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Konrad Yakabuski

Konrad Yakabuski

KONRAD YAKABUSKI

The perils of counterterror overreach Add to ...

How far is too far in the name of preventing terrorism? At what point does curtailing our freedoms amount to ceding ground to the very fundamentalists who hate our freedoms?

This is no longer an abstract debate waged among academics discussing hypotheticals. It’s now our reality as police and intelligence agencies employ, or are poised to gain, new powers to stop terrorist acts. In the tug-of-war between freedom and security, security seems to be winning.

Canadians were already knee-deep in this debate before last fall’s attacks on soldiers in Ottawa and Quebec by radicalized lone wolves. But the Harper government’s new proposal to criminalize the “promotion” of terrorism ups the ante in the freedom-security tradeoff.

We’re pretty sure that the new law will not mean hauling eight-year-olds down to the police station for voicing schoolyard sympathy with jihadis. Yet that’s the kind of overreach French authorities have displayed after the adoption of a new anti-terror law in that country.

France’s new law, enacted in November, predates January’s attack on journalists at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the deadly hostage-taking at a kosher supermarket in Paris. But it’s only in the wake of those incidents that the new law’s sweeping powers can be appreciated.

The law makes it a crime to “make a public apology” for acts of terrorism. Such crimes carry a maximum prison sentence of five years, but the sentence can be bumped up to seven years for those who commit their crime on the Internet.

It’s under this law that Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, France’s most controversial humorist, was arrested last month after tweeting that he felt like “Charlie Coulibaly” in an apparent nod to both the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan supporting free speech and supermarket hostage-taker and Islamic State sympathizer Amedy Coulibaly. (Dieudonné, as he is known, goes to trial this week.)

In the days following the Paris attacks, more than 100 people were arrested across France for expressing support or sympathy for the attackers. A 28-year-old man of Tunisian descent got six months in prison for shouting his opinion while passing a police station.

The irony of prosecuting people for expressing their (albeit antisocial) opinions, at the same time that millions were marching in support of freedom of expression, seemed to have been lost on the French. The fact that the Charlie Hebdo caricatures were profoundly offensive to the country’s millions of practising Muslims was given almost no consideration, laying bare the seemingly unbridgeable divide between France’s non-Muslim majority and its Muslim minority.

What one anti-discrimination group called “collective hysteria” reached a new high last week when an eight-year-old Muslim boy in Nice was denounced to police by his teacher for saying he was “with the terrorists” and that “the journalists deserved to die.” The boy and his father were taken in for questioning. The father insisted that his son was not spouting parental views.

Since the attacks, there have been more than 200 similar outbursts among students, mostly Muslim teenagers protesting during a new mandatory moment of silence in public schools in memory of the January terror victims. The French government’s response to this backlash from minority students is a 250-million-euro plan to enhance the teaching of “the values of the Republic” in public schools.

The measures also include designating Dec. 9 as an new official “Day of Secularism” in honour of the 1905 law enshrining the separation of church and state. The same law guarantees freedom of religion, but that aspect gets short shrift from the French establishment and opinion-makers, for whom the law is primarily a guarantee of freedom from religion.

If France was really being true to its republican values, however, it would be celebrating its pluralism after the attacks. The reason French law bans the collection of census data on race, ethnicity and religion is not because the state is supposed to be officially blind to such distinctions; at its origin, the law was meant to shield minorities from discrimination.

Faced with a growing Muslim minority and what Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently called a “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid,” France’s adherence to its own values is being challenged. Many French believe Islam and republicanism are incompatible. But what’s really incompatible are republicanism and anti-terror laws that criminalize unrepublican opinions.

Canada is facing largely the same challenge as France. Let’s hope we strike a better balance.

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Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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