Charlie Hebdo & Shared Security in an Unequal World

There can never be any justification for the Charlie Hebdo attack, which killed 12 people on January 7. As a society, we have already answered that question. However, viewing these events from a perspective of shared security, an entirely separate set of questions remain unanswered:

Can we defend the right to free speech without condoning the content? Is the right to freedom of speech applicable to all, or denied to some? How can countries promote national security while ensuring the security of some at the expense of others? And how can we tackle the political and social challenge at hand – of both religious and state sponsored violence – when those who point out the history of marginalized Muslim communities in France are accused of exonerating the attackers?

Following the Charlie Hebdo attack, people around the world galavanized in the defense of free speech. A common illustration showed a pencil overcoming a sword, and the hashtag #JeSuisCharlieHebdo swept across the twitter feeds; it was clear that defending the right of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists was not enough, but the content itself needed to be disseminated and celebrated. However, it is entirely possible to defend the right to free speech without condoning the content. As a New Yorker article titled, ‘Unmournable Bodies’ states:

“It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal. The A.C.L.U. got it right in defending a neo-Nazi group that, in 1978, sought to march through Skokie, Illinois. The extreme offensiveness of the marchers, absent a particular threat of violence, was not and should not be illegal. But no sensible person takes a defense of those First Amendment rights as a defense of Nazi beliefs.”

Mainstream media came down hard upon Islamic groups as well as Muslim majority states using violence to strangle free speech. However, the censorship within Western countries and the violence of non-Muslim groups evades such pervasive media scrutiny. A wholly different group of ‘blasphemors’, not universally celebrated include Edward Snowden, a man in exile for revealing information about US mass surveillance, Chelsea Manning, serving a 35 year sentence for her role in Wikileaks, and John Kiriakou, the whistleblower exposing the CIA’s torture regime. Furthermore, certain Western countries have been prosecuting Muslims for their free speech. According to the Intercept:

“Muslims were imprisoned for many years in the U.S. for things like translating and posting “extremist” videos to the internet, writing scholarly articles in defense of Palestinian groups and expressing harsh criticism of Israel, and even including a Hezbollah channel in a cable package. Not all online “hate speech” or advocacy of violence is treated equally. It is, for instance, extremely difficult to imagine that Facebook users who sanction violence by the UK in Iraq and Afghanistan, or who spew anti-Muslim animus, or who call for and celebrate the deaths of Gazans, would be similarly prosecuted.”

Although Charlie Hebdo is seen as an ‘equal opportunity offender’, many argue that its satire was increasingly targeted towards France’s most vulnerable groups. Historically, satire has been directed against privilege, power and the ruling class – so in a deeply unequal world, who is served when satire ‘punches down’?  The novelist Saladin Ahmed articulates:

“In a field dominated by privileged voices, it’s not enough to say, ‘Mock everyone!’ In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone ends up serving the powerful. And in the context of brutal inequality, it is worth at least asking what preexisting injuries we are adding insults to. Satire might be better served by an honest reckoning of whose voices we hear and don’t hear.”

While the attention of the world was on the heinous attacks on Charlie Hebdo, we were largely ignoring acts of carnage in other parts of the world, including the killings in Mexico, the hundreds of children killed in Gaza by Israel last year, the civilian deaths caused by US drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen, and the chaos following the US intervention in Libya. While we prayed for the staff of Charlie Hebdo, other slayed victims were deemed ‘unmournable’. As the New Yorker article asserts:

“Even when we rightly condemn criminals who claim to act in the name of Islam, little of our grief is extended to the numerous Muslim victims of their attacks, whether in Yemen or Nigeria—in both of which there were deadly massacres this month, or in Saudi Arabia, where, among many violations of human rights, the punishment for journalists who “insult Islam” is flogging. We should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others. But that incontestability, that unmournability, just as much as the massacre in Paris, is the clear and present danger to our collective liberté.”

This post was written by Jasveen Bindra, who serves as the Shared Security Fellow with the Office of Public Policy & Advocacy in Washington, DC.

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