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi. In Egypt and Tunisia, the offending issue of Le Figaro was banned.

As for Redeker himself, he soon received a large number of threats by letter and e-mail. On an Islamist website, he was sentenced to death in a posting that, in order to facilitate a potential assassin’s task, also provided his address and a photograph of his home. Fearful for himself and his family, Redeker sought protection from the local police, who transferred the case to the national counter-espionage authorities. On their advice, Redeker, his wife, and three children fled their home and took shelter in a secret location. Since then, they have moved from city to city, at their own expense, under police protection. Another teacher has been appointed by the French Ministry of Education to replace Redeker, who will probably never see his students again.

It spirals downward from there. Delacampagne's lament is not over the Islamic reaction (or the lack of an audible counter-view from that community), which may say as much as anything about the state of the world. It is for the general reaction of the French elite class. I'm glad to say André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy spoke up for fundamental French liberties. As did, to his credit, Dominique de Villepin.

But the vast majority of responses, even when couched as defenses of the right to free speech, were in fact hostile to the philosophy teacher. The Communist mayor of Saint-Orens-de-Gameville, echoed by the head of Redeker’s school, deplored the fact that he had included his affiliation at the end of the article. France’s two largest teachers’ unions, both of them socialist, stressed that “they did not share Redeker’s convictions.” The leading leftist human-rights organizations went much farther, denouncing his “irresponsible declarations” and “putrid ideas.” A fellow high-school philosophy teacher, Pierre Tévanian, declared (on a Muslim website) that Redeker was “a racist” who should be severely punished by his school’s administration. Even Gilles de Robien, the French minister of education, criticized Redeker for acting “as if he represented the French educational system”—a bizarre charge against the author of a piece clearly marked as personal opinion.

Among members of the media, Redeker was scolded for articulating his ideas so incautiously. On the radio channel Europe 1, Jean-Pierre Elkabach invited the beleaguered teacher to express his “regret.” The editorial board of Le Monde, France’s newspaper of record, characterized Redeker’s piece as “excessive, misleading, and insulting.” It went so far as to call his remarks about Muhammad “a blasphemy,” implying that the founder of Islam must be treated even by non-Muslims in a non-Muslim country as an object not of investigation but of veneration.

To be sure, Redeker’s language had not been gentle. But since when has that been a requirement of intellectual discourse in France? One can often find similarly strong language in, say, Les Temps Modernes, the journal founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and on whose editorial board Redeker has long served. Yet, to judge by the response to his “offense,” large sectors of the French intellectual and political establishment have carved out an exception to this hard-won tradition of open discussion: when it comes to Islam (as opposed to Christianity or Judaism), freedom of speech must respect definite limits.

How did France reach this point?

He goes on to give an answer. I urge you to read it.

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