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Archive for September, 2012

After the Battle

I’ve seen two good Egyptian films over the past couple of weeks. One was Yousry Nasrallah’s ‘After the Battle’, which is the first feature-length film to come out of that country on the revolutionary upheaval of 2011 and its immediate aftermath. Though the film is fiction it necessarily mixes in some documentary in view of its topicality. Nasrallah directed the excellent 2009 ‘Scheherazade Tell Me a Story’ (‘Femmes du Caire’), which was a devastating portrayal and critique of the status of women in contemporary Egypt, and in all social classes. Nasrallah, who co-wrote the screenplay for this one, really pulled it off, which was no sure thing for a mass appeal film on a contemporary and ongoing event. The film is engaging, absorbing, nuanced in its politics and depiction of gender and social class dynamics, and with great acting, notably by Bassem Samra—who plays the Mahmoud character; I’ve seen him in several films in recent years—and Nahed El Sebaï, who plays Mahmoud’s wife, Fatma. Mahmoud lives in Nazlet, the quarter next to the Giza pyramids, earns his living taking tourists around on his horse, and was one of the cavaliers who charged into Tahrir Square on February 2nd—nine days before Hosni Mubarak’s fall—, beating and whipping demonstrators. He’s a simple guy and claims he was put up to it, though that’s not totally clear. The movie is about his and wife’s relationship with an idealistic, headstrong do-gooder from the upper class named Reem—played by Meena Chalaby—, who is a reporter and member of the association for the protection of animals—and an activist in the Tahrir Square movement—, who takes in interest in Mahmoud while distributing feed to the horses as part of her animal protection work (the cavaliers now dependent on handouts with the drying up of tourism). Mahmoud—with whom Reem commits a minor transgression, but that seriously transgresses the social class chasm—has become an outcast: for those outside his neighborhood, because he participated in the notorious Tahrir Square assault; for his fellow horse riders, because he was caught on YouTube being pulled off his horse and beaten by demonstrators. So Reem tries to help him and his family. I won’t call the pic a chef d’œuvre, as one may detect an implausibility here, a contrivance there, and a few small doses of bons sentiments, but none of these are major or detract from the film’s quality. The film works. And the sleazy political kingpin in Nazlet, Haj Abdallah (or Hag, as Egyptians pronounce it), is brilliantly depicted by comic actor Salah Abdallah. Critics in Variety and Hollywood Reporter gave the pic the thumbs way up (here and here; also here). French reviews range from tops to middling (the latter may be ignored). If one is at all interested in Egypt, don’t miss it.

The other film is a documentary, ‘The Virgin, the Copts and Me’, by filmmaker Namir Abdel Messeeh, raised in France to Egyptian parents. Jay Weissberg’s review of the film in Variety last November describes well what it’s about. As it’s behind the wall, here’s the whole thing

Despite having gone through various incarnations, or perhaps because of it, “The Virgin, the Copts and Me” is a disarmingly honest, thoroughly winning personal portrait of family and heritage, grounded in religion but not dependent on belief. Tyro helmer Namir Abdel Messeh struggled long and hard to get this personal project made after being dumped by his French producers for not adhering to their vision; the last laugh’s on them, since the docu bagged $100,000 at Doha Tribeca and should easily find auds at fests and in Gallic theaters, as well as on TV.

It’s fair to say Abdel Messeh was unfocused when he went into the project with the partial support of French TV. The initial idea was to look into various apparitions of the Virgin Mary claimed by Coptic communities in Egypt over the last few decades. Though completely Frenchified, the helmer comes from Egypt, and his mother Siham’s family from Asyut, in Upper Egypt, where devotees claim the Virgin appeared in 2000.

In Egypt, his skepticism rubs the faithful the wrong way, and following the New Year’s Day attack on Copts in Alexandria this year, the producers pressure him to focus on Egypt’s religious tensions. Instead, Abdel Messeh heads south to his maternal family, despite Mom’s implacable opposition to her son filming her nearest and dearest. The reason is clear: The family members are dirt-poor peasants, and despite her love for them, Siham also feels some shame in her roots.

