On January 18, young Mila, a schoolgirl aged 16, was drowned under sexist and lesbophobic insults and other threats, notably death threats, for having criticized Islam on Instagram. No surprise, this unleashed the usual passions regarding the Islamic religion and polarized the debate on secularism and racism. Under the circumstances, it does seem necessary to state – again – that if secularism as a principle guarantees equality between all beliefs, it also grants an inalienable right to criticize them all.
On January 18, 2020, in a small provincial French town, a 16-year-old schoolgirl received death threats on Instagram for having made use of her constitutional right to freedom of expression. One of her contact persons could not tolerate her outright rejection of religions in general and of Islam in particular; after he alerted his friends, they formed a coalition, which swiftly expanded on social media. This coalition was so large and so aggressive that young Mila had to be put under police protection and forced to into hiding. Within a few hours, her right to freedom of movement, her right to education, her right to physical integrity, and her right to life were totally gone.
Media were not swift in reporting about such an unprecedented case; some of them went as far as refusing to mention it, even after the “Mila Case” made the headlines. The government, justice, political notabilities, and known intellectuals either remained silent or spent a few days debating which of the two partners in this unholy live Instagram exchange should be held responsible for this disastrous situation.
In fact, how should this situation be defined? Should it be seen as a legal question, or a problem of civil coexistence, or of morality? Public opinion seemed to shift between dismissing the event as a fight between badly educated teenagers, or fearing a violent reaction as is generally expected from “Muslims”. Rather than focusing on young Mila’s misery, numerous French people saw this event as emblematic of the state of our society in 2020 and as a huge embarrassment.
Two media published all the available information on the beginnings of the crisis, as they were the only ones who interviewed Mila before she moved into hiding. The articles came out on Jan 21 and 22 and, apart from the far-right, for a couple of days, they did not raise much interest.
The most comprehensive is the article by Solveig Mineo, who manages Bellica- Femmes entières – a communal and feminist webzine; the fact that the author is close to Renaud Camus led the Left to look at her findings suspiciously.
The other article was published by Liberation, in the Check News section, and it handled the case with great precaution. Further, the young girl’s problems were totally ignored for several days, as if what she had to say about it could not be trusted. However, by combining these two sources, one can construct a story that takes into account the order in which the different elements of the initial story occurred.
From sexual fiasco to religious punishment
Mila’s page on Instagram is dedicated to her hobby: singing; she wants to become a professional singer. When looking at her profile, her followers cannot ignore that she is a declared lesbian (a rainbow flag is displayed); that she is an atheist; and that she speaks freely about both these aspects of her identity.
On Jan 18, she opens a live conversation with her followers. A girl starts to ask her questions about her sex preferences, as she herself does not like “rebeu” (meaning “Arab”). According to Bellica, both young women may have spoken about “rebeu” guys; but, according to Liberation, it could be of “rebeu” girls. These discrepancies are not really important, as Mila answered that “‘rebeus’ were not to her taste”.
At this stage, a boy stepped into the conversation, apparently trying to seduce Mila in “a heavier and heavier style”. She refused the proposition by “making gentle fun of him”. Her refusal sparked his anger, and he accused the two girls of being “lesbian and racist”. Let’s set the record right from the start, when the judge in Vienne looked into these exchanges, he did not find any item that could lead to legal punishment; for instance, there was no “inciting to racial hatred”.
Later, the boy called on his friends to join him on Mila’s page, and they started insulting her: “Slut,” “dirty French,” “French bitch,” “dirty whore,” “dirty dyke,” “bitch,” “you bitch, you’re dead we’re going to find you, you’re going to die,” “insh’allah you die now you dirty whore.” According to Mila, it is not clear how exactly “the conversation slipped into the field of religion; however I said what I thought about it, … i. e. that I did not like it, that it was a religion of hatred”.
Right away, the boys accused her of blasphemy, and they cursed her: “Bitch, where do you get that from. Our god Allah is the one and only, I hope you’ll burn in hell”, “dirty whore, go and die in hell, fat dirty lesbian whore”. They demanded an apology from her, and she refused to do so. Mila put an end to the conversation, but she was feeling angry, and, shortly after, she came back online and posted a taped video (a story) on her Instagram page: “I hate religion, the Qur’an is a religion of hatred, Islam is shitty. I say what I think, bloody hell. I am not a racist, not at all. How can one be racist with a religion? I said what I believed, this is my right, absolutely, I do not regret. Some people will again get excited, but I don’t give a damn. Your religion is shit, I stick a finger up your god’s arse, thank you goodbye.”
