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Sunday, June 30, 2002
Which is worse, the illness or the proposed cure?
The Illness: Oriana Fallaci's book, Anger and Pride (La Rage et l'Orgueil), has sold over 1 million copies in Italy. Vicious quotes from this former war correspondent's book include the following:
--"The children of Allah multiply like rats." (p.145)
--"Any Muslim theologian can explain that, in order to defend the Islamic faith, the Koran authorizes lies, slander, and hypocrisy." (p.38)
--"There is something about Arab men that revolts women of good taste." (p.188)
The Proposed Cure: The Movement Against Racism and For Friendship (MRAP) sought to halt the distribution of Fallaci's book in France, invoking France's anti-racism laws and claiming that the book was a provocation to discrimination, hate, and violence against religious minorities.
While Fallaci's book may contain hateful screeds in response to the 9/11 attacks, censorship of her ideas merely makes it more difficult to counter her arguments. Given the popularity of her book in Italy, some people agree with Fallaci's sentiments and a ban on the book will not banish the book's sentiments from people's minds. It's preferable that the debate which Fallaci seeks to provoke take place in books, newspaper, and journals than on the streets. Or as the European Court of Human Rights has written with regards to freedom of speech in Handyside v. UK:
"Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a [democratic] society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man. Subject to paragraph 2 of Article 10 [of the European Convention], it is applicable not only to 'information' or 'ideas' that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society."
Saturday, June 29, 2002 Le Monde responds to The New York Times piece by Alan Riding on "The Horrifying Fraud" ("L'Effroyable Imposture"), a book that claims that right-wing U.S. radicals in thrall to oil behemoths were responsible for the 9/11 Pentagon attacks. Le Monde sees bias in The New York Times article. It begins by noting that "The French remain a veritable mystery for The New York Times." Although pointing out that both Libération and itself had denounced the theory of "The Horrifying Fraud," Le Monde doesn't smile upon Riding's possible explanations for the popularity of this French conspiracy theory (viz. French anti-Americanism and distrust of government and mainstream media), and is bothered that Riding mentions "The Horrifying Lie"--a French book that refutes "The Horrifying Fraud"--only once, mid-way through the piece (at last check, "The Horrifying Fraud" was ranked #23 among best-selling books on www.amazon.fr, while "The Horrifying Lie" was a more distant # 173). Le Monde's article ends by noting that Riding's piece, shortly after its publication, was the second most e-mailed article on The New York Time's website, and concludes from this fact that, "Perhaps conspiracy theories are not an exclusively French phenomenon." Perhaps not, but I would hazard a guess that the article's popularity was due to a disbelief at a preposterous example of French anti-Americanism, rather than any perceived credibility in the insulting ravings of the "The Horrifying Fraud."
Incidentally, Le Monde chooses not to address the fact mentioned in The New York Times piece that "The Horrifying Fraud"'s popularity was due, in part, to its author's appearance on a popular television program on France 2, a state-owned but independently-run French TV station. The New York Times notes that "In the program, Mr. Meyssan was allowed to expound his theory without being challenged by the host."
The British courts continue to protect Rachid Ramda--an Algerian thought to be responsible for attacks on the Paris metro back in 1995--from French extradition requests. The reason? British judges are concerned about abusive French interrogation procedures of Ramda's co-conspirator, who provided the evidence against Ramda.
There are petitions circulating that call for a "European Boycott of Research and Cultural Links with Israel" with hundreds of signatures of academics from a panoply of countries from Greece to Iceland. It seems odd that someone would suggest that the way to bring Israeli intellectuals around to a particular viewpoint is to ostracize them from academic discourse, rather than engaging them. And should we really hold an Israeli scientist or linguist responsible for the actions of his or her government? Why isn't there a similar drive to isolate academics from other countries that have committed human rights violations? For descriptions of the first (but probably and unfortunately far from last) victims of this campaign, see Siva Vaidhyanathan's piece 6/27/2002
The French Cult of Reason
The Raëlians are a cross between the X-Files and NASCAR. The approximately 50,000 Raëlians believe that their founder, a French race-car journalist named Claude Vorilhon, was abducted from a volcano by four-foot tall, olive-colored aliens. Over the course of six days and in fluent French, the aliens taught Claude that they had, in fact, created humans through DNA manipulation. Claude changed his name to the more imposing, Raël, and he and his followers are busy planning the construction of a Hawaiian embassy to welcome people from space.
In a time of increasing world terrorism and Middle Eastern conflagrations, it is comforting to know that the French government is contributing to global security through attacks upon groups such as the Raëlians. Several weeks ago, the French government began a suit against another perceived religious threat, the Church of Scientology—the first such suit against the Church since France adopted its anti-cult legislation back in May of 2001. This law makes "mental manipulation" a crime. Anyone found guilty of causing "a state of psychological or physical subjection resulting from serious and repeated pressures or techniques designed to alter judgment” faces five years imprisonment. Furthermore, if the de facto leaders of a religion are found guilty of any number of offenses, ranging from an “illegal pharmaceutical practice” to “deceptive advertising,” the entire religion risks criminalization. Courts have the power to dissolve religious groups and impose heavy fines.
While I am not a devotee of Raël, France’s vaguely worded law and its recent actions suggesting that it takes this law seriously are cause for concern. While the legislation does not mention any religion by name, a National Assembly committee back in 1996 came up with a blacklist of 173 religions considered to be “harmful or religious cults” and subject to increased state surveillance. Among them were Seventh Day Adventists, Quakers, practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, Hasidic Jews, Latter-Day Saints, and Jehova’s Witnesses.
Depending upon one’s perspective, any number of religious groups could fall victim to this anti-cult legislation. After all, a young girl who has chosen to live outside of the world, given up her belongings, obeys her superiors without a murmur and gets up several times a night to recite prayers learned by heart may be considered a victim of “mental manipulation.” Yet I doubt that the French government will ban certain orders of Catholic nuns anytime soon. Furthermore, if taken to its logical extreme, the French law might endanger not only religion, but secular life as well. Each of us may be able to think of some marriages that would qualify under the legislation as “fraudulent abuse[s] of ignorance or weakness.”
In the end, France’s most recent Cult of Reason, like its last one, is doomed to fail. The alternative religions that it targets are not pockets of irrationality in a secular age. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia (which, despite the name, covers many religions), there are close to 10,000 separate and distinct religions in the world, with two or three new ones being created every day. And these new religions are not just flashes in the pan. Just look at the Pentecostalists. Prior to the 1940’s, they were dismissed as “holy rollers.” Now, the World Christian Encyclopedia estimates that there may be more than a billion Pentecostalists by 2050. The implication is that today’s fundamentalist sect could be the next big thing.
Hopefully, the French government will recognize that a free market of religious plurality will meet its people’s spiritual needs better than any bureaucratic inquisition into the soundness of a person’s faith.