Reconnecting with his family inspires Abdel Messeh, but his producers aren’t pleased, and when he fails to incorporate the Egyptian Revolution into the mix, they ankle the project; the phone conversations, heard onscreen, straddle the line between painful and hilarious. Mom, an accountant, saves the day by flying to Egypt and agreeing to be the docu’s treasurer. She’s dropped her threats to sue her son, and quickly gets into the swing of things, despite not understanding how this is going to come together as a movie.

At the beginning, she’s not wrong, yet somewhere along the way, Abdel Messeh realizes the real story is his family, not merely as believers in the visions but as hard-working, good-hearted people who can’t be reduced to a stereotype. He decides to re-enact the vision with family and locals in various roles, and while this reps the culmination of the docu, the real meat lies in the process.

For Siham, too, there’s a transformation as she reconnects with her family and realizes her son’s interest is respectful rather than exploitative. Viewers are left to contemplate parallels between being a Christian minority in Egypt and being an Egyptian in France; he’s an outsider in his two worlds, yet very much a part of them both.

Visuals are strong in the off-the-cuff way auds expect from this kind of personal docu. Given constant changes during the production, the excellent editing warrants special commendation, finding a rhythm and keeping pace with it all.

The film is engaging, funny in parts—many parts, in fact—, and whose depiction of Coptic village life in Upper Egypt will be of interest to anthropologically minded spectators who don’t know much about the country. The Muslim-Coptic divide in the country is manifest in the film. No dancing around it. I saw the film a month after it opened and the theater—in the center of Paris—was packed, and with applause at the end. Word-of-mouth on the pic has been strong (and now I’m spreading the word too). For another review, go here. French reviews are here.

Egypt is such a contradictory place. On the one hand it’s a disaster and on so many levels; on the other, people are so nice and friendly in one’s personal dealings. A friend who travels there periodically—and who knows the Arab world—sent me this email not too long ago. The way he describes Egyptians is precisely reflected in the above films.

Heading out to hike around Cairo all day. While this place is so broken-down and dysfunctional, and its intellectual life so poisonous, I love Egyptians. Watching them…reminds me of those old black sit-coms like “Sanford and Son.” Egyptians are always hyperventilating, sweating, wheezing, gesticulating, belly-laughing, working themselves up into a lather over nothin, all overweight and unhealthy looking, you can always get a rise out of them, get them to kid around. Love it.

And then this follow-up a few days later, somewhat more equivocal

Wherever I travel, my days are filled with small encounters with strangers. Some are disagreeable, most are neutral, some are pleasant because the person en face exhibits an unexpected dollop of kindness, humor, or just positive liveliness.

France is the country where the largest proportion of such encounters are neutral. Once you play by their rules of civility they are almost never rude; but then again almost never fun or warm. The US is the country with the wildest variation. One guy is warm and familiar, the next is rude and vulgar. Egypt is the MENA country where these small encounters most often leave you with a smile or a glow.

But that good humor is about all Egypt has going for it. Otherwise it’s just a giant kitty litter box. Cairo is filthy, broken-down, dirt poor traffic-choked. Most expats who say they love living here wall themselves off from the other 99 percent. As I would too if I ever had to live here. Which is why I would never want to live here.

I lived in Cairo for part of a year in the mid ’80s. I loved the place and could have stayed longer. Don’t know if I would feel that way now.

