There was an outpouring of grief and support for free speech and freedom of expression after the 7 January massacre in which 12 people were killed at the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Through the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie (I Am Charlie) on Twitter, cartoonists around the world shared their satirical sketches advocating free press in defiance of the terrorists who tried to silence Charlie Hebdo.
The support for the victims mostly came from people who in all probability would have condemned the offensive cartoons of Prophet Muhammad had there been no annihilation. While the brutal murder of editors cannot be justified, it certainly does not make them heroes of free speech. Therefore, perhaps, it didn’t take long for a riposte to come – #JeNeSuisPasCharlie (I Am Not Charlie) as the manslaughter triggered a debate about free speech and its limits.
Charlie Hebdo was considered a radical left anti-racism magazine. However, many would agree that there’s nothing leftist or radical about insulting exploited and oppressed groups with offensive Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian as well as racist, sexist, and homophobic images, however good the intentions.
Yazan Al-Saadi, a blogger in the Middle East, criticized the editorial lines of Charlie Hebdo:
“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 arguments 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 maintaining 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”.
This definitely raises questions, some very difficult ones. Is this fight for free speech or a fight for the West to continue to be an aggressive chauvinist with immunity? Should the victims be honoured for their courage to draw such insulting cartoons? Who are the proponents of free speech defending here –their right to draw these images, or the images themselves?
Ironically, anti-Islam protesters are exploiting the 7 January murders to expand their already alarming base. The anti-Islamist Pegida movement in Germany has announced that it considers the 7 January attack on Charlie Hebdo as proof that Islamists do not fit in a democratic society since they rely on violence and death as solutions. Pegida has been campaigning against the ‘Islamisation of Europe’ and has held rallies across Germany in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, and it doesn’t seem to end its campaign anytime soon.
— ACSA Collective (@acsacollective) January 8, 2015
Post the Charlie Hebdo shooting, there have been numerous far-right attacks against Muslims in France and Europe. Three grenades were thrown at a mosque in Le Mans, west of Paris. A Muslim prayer hall in Port-la-Nouvelle, southern France, received shots shortly after evening prayers. A blast erupted at L’Imperial, a restaurant affiliated to a mosque in the French village of Villefranche-sur-Saone.
— Daily Mail Online (@MailOnline) January 8, 2015
Anti-Islamists protesters and far-right supporters are not the only ones cashing in on the 7 January tragedy. Governments in Europe are gearing up to push an anti-immigrant legislation.
In Greece, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras blasted the main opposition party Syriza’s immigration stance at an election campaign. “You see what is happening in Europe: Everything is changing dramatically. In France, the Socialist [President Francois] Hollande has sent the army onto the streets. There was a massacre [Charlie Hebdo] in Paris, and here some people are inviting over illegal immigrants and handing out citizenships”.
Le Pen, head of France’s far-right National Front, blamed radical Islam for the Charlie Hebdo shooting. Chief of MI5, United Kingdom’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, has called for new powers to help fight Islamist extremism following the Paris attack. In the wake of bloodshed in France, head of Netherlands’ anti-Islamic Party of Freedom Geert Wilders said that the West was “at war” with Islam and called for tough measures against it. “It’s Islam that causes all problems; it’s Muhammad, the Quran that causes these problems and nothing else. If we don’t do anything, it will happen here,” Wilders added as he demanded an end of all immigration from Muslim countries.
We don’t know what the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists wanted to achieve. We don’t know what the terrorists wanted to achieve. What we do know is 7 January will certainly achieve what none of us would have foreseen. Governments will introduce draconian laws, increasing the surveillance state and persecution of Muslims and immigrants. Movements like Pegida will grow so will ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The West will proclaim solidarity with deeply offensive ‘freedom of expressions’ in future.
Provocative speech incites violence, hurts oppressed groups and religious beliefs, and affects innocent lives. This must not fall in the category of ‘free speech’.