Everybody in France knows what followed: a harassment campaign was launched on social media; it included, on top of the kind of insults and threats already mentioned, additional racist threats: “You believe you can talk about the Arabs, you little babtou (white girl), wallah we’re going to come with our pelo (boys), don’t worry we’re going to get you”; threats of rape associated with lesbophobic insults: “Dirty lesbian asshole, we’re going to fuck you”; death threats: “we’re going to find you and slit your throat, you dirty bitch” “I see you dead, you dirty bitch”, “What – you dirty whore, you fucking spread hate on the Qur’an, insh’allah you’re going to die, you dirty lesbian”, “who the fuck are you to insult our religion, you crazy bitch. Give me your address, I’m going to slit your throat.”
Her whereabouts having been disclosed, some of her school mates warned her that they will wait for her: “She’s in my school, it only takes a minute, and Monday we’re going to fix it,” “you’re at Vinci High School, expect the worst, your mum is going to get fucked,” “you’re dead, we know where you live”. At this stage, her family requested the protection of the police and alerted the school.
A true case for freedom of expression
The fact that this conflict emerged in social media, in this cultural “gutter”; that the protagonists were very young people who speak a brutal language with onomatopoeias slang and rhythms; that it was sparked by a sexual failure – none of this prevents us from seeing that we are here dealing with a conflict pertaining to freedom of expression. Mass culture, with its tweets and its videos, also belongs to the public space of civil society, just as much as prestigious art work and political press.
We may be witnessing a new step in the long history of “blasphemy.” When seduction fails them, young men start invoking a religion that grants them rights over girls’ sexuality – be they lesbians or not; and the girls answer back with “blasphemies” carrying such an extreme violence that it shows that they are defending, truly, their right to life.
The young woman, using the words she used, has clearly deeply insulted Islam. However, one can speculate on the specific nature of her contacts’ religion: What on earth are these pious Muslims doing on the Instagram page of a declared lesbian? Why do they make sexual proposals? What about this religion which allows them to force an unknown young woman into accepting a sexual relation that she does not want, and what about her facing divine punishment for having refused it?
The most problematic is that by condemning the young woman to death as soon as she stated that “Islam is a religion of hatred”, they proved her right. Moreover, if one recalls their abovementioned insults, they also demonstrated that their Islam is racist, xenophobic, and homophobic. These specificities do not seem to scandalize the Muslim authorities who took a stand on this case. One of them, M. Abdallah Zekri, head of the French Council of Muslim Religion (Conseil Français du Culte Musulman), without directly calling for Mila’s assassination, washed his hands off her fate: “She looked for it, she faces it”.
Others called for appeasement but used such banal discourse that they had no chance of convincing the burning champions of the faith. Moreover, not a single religious leader called into question his flock’s highly problematic behavior. Nor were the boys reminded that they were citizens of the French State where the Constitution protects freedom of expression. And finally, they also were not they told that a good Muslim must not defend God’s honor by breaking the law. As for their hurt religious sentiments, it is the common fate of all citizens in a pluralist State: to cure their own ailments with their own remedies, without accusing others of “Islamophobia”, nor calling on public authorities.
Jeanne Favret-Saada is a French social anthropologist. Since 1989, she has been working on accusations of blasphemy in contemporary democracies. She published a book on the Muhammad cartoons case, Comment produire une crise mondiale avec douze petits dessins (How to produce a global crisis with twelve little drawings) in 2007, and Les sensibilités religieuses blessées. Christianismes, blasphèmes et cinéma. 1965-1988 (Wounded religious sensitivities: Christianity, profanity, and cinema. 1965-1988) in 2017.
This article was originally published as “Les droits importuns de la citoyenne Mila” in AOC-Media and is republished in English for Shuddhashar with the permission of AOC-Media in Paris. https://aoc.media/analyse/2020/02/11/les-droits-importuns-de-la-citoyenne-mila/
Translation from French by Marieme Helie Lucas