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Monsieur Lazhar

As this seems to be Canada weekend on my blog (see previous two posts) I should mention this Canadian film I saw last night. It was a nominee for best foreign film at the last Oscars and opened in the US in April, several months before arriving in France. The pic is about a 50-ish Algerian asylum-seeker, named Bachir Lazhar, who becomes a substitute teacher en catastrophe in a 6th grade class in a Montreal public school—whose beloved teacher committed suicide—, and of his experience in the classroom, with the students, and his colleagues. It’s a touching film and with several themes: mourning and coping with loss—as Lazhar is also mourning his own, which one learns in the course of the film—, of deracination, navigating cultural differences… The acting is first-rate, particularly the children. US reviews of the film are tops. In France they’re good (and with spectators particularly enthusiastic). Trailer is here.

The big draw of the film for us was the Algeria angle and, above all, the casting of Fellag in the role of Lazhar. Fellag is a hugely popular comedian and actor in Algeria and France (particularly among Algerian immigrants), best known for his one-man comic acts. They’re wonderful. We love them in my family. Fellag is very funny and his social satire is dead on target. And his accent and schtick are almost stereotypically Kabyle Berber (just as those of Lenny Bruce and Jackie Mason were Jewish-American). In order to follow him, it helps not only to have perfect French comprehension but also some knowledge of Algeria (though one of my work colleagues, who does not know Algeria or the Maghreb, went to one of his shows last year and loved it). For two of his most popular acts, see here and here.

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In my previous post I linked to a Marxist-sounding op-ed by the dean of the University of Toronto’s business school. Hard to imagine any of his American b-school counterparts writing such words. In thinking about Canada, I am reminded of a piece from Bloomberg.com last July on how Canada’s “hardheaded socialism” has made it richer than the US, that the net worth of Canadian households was now greater than those south of the border. The author, Stephen Marche, described the approach of conservative Canadian governments, including the present one. Money quote [emphasis added in bold]

Both liberals and conservatives in the U.S. have tried to use the Canadian example to promote their arguments: The left says Canada shows the rewards of financial regulation and socialism, while the right likes to vaunt the brutal cuts made to Canadian social programs in the 1990s, which set the stage for economic recovery.

The truth is that both sides are right. Since the 1990s, Canada has pursued a hardheaded (even ruthless), fiscally conservative form of socialism. Its originator was Paul Martin, who was finance minister for most of the ’90s, and served a stint as prime minister from 2003 to 2006. Alone among finance ministers in the Group of Eight nations, he “resisted the siren call of deregulation,” in his words, and insisted that the banks tighten their loan-loss and reserve requirements. He also made a courageous decision not to allow Canadian banks to merge, even though their chief executives claimed they would never be globally competitive unless they did. The stability of Canadian banks and the concomitant stability in the housing market provide the clearest explanation for why Canadians are richer than Americans today.

Martin also slashed funding to social programs. He foresaw that crippling deficits imperiled Canada’s education and health-care systems, which even his Conservative predecessor, Brian Mulroney, described as a “sacred trust.” He cut corporate taxes, too. Growth is required to pay for social programs, and social programs that increase opportunity and social integration are the best way to ensure growth over the long term. Social programs and robust capitalism are not, as so many would have you believe, inherently opposed propositions. Both are required for meaningful national prosperity.

Social programs were cut not to gut them—and certainly not for ideological reasons à la the American right—but to perennialize them. And no one on the Canadian right is talking about replacing the country’s single-payer health care system with something akin to what presently exists in the US.

On Canadian banks and regulation—of Canada not going off the deregulatory cliff—, business reporter Theresa Tedesco and Paul Krugman had analyses in ’09 and ’10, respectively (here and here). Should the US Congress be so inspired.

On current right-wing praise for “socialist” Canada, conservative onetime press baron Conrad Black had an op-ed last weekend in the conservative New York Sun, misleadingly entitled “How Canada Has Eclipsed America In the Obama Years” (misleading because Black dates the beginning of the eclipse well before Obama took office). Money quote  [emphasis added in bold]

the United States has fumbled away its gentle overlordship of the world these last 15 years. [i.e. through the entire Bush-Cheney period] Huge current account deficits and colossal federal budget deficits arose, and while the United Sates is generally successful [sic] in real wars, its habit of calling policy attacks on sociological problems “wars” has led to the conspicuous failures of the wars on crime, poverty and drugs.

