North Africa, West Asia

On Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech, terrorism, and the value of lives

Muslims, especially in France, have nothing to apologize for. This does not mean they shouldn't take a stance and condemn these acts of violence. But they should not apologize.

Yazan al-Saadi
8 January 2015
Footage of US airstrike in Baghdad, 12/7/2008, killing at least 12 civilians, 2 of whom were journalists. Wikileaks.

Footage of US airstrike in Baghdad, 12/7/2008, killing at least 12 civilians, 2 of whom were journalists. Wikileaks.

An attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a controversial French satirical magazine, and the mainstream discourse immediately rehashes the same concepts and talking points about the importance of safeguarding freedom of speech, battling an ill-defined notion of terrorism, and maintaining western values. However, the essential queestion of whose lives have value continues to be disregarded.

There are a few points that need to be addressed about the public discussions after the deaths of at least 12 people in Paris yesterday.

First, and most notable for me, I take issue with the argument made by some that Charlie Hebdo's staff are “heroic” because of their past publishing cartoons and articles that attack and mock Islam. While it is true they also have a history of publishing material that mocks other religions and ideologies, I highly doubt Charlie Hebdo would have been as "courageous" in mocking Judaism with the same robustness they do in mocking Islam, for example. In fact, looking at its history, the magazine fired one of its cartoonists in 2008 over a satirical statement that it argued was ‘anti-semitic’.

There is a fine line between satire and offensive material that Charlie Hebdo wilfully dances around. I think much of their material is offensive, Islamophobic (and anti-Semitic, as well as racist, sexist, and homophobic), and the argument that it is "freedom of speech" is a very crude way to allow offensive material to be published. “Freedom of speech” gets thrown around quite easily during events like yesterday's, but serious public debate about the parameters and nature of “freedom of speech” are few and far between.

I see nothing heroic about a bunch of elite white writers and artists picking on the identities and beliefs of minorities. Satire is supposed to be an act that punches up to power, and not down to the weak. The argument for “freedom of speech” and freedom of the press should not, and must not, place aside the question and understanding of privileges and differing power dynamics that are at work. By acknowledging and understanding that, perhaps we can all work to refine and develop a notion of freedoms that is truly universal and conscious of its role and duties. What is common today is that freedom of speech and freedom of press is brought up to espouse Islamophobic sentiments, and maintain power, but is ignored when facing issues of immigrant rights at home or wars fought abroad. In other words, “freedom of speech” is already restricted in many ways.

Muslim communities, immigrants, and "others" will pay dearly, and already are in France and elsewhere. French (and European) politics will sway more to the right. French support of repressive states and its military 'adventures' in North Africa and West Asia will continue.

The knee-jerk romanticizing and mythologizing of victims, particularly if the perpetrators are Black, Brown, or Muslim, that occurs after such acts, allows the perpetuation of this cycle of violence. Anyone who dares to mention facts, make critical assessments, or initiate a thoughtful debate is quickly chastised, and accused of siding with “terrorists” which, in effect, silences them. Yet, it is rare for free speech advocates to come to the aid of those raising serious questions; instead, this freedom of speech is used, time and again, to vilify such individuals.

After the launch of the American “Global War on Terror” 14 years ago, the level of the debate has stagnated as a righteous binary, and absolutist statements reign supreme. Much needed nuance, contexts, and depth are quickly swept aside.

This leads to the second point.

I find it interesting how there is an almost immediate expectation that Muslims apologize and take responsibility for the horrible attack on Charlie Hebdo. This is interesting because not once is there an equal expectation in regards to westerners (shall say Christian or Jewish?) to take responsibility or apologize for the killing of Al-Jazeera's staff by US forces in Iraq (as well as a number of other Arab journalists later on during that horrendous war) or the killing of tens of Palestinian journalists by the Zionist forces over the past decade. This is never expected, nor demanded, or even ever considered by the mainstream press.

But Muslims, especially in France, have nothing to apologize for. This does not mean they shouldn't take a stance and condemn these acts of violence as individuals. Collectively, however, apologizing implies responsibility – one that is not theirs to bear.

The only responsibility "Muslims" (whatever that means) have is to confront forces of repression, whether internal or external, and that does not mean apologizing for being a Muslim. And yes, I do think, that there is a lot that individuals within Muslim communities should and can do in combating fundamentalism and narrow-thinking, but that does not mean they should be collectively punished, harassed, mocked or immediately grovel when events like yesterday’s occur.

I make the same argument for any group; just like we shouldn't attack or punish all Jews for the brutal crimes of Zionism, or all Christians because of the horrors of colonialism, and the same holds true for Muslims. This is an important distinction that fundamentalists, of varying stripes, do not make and we must.

In fact, I argue that the French state has the largest share of the blame for:

a) Not creating a system that allows certain communities to assimilate easily into society. I'm talking politically, socially, and economically;

b) Pursuing a foreign policy that is destructive of other societies, and furthers repression;

c) Not coming to full terms, acknowledging, and apologizing for a history of military occupation and intervention in the North African and West Asian region (as well as elsewhere in the world). This is a history that continues to shape actions, ideas, and positions today, and has yet to be adequately confronted within French society;

d) Being supportive and part of the political support of states like Saudi Arabia (the beating heart of ferocious Islamic fundamentalist tenets) and Israel (the nation of Zionism, a racist and violent ideology, born out of ethnic cleansing and continued incremental genocide).

We need to understand context. We need to understand history. We need to understand power dynamics and inequalities.

Terrorism, or as I define it, political violence, and indeed most violence, does not happen in a vacuum, and without understanding the historical and contemporary strands, we will be dragged deeper into a cycle of violence, counter-violence, and destruction. We need to understand that these men who committed these acts are not “foreign entities” but most likely are a product of French society, a society that does not make integration easy for everyone.

Much of the reaction yesterday and today calls for blood. It is a position that is reactionary.

And even then, it's interesting how it seems that one society's call for blood is more acceptable than another's...

And we arrive to one last point, and this is about the value of lives. I have witnessed on social media and on news agencies a flurry of articles, statements, and dismay about the lives lost in Paris. Twelve people have died, people are horrified, and rightly so.

Yet, on the same day, a car bomb exploded in Sanaa, Yemen, killing at least 38 people. At least nine people, including two children, have died in attacks in Afghanistan, and an unknown number of dead as the violence rages in Syria and Iraq.

What is true today, and has been true for a while, is that 'white' lives matter more. It garners more of an emotional reaction. It horrifies, and causes dismay, shock, and tears. Their faces and names will be etched in collective memory. Politicians will read eloquent, heart-felt eulogies.

Black and Brown misery and deaths, on the other hand, have become so normalized, so accepted, so routine. They are numbers, footnotes, and statistics. There was no personalized video message by US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in the language of the victims, that offered sadness over the killing of seven pro-Syrian regime journalists after gunmen attacked their offices in June 2012. There were and are no Twitter hashtags for the dead civilians who were killed by French airstrikes during their military adventures in Mali, North Africa, and elsewhere. No one paid attention to the (terrorist?) bombing of the Colorado Springs offices of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) on January 6.

Lives are simply not equal. We must ask ourselves why? To quote the American philosopher Judith Butler, “Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, What makes for a grievable life?”

These are key questions that are necessary and the answers can help us move on collectively, and the answers, I think, offer more solutions that simply hunting down and killing “terrorists.”


This article is jointly published with Al-Akhbar English

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