Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech, and Islamophobia

by Carrie Levesque

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I do not think that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo are acceptable or justified in any way, shape or form. It is always reprehensible to respond to verbal or written attacks, real or perceived, with physical violence. Period.

But the range of responses to these attacks has made me ask myself what the kind of journalism published in Charlie Hebdo contributes to the struggle against Islamic extremism, and what impact this kind of speech has on how we as a culture talk about and educate ourselves about these issues.

My intent here is not to shame or blame the victims. I am simply asking us to consider this: Going forward in this conflict of global proportions, how can we sanction reprehensible words and actions (like terrorist acts) in a forceful and effective way, without either escalating the tensions with offensive content or compromising our right to freedom of expression?

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My intent is not to criticize Charlie Hebdo. This conflict is much, much bigger than Charlie Hebdo. It is about each one of ushow we talk, how we think, and our willingness to see and respect others’ points of view.

We have to first look beyond recent headline-grabbing bombings and massacres and acknowledge there isand has long beenviolence on both sides. In the Western media, we treat Islamist extremist aggression as one-sided. As if all the world’s Muslims just woke up one day and decided they “hated our freedoms.” However, if we fail to acknowledge the centuries of Western violence, colonialism and exploitation that have shaped the world as it is today, and that validate extremists’ claims of injustice and persecution, we cannot hope to truly understand the problem or address the violence.

We have to secondly believe that we do have the power to address the violence. Most of usMuslims and non-Muslims alikefeel fairly powerless to stop extremists’ attacksor our government’s latest misguided war in another predominantly Muslim land. But before young Muslim recruits pick up guns or sign up for flight school, before we choose to effectively ignore reports of the Other’s devastation after a poorly-placed shelling by simply sighing and reaching for the clicker to see what else is on, there are words that shape those responses. There are words, media, that encourage us to see the other side as less than human. Words are weaponsof peace or of warthat we all can use.

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Certainly, both sides exploit media to attack the other and spread hate, intolerance and violence. In Inside Terrorism, a text we study in MLS 620: Dangerous Minds: Terrorism, Political Violence, and Radical Orthodoxies, author Bruce Hoffman meticulously categorizes the many ways terrorist groups use media to recruit, coerce and terrorize outside their ranks, and to strengthen morale or dampen dissent within. Unfortunately, extremists’ use of media and language is something we cannot really control.

But what about our own?

The violence that has gripped Paris in the last week has been horrific. But for me, no less chilling is the response I see across Europe attacking Muslims and “the Muslim world” indiscriminately, shifting focus from the real problem of extreme Islamist fundamentalism. The anti-immigration movements’ fears about the “Islamicization” of Europe strike me as racist fabrications, but for many, the media of the far right have them convinced they are real. As in the days of Nazi Germany (or 1990s Yugoslavia or Rwanda), sometimes propaganda is all it takes.

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In the US, too, people rarely distinguish between Muslims and Muslim extremists. Our media make sweeping generalizations daily about “the Muslim world,” as if it consisted of one cultureone primitive, intolerant, bloodthirsty, anti-Western people. Many viewers don’t have much problem with this: It conforms to what they think already or they don’t have (and don’t take the time to find) access to more carefully vetted information. Not surprising then that such prejudices trickle down to the next generation, made insecure by the mess that is the world today.

A friend here was telling me recently that a couple of months ago, her 7-year-old daughter said at breakfast, innocently, apropos of nothing, “I hate Muslims.” My friend struggled to stay composed as she asked, as casually as she could, “Why do you say that?” Her daughter sensed she’d said something wrong and was embarrassed and confused. She confessed it was just something she’d heard, that Muslims were bad. My friend explained that some Muslims are bad, just like some people in every group of people are bad. She mentioned some recent events that may have caused people around her to say something unfortunate like that.

My friend reminded her daughter that two families among their family’s closest friends are Muslim, people her daughter loves and trusts like family. They’d had discussions in the past about their friends’ faith, why one friend wears a head scarf, why neither family eats pork. But, my friend now understood, her daughter didn’t see their friends as Muslims. Was part of her blindness to their faith an effect of this idea she’d gotten about what or who Muslims are? Their friends aren’t terrorists or refugees living off “our oil money” (another racist attitude shared by many in Norway as in France). How could they be Muslims?

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The prejudices we ourselves carry today doom us to a present full of violence.

What we are teaching our children dooms them to continue these conflicts into the future.

The things we say, write, and draw matter. They make impacts beyond our intentions. One commentator seeking to put some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in context said, “Just because we think it offensive and we are not free enough to publish this doesn’t mean it has the intent we ascribe to it, or that in France people should also lack the freedom to publish it. I won’t deny it’s mean and utterly tasteless, but as with much American comedy content, people choose to consume it or they don’t, and they well know what they’re getting” (source).

I have two problems with this. First, we and our children are exposed to media everywhere. What we consume is only sometimes a conscious choice. Second, it is a rather naïve and problematic assumption that just because some individuals don’t “choose to consume” something, that that something has no effect on the culture at large and that those individuals won’t feel the effects of that something indirectly (for example, Muslims experiencing the fallout of anti-Muslim attitudes fomented by anti-Muslim texts, written or graphic).

When we tolerate uncareful speech about Muslims, whether from media that are just careless or that are aggressively offensive, we perpetuate and condone harmful attitudes toward Muslims in the same insidious way we have for generations in our own country with African-Americans and other minorities. We insist we’re not racist because of course we make exceptions for individuals: “Oh, but I’m not talking about you. You’re not that kind of black person/gay/Jew/Muslim.” But such excuses were not convincing then, and they are not convincing now.

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When we make offensive jokes or cartoons, we normalize these words, ideas and images; we continuously push the line of what is allowed into darker territory. Protecting this kind of speech at the expense of privileging or promoting a culture that insists on respect for others’ beliefs often escalates the prejudice, misunderstanding, alienation and violence. At the same time that we lament how nothing’s sacred anymore and how all is irony, we prize our right to mock what is sacred to the Other in the crudest, basest terms.

In conclusion, my thinking falls in line with Hoffman, our terrorism expert from MLS 620, who suggests that religious terrorism can never be completely eradicated, but that we can try to ameliorate the underlying causes of religious terrorism, and its violent manifestations, through creative solutions that build bridges rather than exacerbate divisions. He points to how the War on Terror and our heavy-handed foreign policy have only worked to support extremists’ portrayal of Islam under siege. The same, I would argue, can be said for much of what I see and hear in the media. What are we fighting? Islamic extremism or Islam? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

I think we all have to decide what we consider the most serious threat to our world, whether that’s racism, threats to free speech, terrorism, or something else.  For me, it’s racism.  That’s what I want to protect my children from most.  If we work to combat racism, to teach everyone to respect and value all other human beings equally, I think all the other problems will eventually take care of themselves.

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