The Canadian dollar has risen from 65¢ American to par, and Canada’s comparative standard of living has inched upwards, and its wealth is much more evenly distributed. The jagged nature of American democracy left 40 million African Americans unsegregated but still the subject of institutionalized discrimination, and 70% of people with magnificent (free) medical care and 30% with access to care but on a pretty stingy and erratic basis.

American education has become very uneven, American justice has degenerated into a turkey shoot for the benefit of a prosecutorial class that terrorizes the country and has given America 10 times the average number of incarcerated people per capita of other advanced prosperous democracies. Sixty million basic manufacturing and service jobs have been out-sourced while 20 million unskilled peasants were admitted illegally to the country, and trillions of dollars of worthless real estate-backed securities inundated the world, pumped out by Wall Street and certified as investment grade, almost asphyxiating the American financial industry while trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives were squandered in the sanguinary Quixotry of nation-building in the Middle and Near East.

Okay, an American conservative may retort to this that Black is Canadian—or he used to be, until he became a Brit—so whaddaya expect?! But still…

Black then offers this

Prudent, hesitant Canada, ran 14 federal government surpluses in a row. We are the pigs in the brick house — it isn’t a heroic position, neither daring nor stylish, but Canadians are peering through the portals of their stout solid home, transfixed and astonished.

Astonished at America. My, even libertarian Cato Institute types (e.g. here; h/t for the above image) are praising the Canadian way of running the economy. Now they do deplore the government-run health care system and government spending that amounts to 42% of national output, but the fact remains that Canada is prospering—and in the estimation of the libertarians—despite the government-run health care system and high levels of government spending. Which, ergo, means that economies and countries can indeed prosper with government-run health care and high levels of government spending. Or under what American conservatives call “socialism”…

One is reminded of American right-wing dissing of Canada in the last decade, most famously expressed by Patrick Buchanan, who referred to the country as “Soviet Canuckistan” back in ’02. This was at least humorous. Less humorous was a cover story on Canada in the National Review, also in ’02, entitled “Wimps!” In the screed author Jonah Goldberg opined that what Canada needed was “a little invasion” by the US

It’s quite possible that the greatest favor the United States could do for Canada is to declare war on it. No, this isn’t a tribute to South Park, the TV cartoon that popularized a song — Blame Canada — calling for an outright invasion of America’s northern neighbor. A full-scale conquest is unnecessary; all Canada needs is to be slapped around a little bit, to be treated like a whining kid who’s got to start acting like a man. Why would such a war be necessary? The short answer is: to keep the Canadians from being conquered by the United States. In effect, it would be a war to keep Canada free.

Other tidbits from the screed

Canada is barely a functioning democracy at all: Its governmental structure, if described objectively, is far more similar to what we would expect in a corrupt African state with decades of one-party rule.

And this

Despite Canada’s self-delusions, it is, quite simply, not a serious country anymore. It is a northern Puerto Rico with an EU sensibility.

And this

If the U.S. were to launch a quick raid into Canada, blow up some symbolic but unoccupied structure — Toronto’s CN Tower, or perhaps an empty hockey stadium — Canada would rearm overnight. Indeed, Canada might even be forced to rethink many of its absurd socialist policies in order to pay for the costs involved in protecting itself from the Yankee peril. Canada’s neurotic anti-Americanism would be transformed into manly resolve. The U.S. could quickly pretend to be frightened that it had messed with the wrong country, and negotiate a fragile peace with the newly ornery Canadians. In a sense, the U.S. owes it to Canada to slap it out of its shame-spiral. That’s what big brothers do.

