01/15/2015 12:44 EST | Updated 03/18/2015 05:59 EDT

Where Does Freedom of Speech End and Hate Speech Begin?

AFP via Getty Images
French controversial humorist Dieudonne speaks during a press conference ahead of his show on March 25, 2009 in Brussels, Belgium. Members of the Jewish community held demonstrations in front of the theater in central Brussels against his show. In the 90's, Dieudonne Mbala Mbala had a Jewish partner, and together they pushed the boundaries of stand-up, tackling subjects such as racism and stereotyping. More recently Dieudonné's routines have taken on an anti-Semitic tone. The comic, who is multi-racial, has allied himself with the French far right National Front party of Jean-Marie Le Pen. AFP PHOTO / BELGA PHOTO / DIDIER JOURET ***belgium out*** (Photo credit should read Didier Jouret/AFP/Getty Images)

Yesterday, three-million copies of the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, sold out immediately after going on sale. People waited hours in line to buy a copy of the magazine, which normally sells 60,000 copies each week. Canadians will have to wait until tomorrow to purchase one here, but already copies of the first post-massacre edition, known as the "survivors edition," are selling for several thousand dollars online.

Like everyone else, I watched in horror as the events in and around Paris unfolded last week. Unlike many other people, however, my first thought wasn't about how the terror attacks were an assault on our democratic freedoms. I listened to the endless debates, hand wringing, and the pleas to reprint the magazine's cartoons, that are offensive to the Muslim religion, in the name of freedom of expression; and along with grieving for the tragic loss of 17 innocent lives, I worried for the fate of France's two-million Muslims.

According to the Central Council of Muslims in France, since last week's attacks against Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris, there have been more than 50 violent acts against French Muslims, including 21 shootings targeting Muslim institutions, such as mosques.

Within two days after the million-plus march in Paris in support of Charlie Hebdo and freedom of expression, 54 people in France had been arrested for "hate speech or other acts insulting religious faiths, or for cheering the men who carried out the attacks." Included in the arrests was a controversial Muslim comic, Dieudonné, who is known for his anti-Semitic views.

It seems the irony of this situation was lost on the marchers as well as other supporters of Charlie Hebdo's right to print cartoons offensive to Muslims, including George Clooney, who wore a Je Suis Charlie button, to the Golden Globe awards last Sunday. There were no demonstrations in support of those who were arrested for the right to express their opinions, no matter how offensive these views may be to people. Nor were there any words of solidarity from Mr. Clooney who was at the Golden Globes to accept a lifetime achievement award for his humanitarian work, and who gave a shout-out to the magazine and the right to free speech in his acceptance speech.

I couldn't help but puzzle over why it's called satire and freedom of expression to demean sacred tenets of the Muslim religion in cartoons on the cover of a magazine on the one hand, but an offensive Facebook posting mocking the Je Suis Charlie slogan by Dieudonné got him arrested on the other hand.

As I was mulling over what all this meant, a friend challenged me, "when does freedom of expression end and hate speech begin?" It's an important question to ask in light of the events of last week. Every country draws these lines differently in their laws, but freedom of expression tends to be easier to assert when you're part of a majority and the religion of the minority you're mocking tends to be economically and politically marginalized.

None of this takes away from the fact that the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office and on the kosher supermarket were acts of terror -- brutal assaults on what it means to live in a civilized world. But it must get tiring for the Muslims of France to be constantly on the defensive. I like the perspective Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the Jewish Magazine Tikkun, gives from his perch as a man of faith: "the media never considers how it would feel to be Muslim and to encounter a humor magazine that ridiculed the one thing that gives them some sense of community and higher purpose, namely Mohammed and the religion he founded."

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, the architect of last year's 51-day bombing campaign on the besieged people of Gaza, was front and centre at last weekend's rally in Paris offering burial in Israel to the Jewish victims of the attacks and encouraging France's half-million-strong Jewish community to make aliyah (literally the 'act of going up', or in this case, immigrating to Israel). He told them France was no longer safe for them. During those 51 days, 2,104 Palestinians were killed, the majority of whom were innocent men, women and children. [Ed. note: The UN cites 70-75% of those killed were civilians, however, Israel claims that 50.2-55% were civilians. The exact figure is in contention.]

Instead of a Je Suis Charlie button, I think I'll make one that says Je Suis Lassana Bathily. The Muslim employee at the kosher supermarket that was attacked, risked his own life to save seven Jewish shoppers from certain slaughter. An act for which he was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed by police but then managed to play a vital role in helping them end the crisis. His sheer courage and humanity in the face of such brutality, his unwillingness to make distinctions between people of different faiths remind me of what really is the message to be gained from the unspeakable carnage in France. That's why I'm declaring myself, Je Suis Lassana Bathil. I hope you will join me.


Je suis Charlie