The “Mila” controversy in France: the “right to blasphemy” versus protection of religious freedom

On January 18, Mila, a 16 years old teenager  attacked Islam in reaction to insults she  received on her Instagram  account, opening a major debate in French society on the « right to blasphemy ». Originating from the  Lyon’s region, Mila was criticized online “in the name of Allah” because of her sexual orientation, which  led her to call Islam a “religion of hate”.  She then reaffirmed her positions in a second video, which became viral.

In view of the above situation, she received thousand of death threats, had to drop out of high school and be  placed with her family under police protection. Moreover, her home address and the name of her school were revealed online. Consequently, the local prosecutor has opened two simultaneous investigations: one to identify the authors of the vast amount of death threats, the other against the schoolgirl herself under investigation  for “hate speech”. The “Mila case” has polarized the French public opinion,with on one hand,  the supporters of the teenager (they used the #jesuisMila hashtag) and  on the other hand, the opponents (who condemned her speech and gathered under the #jenesuispasMila hashtag). Highly publicized – Mila has been invited to speak up during a very popular talk show on French television – the controversy also prompted strong reactions within the political sphere. The general delegate of the CFCM (the French Council of Muslim Faith), Abdallah Zekri stated Mila’s attitude deserved such hostile reactions, before to mitigate his position and condemn the death threats. A large number of the right and far-right politicians supported Mila and made her a symbol of the fight against the “islamisation of France”. Among the ruling Presidential majority, the ministry of Justice, Nicole Belloubet, briefly stated that “affront to religion was an infringement to the freedom of conscience” before clarifying her thoughts.

The controversy has opened a lively debate on blasphemy in France, even leading President Macron to advocate  for the  “right to blasphemy”. From a juridical point of view, blasphemy does not have any legal recognition in France. There is not right to blasphemy, but freedom of speech is a constitutional principle. Consequently, it is legally possible to criticize a religion invoking freedom of speech, while conversely, direct attack towards believers would fall under the category of hate speech and be forbidden by the law. However, French public opinion is divided on such an issue.  A survey – conducted by IFOP (The French Institute of Public Opinion) among 2000 people – a for the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, reveals this divide:  50% of the respondents are in favor of the right to criticize a religion, while 50% are opposed.

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