Goldberg naturally did not spare “Canada’s disastrous health-care system.” Other US right-wingers also jumped on the Canada-bashing bandwagon, such as Ann Coulter, who informed Canadians that they were “lucky we allow them to exist on the same continent,” and Tucker Carlson, who snickered that “without the U.S., Canada is essentially Honduras” (see here).

Voilà a slice of the American right’s Weltanschauung. To Goldberg, Coulter et al the only thing I have to say to them is this.

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Capital vs. talent

Interesting op-ed in today’s NY Times on the NFL referees’ strike as a metaphor for the battle in American business. The author, Roger L. Martin, argues that the NFL team owners fought the referee union so hard not because the latter’s demands were costly—which they weren’t—but

Because the league was fighting a bigger fight, one that is representative of a war beneath the surface of the modern economy — the war between capital and talent.

Martin’s Marxist-ish analysis is refreshing in this age of neoliberal hegemony, particularly as he is not some tenured radical prof at U.Mass-Amherst or UC-Santa Cruz but the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Conservatives will likely retort that he’s Canadian so whaddaya expect? Martin’s recent book, Fixing the Game: Bubbles, Crashes, and What Capitalism Can Learn from the NFL, looks most interesting. It’s published by Harvard Business Press Books. The publishing arm of Mitt Romney’s alma mater. I would doubt he’s read it.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

How low can Jean-François Copé go? In his knock-down-drag-out fight with François Fillon for the presidency of the UMP—on which the 260K party members will vote on November 18th—Copé has scraped the bottom of the extreme right toilet in his denunciation of the supposed existence of “anti-white racism” in France, which figures in his just published campaign book, Manifeste pour une droite décomplexée (here and here). The title is more than apt, as the mainstream right has indeed lost its complexes. For the president of the major party of the parliamentary right—grouping neo-Gaullists, the droite libérale, and even centrists—to speak about racial categories in this way and adopt the most abject demagogic rhetoric of the Front National is something one would not have seen a decade ago—and the mainstream right has been lifting FN rhetoric on immigration since the 1980s, though with limits. Not even Sarkozy went quite this far. The UMP, like the US Republicans, is lurching hard right—and it’s the base of the party that’s pulling the leadership along, not the other way around. Marine Le Pen, who is exulting, is accusing Copé of copyright infringement, of stealing the Front’s discourse, though implicitly dividing French society into racial categories is, in fact, relatively recent for the FN. Racialist rhetoric has normally been associated with the Bloc Identitaire and other sulfurous groupuscules on the outer fringes of the extreme right. Until the past decade the FN would rail on against “le racisme anti-Français” among immigrants from the African continent, a formulation that accented the national, not the racial (though implying that the French were a race that one could be racist against).

Whatever the category, the notion that there is such a phenomenon in France—of “anti-white” or “anti-French” racism—is so laughably absurd that the UMP leadership—which has by-and-large been echoing Copé’s words today—cannot possibly take it seriously. It is a phantasm of the extreme right, existing only in its delirous imagination. In explaining what he means by “anti-white racism” Le Parisien thus quotes Copé

le «racisme anti-blanc» se manifeste «dans certains quartiers par un regard, une agression, une insulte, qui donne envie à un certain nombre de nos compatriotes de fuir le quartier où ils habitent parce qu’on leur fait comprendre qu’ils ne sont pas chez eux. C’est insupportable.» [Copé] ajoute : «Je me réfère au terrain, à ce que j’entends comme député-maire de Meaux. Je me dois de dire la vérité, de dire les choses comme elles sont.»

In other words, Copé is uncritically relating anecdotes of a few Français de souche in Meaux (his electoral fief), of how some immigrant-origin kids once said something rude to them. Ce n’est vraiment pas très sérieux. But, again, what is particularly disturbing about this is not just the inanity of the notion of an “anti-white racism” but the readiness of mainstream politicians to speak about French society in such racialized terms (and where Copé et al would presumably identify themselves as “blanc“). This is new in France. That the UMP would so shamelessly raid the extreme right’s ideological tiroir-caisse and break a taboo in the process is not only reprehensible but alarming as well. La France est sur une bien mauvaise pente.

