When French rapper Médine (real name Medine Zaouiche) decided to schedule a concert at the Bataclan theatre, where, in November 2015, Islamist jihadists massacred eighty-nine people, there was bound to be an outcry. In the past, the controversial artist has released an album entitled Jihad and has been photographed wearing a “jihad” T-shirt with an image of a large sword, as well as writing songs such as “Don’t Laik,” whose title and lyrics are an open affront to France’s strong secular policies.
The deeply offensive move to hold his concert at the Bataclan in October is a genius stroke of political strategy that will—if successful—further erode France’s liberal values and deepen the social divisions that may destabilize the state. Therefore, it is imperative that French citizens avoid being baited into jettisoning their defining political principles. Now more than ever, they should defend freedom of speech for offensive views: a liberty that allows them to draw a sharp distinction between their own civil tolerance and the brazen intolerance of the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan assassins.
The public controversy sparked by the proposed event has already succeeded in bringing huge publicity to a disingenuous political manipulator, turning him into a celebrity and providing an international platform for his attacks on laïcité, which are turning a significant minority of French people against the liberal value of free expression.
In articles and commentaries on this, the terms “right” and “extreme right” have appeared repeatedly, usually in association with those who have expressed outrage at the rapper’s insensitivity. These labels function as epithets, allowing anyone (regardless of where they actually stand on the political spectrum) to be stigmatized and dismissed as “right wing”—even when the object of their criticism is the religious right and its attacks on liberalism, secularism, humanism, free expression, and democratic values.
The rapper’s stage name—Médine (“Medina”)—is itself a provocation. Of course, he should be permitted to use that name (which is also his own first name) and to express his views. However, as liberal ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi-Ali has recommended, those who wish to stop the spread of political Islam need to make a distinction between “Mecca Muslims,” whose roots lie in the spiritual phase of Islam’s historical development, and “Medina Muslims,” who give more weight to Qur’anic verses revealed after Muhammad’s move to Medina, during the political and militaristic phase of his later career. Hirsi-Ali makes this distinction to emphasize the danger of drawing a false dichotomy between a “tiny” group of extremists and an “overwhelming majority” of moderate Muslims, a strategy that she says has persuaded liberals to accept the myth, peddled by extremists, that jihadists have “nothing to do with Islam.”
Médine’s attack on secularism, in his lyrics, is quite telling, and identifies him as an intolerant peddler of Islamist extremism. Secularism is not anti-religious: it protects religious freedoms. But extremists have never been interested in religious freedom, which is why, almost without exception, everywhere in the world where Islam has political control, other religious minorities are persecuted (including Bahá’ís, Ahmadis, Yazidis, Kurds, Coptic Christians, Sufis, and Hindus). Given that secularism protects religious freedom for practitioners of all religions and none, it is hard to understand why a moderate or tolerant Muslim would attack secularism.
The songwriter claims that the title of his album Jihad was intended to refer to an “internal spiritual struggle,” rather than violence. This is quite an arcane interpretation, given that the rapper is pictured wearing a T-shirt with a sword next to the word “jihad” and that he talks of issuing “fatwas on the heads of idiots” in one of his songs. Now he has chose to provocatively hold a concert in the same venue in which three jihadists killed eighty-nine people: in what was hardly an example of inner struggle “with themselves.” Jihad is about a militaristic struggle for power and political dominance. No amount of politeness or dissimulation can make that fact go away.
Many commentators have decried “violent messages,” posted on social media in response to the upcoming Bataclan event. However, this is to confuse matters even more. Words are not tantamount to killings and are not in themselves violent. To describe speech acts as equivalent to violence invites us to react to speech in the same way that we respond to murder or assault, which is absurd. Speech only does serious harm to people in a censorial atmosphere in which they are not free to respond with better speech. For this reason, the blunt instrument of the law should not be used to shut down the concert, as some far right and even some moderate politicians have recommended. However, Europeans and French citizens (Muslim or not) have every right to respond with vigorous public criticism, since the concert is itself an insult, seemingly calculated to offend and to sow divisions.
Freedom of speech does not require that you like the content of the speech that you would, in principle, protect. To tolerate racist or other seriously offensive forms of speech is not to approve of it. Liberals have always drawn a line between repugnant speech, which they tolerate, and violent acts, like assault, which they do not. Free speech means nothing if it does not apply to unpopular voices. Liberals tolerate all manner of expression, whether polite or not, because they believe there is a greater public interest in the free flow of ideas than in protecting people from “unpleasant” ideas or from offense. We can combat bad ideas with our free speech, not by throwing it overboard. We saw this in action when former BNP leader Nick Griffin went on the BBC’s Question Time in 2009. Griffin aired his views and his opponents easily punctured them with copious better arguments.
In a free country like France, using the pretext of public order laws to ban an artist because of his offensive content is not only inappropriate, but dangerous, as it sets a precedent for shutting down any speech or expression that might cause public outcry. Instead, all manner of counter-speech should be deployed. Tolerance triumphs when defenders of free expression use this hard-won liberty to redress bad speech. This allows them to set a principled, consistent example of how to respond to offensive free expression—one that neither descends into violence, nor demands legal censorship, which will only undermine freedom of expression in the long run. Loud and bold ridicule, protest, and criticism are all appropriate, tolerant responses to the kind of ill-considered spectacle that Médine’s performance represents. The French—including French Muslims—should seize this golden opportunity to uphold the standards of tolerance that the Charlie Hebdo murderers were rightly condemned for demolishing.