"Vive la France" is not a phrase that springs off the tongue as of late. That said, the French do deserve a quick cheer -- or at least a brief moratorium on the Bronx cheer -- for having acquitted novelist Michel Houellebecq this week of charges that he called Islam a name.
Not that Mr. Houellebecq didn't call Islam a name -- the "stupidest" religion -- before dismissing the Quran as "appalling." (He even confessed to preferring the Bible: "Very beautiful," went the blurb of this author who rejects monotheism altogether, "because the Jews have a hell of a literary talent.") Michel Houellebecq is a free man today because a three-judge panel determined that the novelist, in rather casually rendering his opinion in a magazine interview, had rather casually rendered his opinion in a magazine interview.
But not only that. The court specifically noted that Mr. Houellebecq had spoken his mind about a religion--not about a religion's followers. This suggests the latter offense of slander wouldn't pass muster in "free" France. Which doesn't bode well for Oriana Fallaci, the next writer in line in France for excessively free speech on Islam -- hers not in off-the-cuff comments, but in a carefully considered, if quickly written, book.
Ms. Fallaci is the author of "The Rage and The Pride" (Rizzoli, 2002), a pulsing and oceanic polemic on Islam and the West (and on Muslims and Westerners) that the liberal, once-world-famous journalist wrote immediately after despicable Islamist terrorists brought their specialty -- mass murder and colossal destruction -- to America on Sept. 11. Less a call-to-arms than a clanging wake-up call for self-defense, this exceptionally raw, exceptionally riveting piece first appeared as a lengthy Italian newspaper essay (drawing death threats from Italian Muslims, she writes), and later in an expanded book version that has become an international best seller. Ms. Fallaci, who calls the work a "sermon," says "a Reverse Crusade" has begun, but she is hardly preaching to the choir.
"You don't understand," she writes beseechingly before stylistically throttling the reader by the lapels, "you don't want to understand, that for those Reverse Crusaders, the West is a world to conquer and subjugate to Islam."
It only makes sense. But rather than confront the book's charges and debate the subject, Ms. Fallaci's critics have instead initiated legal proceedings against the author to, if possible, shoosh her up. (Lots of luck.) They hope to convince a French court that the nastiest bits -- at her most insulting (and most quoted), Ms. Fallaci says Muslims "multiply like rats" and "spend their time with their bottoms in the air, praying five times a day" -- justify France to ban the book or, almost worse, tag it with a warning sticker that officially contradicts the author's opinions about Islam.
(Jaw-dropping tidbit: According to National Review Online, one plaintiff, the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between People, brought similar charges against Brigitte Bardot in 1996 and 1997 after the actress-turned-animal-rights-activist twice criticized the Muslim practice of ritual slaughter in a French newspaper -- and the organization won.)
Almost lost in the legal scrum is a breathtaking Fallaci claim. It involves, as I recall, no hot-button invective, but hurls political correctness on its head more forcefully than any quick hits of attention-getting vulgarity. Ms. Fallaci thinks (and explains why) Islam and the West are not "two realities of equal value" -- namely, that the achievements of the West dwarf those of Islam, and the Western system is freer and fairer than anything based on Islamic law. It is fair to say this is true, but too few among us feel free to say so.
The time has come to abandon the flaccid indiscipline of cultural relativism if we are to save the singular principles that define this freer and fairer civilization. This is clear in France, where under Islamic influence freedom of speech is suddenly -- or maybe not so suddenly -- an increasingly questionable right. It's also clear at home, where freedom of religion may soon be twisted to justify jihad itself.
This notion struck me while reading up on the Treasury Department's recent decision to add the Illinois-based Global Relief Fund, a large Islamic charity, to the government's list of terrorist organizations. One of the charges against the group is that its publications solicit funds for armed struggle -- jihad -- around the world. Tsk, tsk, tsk -- or words to that effect -- Ashraf Nubani, a foundation lawyer, told the Washington Post. Paraphrasing Mr. Nubani's position, the article explained that "by quoting from foundation publications advocating that Muslims donate funds for jihad or struggle, the government is attacking Islam itself." Mr. Nubani also pointed out that the some of the offending quotations cited by the government were actually from the Quran. "You may not like it," he told the Post, "but (financially supporting jihad) is part of the religion."
Voila -- Jihad as a First Amendment right! And you thought things were bad in France.