UPDATE: A Master’s student named Yann Solle has a good tribune in Slate.fr, “«Racisme anti-blanc»: Jean-François Copé vide les mots de leur sens.”

2nd UPDATE: On the Nouvel Obs website Mohamed du Val d’Oise says “‘Racisme anti-Blanc’ : M. Copé, je suis Arabe, laissez-moi vous expliquer le racisme.”

3rd UPDATE: Academic specialist of Great Britain Olivier Esteves has a tribune in Le Monde on “L’énorme ficelle du ‘racisme anti-Blanc’.” (October 1)

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Savage ads

I’ve been reading today about the controversy over the anti-Islam ads (above and below) that have been posted on New York City buses and in subway stations by a group led by the Muslimophobic crackpot Pamela Geller.

I find it appalling that a federal judge ruled that New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority could not refuse the ads. These ads are manifestly hateful toward the believers of a religion. They constitute hate speech, stigmatizing a religion and its believers—implying that they are “savages”—, and are rightly seen this way by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. While the ads should not be banned (and cannot be), public authorities should not be legally obligated to post them on billboards. They should have the right to make a well-considered and argued decision to reject them. There is a huge difference between these ads, on the one hand, and Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and the trailer of a film no one has seen, on the other. The multitudes who were outraged by CH’s cartoons and/or the trailer had either never seen them or actively went looking. Billboard-size ads are in-your-face and in public. And it should stand to legal reason that one has a right not to have racist images and/or speech shoved in one’s face. If this is legal, then why not subway station ads of, say, naked women? One can find plenty of magazines with this in the newsstand on the subway platform, so what’s the problem with having it up on the wall for all to see? Rhetorical question, of course. Parisians will be reminded of the billboard ads a decade ago for a brand of thong underwear and that were quite explicit. When I first saw one of the ads, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, I was taken aback and felt that it went too far. Many others felt the same way, including my wife and Ségolène Royal, who called the ads degrading to women (see here). A public controversy ensued, leading the association of advertisers that oversees ethical standards in the profession to ask the company to take down the ads (here). I have long been bothered by the blown-up covers of XXX magazines on the sides of newsstands in France and elsewhere in Europe. Children should not have to see this, nor anyone else who doesn’t wish to. In the case of magazines bordering on pornography, there should be a legal regulation on how they’re advertised. If one wants it, go into the kiosk and buy the magazine.

Back to the NYC ads, I cannot approve of the response of Mona Eltahawy, who publicly spray painted them in one subway station, attracting the attention of everyone—certainly her intention—and which got her arrested (here and here). I am an admirer of Ms. Eltahawy but this is not the right approach. It achieves nothing and is grist for the Muslimophobes’ mill. And spray painting a subway station—or any public place—can never be condoned.

A much better response is to surreptitiously “rebrand” the ads, as someone or some group has been doing (below; for more, see here). Excellent initiative!

This happened in the Bay Area last summer in a similar controversy, though in a more explicitly political manner. I would love to see the reaction of Pamela Geller’s kindred spirits to a mass ad campaign in New York City calling for the elimination of the state of Israel and its replacement by a Palestinian state governed by Islamic law…

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Charlie Hebdo recidivates – II

