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I am not Charlie

The Danish cartoons were assembled to humiliate a vulnerable minority. In subsequent debates, the idea of freedom of speech has been subverted to undermine the right of Muslims to speak up on their own behalf.

 Solidarity in Agen, France. Solidarity in Agen, France. Clovis Gauzy/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The killings across Paris are sad beyond saying, and it is right that any surviving perpetrators meet the full force of the law. All the same, the justified outrage is accompanied by widespread acceptance of hate speech as a defence of freedom of expression. In European societies speech is (for the most part) free. Yet nigh on every group previously subject to discrimination and public harassment — women, homosexuals, people of other races, Jews, the Irish — are allowed to say, “Respect us, please. You have to respect us.”

The pleas are recognised as valid, and in general are observed, by Jyllands-Posten, in part, dare I say it, even by Charlie Hebdo. It is a simple matter. Eliciting respect — requesting, demanding, commanding it — falls under freedom of expression. Groups voicing these pleas are not accused of wanting censorship, naturally enough.

Unless they are Muslims, of course. Once Muslims seek a modicum of respect, the cry of censorship is raised by some, to justify how the right to offend them is taken up in ways that the right to offend women, gays, Jews, Africans, or Gascons is not. The publishers of demeaning cartoons and their defenders are in effect telling Muslims, "For the sake of freedom of expression, watch what you say, or you will end up censoring me." The idea of freedom of speech can then be subverted to undermine the right of Muslims to speak up on their own behalf. The point is overlooked, but if registered has the force to reframe the debate.

We need to recognise hate speech when we see it. The Jyllands-Posten cartoons were not individually and spontaneously coined in response to current affairs. Cartoonists were invited to riff on a pre-established theme, and the cartoons assembled to humiliate a vulnerable minority. They amounted to hate speech in a style not seen in Europe since Goebbels. The anti-Semitic German cartoons of the thirties give the lie to the idea that freedom of expression has a special obligation to protect the most ribald and scurrilous opinions. If that were so, Goebbels was a promoter of free speech. (He just failed to make the connection.)

We need to be able to name hate speech when it turns up. Yet under the cloak of freedom of speech, the cartoons were held to be exempt from the force of any countervailing opinion or condemnation. It is no longer, as the saying went, “Publish and be damned.” It is, “Publish and find protection.” As though freedom of expression was in the business of shielding one remark or opinion from another, not in the business of ensuring that rejoinders and objections are aired. 

Most of us in liberal democracies have come to maturity with the rights and respect for gay people more or less in place. But, to achieve this, did homosexuals endure the injustices they suffered for the sake of freedom of expression, so that ridicule and discrimination could carry on unfettered? Or did some among them use freedom of expression to speak out loudly and clearly to enforce respect and put an end to offensive turns of phrase? Freedom of speech allows utterances to exert pressure on each other, reciprocally altering their status. It used to be respectable to say, “Gays are an affront to God and to man.” It is now offensive gibberish. This does not mean that gays are censoring us. Yet the misconception that Muslims are out to censor us when they plead for respect is now mainstream across western Europe.

We need to remind ourselves that many Muslims experience genuine censorship — censorship by the state — under western client regimes, and have done so for a long time. After the CIA-led coup against Mossadeq in 1953, the complicity of the agency in the Shah’s torture and killings, as well as the US cash transfers to his regime — akin to the massive subsidy of Egyptian juntas —, it has been clear that the west pays scant regard to the rights and freedoms of Muslims. For many Muslims in the west, there must be a galling sense of deja vu now that a hypocrisy which used to be reserved for export has been brought back home. 

A fresh openDemocracy internet piece defends Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Muslim campaign with reference to the magazine’s stand against the Front National. This slots into a prevailing discourse in which Islam is not properly seen as a religion and Muslims are not seen as individuals with rights. In Houellebecq’s recent novel, Islam is equated with an ideology and the varied communities of Muslims are conflated with a political party with a programme. The distortion is worryingly close to the ways in which Jews were dehumanised in Germany before the war. 

Amid the sorrow, we need to acknowledge that the guns were not trained on free speech as such, but on hate speech. It makes the atrocity no less heinous and it is not said in mitigation. The punishment should be no less severe. My grief for lives cut short is unabridged. I rage at the fanatics and their cruelty. I loathe them for their antisemitism. But I will not be pushed to be Charlie. I will not let terrorism force me to embrace a misguided campaign of humiliation against people who are not terrorists and never will be. 

In the aftermath the French people are being asked to band together. Who is to be together — against whom? Since the publication of the cartoons, we have been witnessing the construction of a narrative open to some bleak endings. Not just civil discourse but civil liberties are taking a beating as far as Muslims are concerned.

There are the US-directed horrors of Guantamo, Bagram, the “enhanced” interrogation program, the drone strikes, all backed by secret judicial memos. There is, or was, a nearly unpublicized gulag which in 2008 was reported to be holding a population of twenty six thousand victims. On home soil, the US is resorting to closed trial hearings and departing from principles of open justice. The (to all appearances) innocent friend of a terrorist is shot and killed in his own home during questioning. A German man is kidnapped, tortured, and placed back on the street, the result of mistaken identity.

In the UK, people are jailed for Facebook postings. University teachers are instructed to snitch on their students. Secret trials are on the statute book. Large, but private settlements are made for complicity in rendition and torture. People have been detained for years on the word of the Home Secretary, a practice at last deemed illegal by the Supreme Court. France is condemned at the Hague for torturing a French Muslim. Sweden allows two residents to be kidnapped and spirited away for torture. In Germany, there are well attended street demonstrations against Islam. 

These widely sourced activities target Muslims exclusively and with impunity. Any or all of it might have made good targets for satire, but the satirists are otherwise minded. A distasteful side to Jyllands-Posten’s and Charlie Hebdo’s journalism is the pretence to be kicking up at oppressors, when instead kicking down at vulnerable and disempowered communities. With nearly unlimited access to self-expression in a widely disseminated medium, the satirists raise the phantom of censorship. The people they satirise are nearly voiceless.

It may be time to ask what sort of future we want to envisage for Muslims in the west. Does David Cameron ask himself this question? Does Marine Le Pen? Did the editors of Charlie Hebdo? Will there be a larger role for the thought police? Will an ever wider circle of Muslim leaders be imprisoned or sent into exile? Are there, eventually, to be mass deportations, of the sort carried out against Roma by Sarkozy? People say, “It will not happen, not in Europe, not today.” But it just did, with nary a whisper of protest. Are there to be searchlights? Shouting, beatings, armed guards? Are there to be camps? “Not in the west”, you say. Is Guantanamo in the west?  

Hate speech promulgates and provokes hatred. It is the only freedom served. The notion that it is necessary to offend Muslims to uphold free speech is part of a sustained refusal to include them in public discourse on equal terms, or to take their own conception of who they are into consideration when they are depicted, written about, encounter the law or are threatened by the state use of force.

With free speech as one pretext, Muslims are being jostled to a bad place in our culture: into the most-hated corner. A great many people need to pull back and check their values. This has nothing to do with censorship, but with complicity. Muslims are conceived as standing in the way of rights we have, without any thought given to the rights they have. Even as we keep a close watch on ourselves, someone is going to start casting about for solutions. 


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