French teenager’s remarks about Islam spark national debate

Comments divide opinion on freedom of expression, as 16-year-old receives threats

The 16-year-old, Mila, who made remarks about Islam. Photograph: Quotidien

The 16-year-old, Mila, who made remarks about Islam. Photograph: Quotidien

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Until January 18th, Mila was an ordinary, 16-year-old French lycée student, with 9,000 followers on her Instagram account. That Saturday, the blonde, blue-eyed teenager carried on a live video chat with about 30 of her followers.

What happened next made Mila famous, provoked a nationwide debate on the right to blasphemy and showed both the harmful effects of social media and the fragility of civil peace in France.

Mila recounted the incident herself, in her only television interview, on TMC’s Quotidien programme on February 3rd. It began when somebody made unwelcome advances on the live chat. “I didn’t hesitate to put him in his place, because it’s not the first time it’s happened,” Mila said.

Mila then began talking to another individual about her sexual preferences. “I told her I was a lesbian. She asked what kind of girls I like. She said that she, personally, didn’t particularly like Arabs and blacks. I told her it was the same for me.”

The young man who had made advances called Mila a dirty whore, lesbian and racist. “He insulted me a lot in the name of Allah,” Mila recalled. “I said I didn’t like Islam, that it was a religion of hatred.”

Threatening, hateful messages flooded in to Mila’s Instagram account. She posted a second video the same day, to explosive effect.

“I hate religion,” the teenager began, continuing with an expletive-filled attack on the Koran and Islam.

The second video went viral on social media. France Bleu Isère radio reported that it was seen more than a million times. Some viewers recognised Mila and posted her name and address, and the address of her school between Lyon and Grenoble.

Mila received threats of rape and murder. Some said they would wait for her outside her school. “We’re going to find you and slash your throat dirty bitch,” one threatened.

She did not return to school the following Monday. Gendarmes were assigned to guard her and her family. On February 6th, the education minister said a new school had been found for her.

Mila’s supporters adopted the hashtag #JeSuisMila to defend her. Her opponents used #JeNeSuisPasMila. The battle of the hashtags was a throwback to the murder of 12 people by Islamists at Charlie Hebdo magazine by Islamists five years ago. Many thousands of French people expressed solidarity with the slain journalists with the slogan Je Suis Charlie.

Opinion

Voltaire’s 19th-century British biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall summarised the Enlightenment philosopher’s thought as: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

That sentiment was expressed with regard to Charlie Hebdo, and is again in vogue regarding Mila. The consensus seems to be that Mila was stupid, but that France must defend her right to free speech.

The prosecutor for the Isère department opened two investigations, one for “death threats, threats to commit a crime, harrassment and use of personal data with intent to harm” and a second, against Mila, for “provocation to racial hatred”. When he dropped the case against Mila, the prosecutor said she had merely expressed an opinion.

France has recognised the right to blasphemy since 1881. An Ifop poll commissioned by Charlie Hebdo found the country is split 50/50 between those who support that right and those who oppose it.

At least two politicians – justice minister Nicole Belloubet and the former socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal – raised hackles with comments on the case. Belloubet said that “insulting a religion is an attack on freedom of conscience”; Royal said, “I refuse to hold up a disrespectful teenager as a paragon of the freedom of expression.”

Two officials at the French Muslim Council CFCM joined in the fray. The first, Abdallah Zekri, said, “This girl knows very well what she is doing. Who sows the wind harvests the tempest.” Zekri was corrected by the CFCM’s president, Mohammed Moussaoui. “Nothing can justify death threats against a person, no matter how offensive their remarks are,” he said.

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