I finally got hold of the issue of Charlie Hebdo (see previous post), three days after it came out. The first run was sold out almost as soon as the newsstands opened on Wednesday, the second run yesterday (Friday) by mid-morning. Of the twenty cartoons, four are in particularly poor taste and that will be offensive to practicing Muslims (though one needs to buy the issue to see them, or see scanned images on a website, suggesting that one is looking for them—and with Islam-oriented websites deliberately reproducing the blasphemous images in order to stoke indignation). If it weren’t for these four cartoons there would be little for anyone to get upset about. Charlie Hebdo really didn’t need to print them in order to make sport of Islamic extremism. Close to half of Frenchmen in a poll just out deem that Charlie Hebdo should not have printed the cartoons, given the risk of increasing tensions in the Muslim world. A sharp French journalist whom I know, and who has been reporting from Tunisia since early 2011, is furious at CH for its publicity stunt, asserting that the cartoons will render much more difficult the task of secular-minded Tunisians who oppose a proposed, Islamist-inspired amendment to the new constitution that would criminalize profaning “the sacred.” If I had had a seat at CH’s editorial meeting I would have argued for taking out the four tasteless cartoons. But CH, being what it is, was not going to be dissuaded by the hypothetical impact of its cartoons among those who could take offense to them—and certainly not among elements (religious zealots) it holds in contempt. Ridicule—and puerile cartoons—are CH’s stock-in-trade (of religion, politicians, everyone and everything). It’s what it does. Normally few take notice—its weekly press run is 75,000—except when others scream about it. As a result of all the free publicity this week—of the masses of people outside France who have never seen an issue of CH in their lives (including this one)—CH is laughing all the way to the bank.

And this won’t be the last time, as the fundamental reality here is that the new technologies—of Internet, Google, YouTube—make it so that this kind of thing can propagate like wildfire. It goes without saying that no one would have ever heard of the film ‘Innocence of Muslims’—which may in fact not even exist—if it hadn’t been for the Internet. And, of course, the extremist Salafis who spread word of it (they’re the real guilty party here; it is they, and they alone, who have been fanning the flames). But if it hadn’t been the trailer of this film or Charlie Hebdo’s latest coup, it would have been something else, as North America, Europe, and the world is now awash in Islamophobic and Muslimophobic literature and images. I wonder if Muslims have any idea of the sheer quantity of blasphemous stuff that’s out there. If one looks for it, one will find it in a few clicks of the mouse. And it’s not going to go away or be eradicated. This is simply not possible. Likewise, BTW, for the toxic anti-Semitic—and anti-Christian and even anti-other Muslim—rhetoric that the Muslim world is drenched in, and that is expressed not just by extremist or marginal elements but by mainstream personalities and media outlets in those countries (e.g. Thomas Friedman, whom I normally avoid, had a useful column on this the other day). We just have to deal with it.

I’ve had exchanges with a couple of smart, normally liberal-minded friends over the past couple of days who have argued that there should be restrictions on the kind of speech CH was engaged in. This view has been echoed by certain commentators as well, with one arguing that films like ‘Innocence of Muslims’ already do not meet the free speech test in the US. In the case of the latter, I rather doubt it. I can’t imagine that a lawsuit testing this proposition wouldn’t be quickly rejected by any US district court where it was filed. As for legislation restricting blasphemous or hurtful speech, this is not on the table, certainly not in the US or France. Don’t even think about it. So when confronted with future Charlie Hebdos or grade-Z movies impugning the Prophet, Muslims will just have to turn the other cheek, to ignore it and move on.

BTW, one liberty-undermining act related to this affair was the immediate decision by the French government to ban a planned demonstration in Paris today by Muslim groups (none major) protesting Charlie Hebdo and the American film that no one has seen. This was unjustified and indefensible. Street demonstrations are a hallowed right in France and cannot be banned unless there is a manifest threat to public order, but which was not demonstrated in this case. The demo should have been allowed, with a designated parade route—logically République to Nation—and firm commitment by the organizers to maintain order. In February 2006 there was a march against the Danish cartoons by a few Muslim groups. Several thousand participated—almost all immigrants from the Maghreb (born and raised there and not in France, which was obvious)—and it passed without incident.

Two tribunes related to this affair that are well worth reading: Oliver Roy in Le Monde on not incriminating the “Arab spring,” and Hussein Ibish in The Daily Beast arguing that free speech is not a cloistered value (and taking issue with Stanley Fish).

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