Reuters, Oct. 22, 2002
By Caroline Brothers
PARIS (Reuters) – Calling Islam “the stupidest religion” does not amount to inciting racial hatred in France, a court has ruled after Muslim groups sued provocative writer Michel Houellebecq for saying just that.
A panel of three judges in Paris acquitted Houellebecq, 45, on Tuesday and rejected charges brought by the Mecca-based World Islamic League, the mosques of Paris and Lyon and France’s Human Rights League in a dispute reminiscent of the Salman Rushdie affair.
“Writing that Islam is the stupidest religion does not at all amount to asserting or imply that all Muslims should be qualified as such,” they said in their verdict.
“This statement does not contain any intended insult, contempt or outrage towards the group of persons in question.”
The magazine Lire which published Houellebecq’s comments — just days before the September 11 attacks — was also acquitted of the same charges.
The plaintiffs vowed to appeal against the decision in the high-profile case, which pitted free speech against religious sensitivities at a time of rising concern about Islam in the West following the September 11 attacks.
The debate has also played out against the backdrop of growing sensitivity to radical Islam in France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim community, and government efforts to promote moderate Islam against radical ideas spreading among youths.
“I recognise with great satisfaction that the crime of blasphemy has not been reinstated under French law,” said Houellebecq’s lawyer Emmanuel Pierrat after the ruling. Amongst the defence arguments was the fact that Muslims are not a race.
Jean-Marc Varaut, lawyer for the Grand Mosque of Paris, said the verdict showed the judges did not understand Islam.
“It says insulting the Koran does not hurt the Muslim community. But in a society that does not distinguish between public and private, insulting the Koran means insulting Islam.”
WRITER SEES SCRIPTURES AS HATE LITERATURE
Support for this view also came from the Muslim world, where Islamic leaders are becoming increasingly sensitive to the way followers of their religion are treated in Western countries.
“If people say Islam is stupid, it will incur the anger of the people. You won’t get a calm and peaceful world,” said Hatta Ramli, a central committee member of Malaysia’s opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), in Kuala Lumpur.
Houellebecq, a reclusive writer who lives in Ireland, argued in court last month that criticising a religion did not mean he was criticising its followers.
He said all three monotheistic religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — were based on scriptures that were “texts of hate”.
An appeal could drag the issue out for another year. Houellebecq risks a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 euros if he loses.
His accusers say he went too far in the interview and in his book “Plateforme”, also written before September 11, in which the main character Michel feels “a quiver of excitement” every time what he describes as a Palestinian terrorist is killed.
The character makes the remarks after his partner dies in an attack on a tourist resort in Thailand by suspected Muslim extremists — a literary foretaste of the October 12 bombing in Bali that killed almost 200 people.
Houellebecq is no stranger to controversy, having alienated France’s politically correct left with his 1998 novel “Les Particules Elementaires” (“Atomised” in English), which won the 2002 IMPAC prize, one of the world’s richest literary awards.
His publisher Flammarion has distanced itself from the author, but British writer Salman Rushdie has come to Houellebecq’s defence, arguing “there cannot be fences erected around ideas, philosophies, attitudes or beliefs”.
Rushdie’s 1981 novel “The Satanic Verses” unleashed a wave of protests in the Muslim world, where critics charged he had blasphemed the Prophet Mohammed.
Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa or religious decree in 1989 calling for him to be put to death.
Nine years later Iran dissociated itself from the fatwa, but hardline Iranian bodies say it cannot be rescinded.
“This is a reminder of a very important principle in France, which is the right to free expression about religion, even if it is very, very negative,” said writer Dominique Noguez, a defence witness at Houellebecq’s trial who returned for the verdict.
“The court was right not to confuse an opinion about an ideology with the group of people associated with that ideology around the world.”