Je Suis Charlie? Many Russians say 'nyet.'

Both the Kremlin and the Russian public condemn the attacks last week on Charlie Hebdo. But they say that the magazine's mockery of Islam was just as unacceptable, and should have been censored by authorities.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP
French and European Union flags fly half-staff over the French Embassy in Moscow last week. Though Russians are sympathetic to France over the Charlie Hebdo attacks, many are less so to sentiment of 'Je Suis Charlie,' or 'I am Charlie,' that French have shown in the aftermath. The magazine's attacks on Islam, Russians say, are just as unacceptable.

In condemning the murderous extremism behind the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris last week, Russians from the Kremlin down appear to be on the same page as their Western counterparts.

But when it comes to identifying with the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag, indicating support for unrestricted free speech? Not so much, it seems.

"Murder is a crime, no doubt about that. But there are some sacred things that should never be mocked, and that includes religion," says Natalia Mamontova, a Moscow-area customs broker and a devout Orthodox Christian.

That ambivalence hints at a key difference between Russian political culture and the far more permissive attitudes in the West. Though a few Russian liberals have weighed in to insist that freedom of speech should be an absolute value, most share Mamantova's opinion that "sacred" things should be untouchable, and that consequences should fall hard on those who step over the line. 

When two young women from the punk group Pussy Riot were handed two-year prison sentences by a Russian court in 2012 for a "blasphemous" performance in a Moscow cathedral, polls showed that a majority of Russians agreed with the punishment.

"On one hand, most Russians have zero sympathy for Islamists, or terrorism in any form," says Nikolai Petrov, a political science professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "On the other, they do not share European values when it comes to unrestricted freedom of expression. Most believe speech should be mediated by official filters, such as government and church. Many think that the conflict between traditional values and what they perceive as an anything-goes culture in the West is the source of social disorder."

Sympathy for France, but not for Charlie

Russia's minority Muslim community, which makes up about 20 percent of the population, has been the most vocal in slamming what they see as Western endorsement of the allegedly Islamophobic cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo, and defiantly re-published by several Western newspapers following last week's massacre.

The Russian Council of Mufties, comprised of officially endorsed Muslim leaders, issued a statement this week that renounced terrorism, but said of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists that "it's possible that the sin of provocation is no less dangerous for keeping the peace in today's world than the sins committed by those who react to such provocations.... To insult the feelings of believers is unacceptable, as unacceptable as extremism, or any attempt on innocent lives."

The flamboyant pro-Moscow leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, went a step further and promised, on his Instagram account Wednesday, to bring half a million Chechens into the streets next Monday "to publicly express their attitude to the immorality of the French magazine writers and those forces that are pushing them to [insult the Prophet]."

Mr. Kadyrov, placed in power by Russian forces after two bitter wars to put down Chechen separatism, has introduced Sharia law in the tiny, mainly Muslim republic – in defiance of the Russian constitution – including tough measures to punish women who defy public dress codes.

President Vladimir Putin placed two phone calls last week to French President François Hollande to express condolences, and to press the Kremlin line that, whatever differences Russia has with the West, it should unite against such terrorism. But he declined to attend Sunday's huge Paris solidarity rally, instead sending Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

'Why is this a one-way street?'

But some Russians voice resentment against what they say is a Western "double standard" on terrorism.

"Of course the French tragedy was met by sympathy from all walks of life in Russia. We know what terrorism is from agonizing experience," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center of Political Information in Moscow. "We recently had a big terrorist attack in Chechnya. So, many Russians are asking, why is this a one-way street?"

Mr. Mukhin complains that many Western commentators still refer to Islamist terrorists who attack Russia as "rebels." 

For the Kremlin, which has positioned itself as a defender of traditional values against Western permissiveness, there seems little reason to worry over the fallout of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Russia.

"Our authorities were careful to demonstrate their solidarity with the French victims in a very cool and formal way," says Nikolai Svanidze, a prominent Russian TV commentator. "That's probably because they know, and are fine with, the prevailing social mood."

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