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Hypocrisy of Free Speech

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By the powerful, for the powerful, against the powerless

There is no justification for murdering journalists or satirists. No degree of offence legitimizes the use of violence. The deaths of the journalists should be mourned for that particular reason, but no more so than the two officers or the maintenance man who were also killed in the tragic shootings. Therefore, when we refer to this sensitive subject we must clearly distinguish between Charlie Hebdo, the magazine and Charlie Hebdo, the victims.

It is crucial that we maintain some principles such as the freedom of expression, since the right is, by any means, essential to every individual. As much as we disagree with one another, this fundamental right should be upheld.

The problem however arises when this right is abused and the powerless minorities in an already toxic environment are affected by it. Charlie Hebdo was stigmatizing Muslims and, in the West today, there is an apparent normalization and standardization of this discourse. In fact, political parties, in particular far right groups, are ‘Islamizing’ every issue.

After the tragic events, we saw some of the hypocritical world leaders march for the same free speech which they often oppress. The King of Jordan, who sentenced a Palestinian Journalist to 15 years in prison last year; Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose forces killed 17 journalists in Gaza last year; Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Shoukry, who detained Al Jazeera staff as well as detaining Journalist Shawkan. Surely, if the UK government was any better and truly upholds absolute free speech it would not have forced the Guardian to destroy the hard disk containing the Snowden files either.

It is interesting that Charlie Hebdo claims to be ‘anti-establishment.’ If this is so, then it clearly has failed to challenge the state’s indisputably increasing restrictions on the basic liberties of French minorities. The magazine’s use of racial stereotypes in its imagery cultivates the sorts of racist attitudes they claim to be challenging.

For instance, depicting the French justice minister, Christiane Taubira, who is black, as a monkey or drawings of ‘hooked-nose’ Semites.

They described the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram as ‘angry sexual slaves’ and, to make matters worse by captioning, added ‘don’t touch our (welfare) benefits.’ This persistent issue doesn’t seem to be about ‘freedom of speech.’

What is even more troubling is the fact that these depictions have been portrayed in racially stereotypical ways. Therefore why should we endorse Charlie Hebdo?

To put things into perspective and to highlight the hypocrisy surrounding the issue, it was only in 2009 when a cartoonist was fired and charged with ‘anti-semitism’ for suggesting that Jean Sarkozy, son of the French president, was converting to Judaism for financial reasons. The writer, Maurice Sinet faced criminal charges for “inciting racial hatred” for the column he wrote and subsequently dismissed. This incident highlighted the hypocrisy at work at Charlie Hebdo.

Similarly, in 2005, a French court injunction banned a Jesus-based clothing advert mimicking Leonardo’s Last Supper. The display was ruled “a gratuitous and aggressive act of intrusion on people’s innermost beliefs.”

On the other hand, when Jyllands-Posten published caricatures of the Prophet in 2005, they made it clear that they were not going to publish cartoons mocking Christ or the Holocaust because it might cause public discontent.

Therefore, why are French Muslims subject to different treatment? Indeed, there is a demonstrable line of hypocrisy of free speech. This double standard indicates that the concept of free speech is controlled by those who are in power, for the enjoyment of those who are privileged, against the powerless.

It isn’t just the powerless minorities who believe that the aims and objectives of Charlie Hebdo has indeed changed over the years.

Former employee, Olivier Cyran, argued that recently the paper has often drifted into racist caricatures, admitting, “Islamophobic neurosis gradually took over.”

There is also the contextual issue to be had: Charlie Hebdo fails to distinguish between mocking the French establishment and stigmatizing the descendants of immigrants at large in France. Then, where do we draw the line between free speech and free spite?

Recently, on BBC Question Time, Mehdi Hasan, a British political journalist, remarkably explained this by using the ‘crowded lift’ analogy.

He said, “We do have limits on free speech. There are legal limits and moral limits. There are things we just don’t say out of taste, out of decency. You have the right to fart in a crowded lift but you just don’t do it. And when you do it, you don’t expect everybody in the lift to fart in solidarity with you.”

To add to this growing sense of hypocrisy, after the tragic events, #JeSuisCharlie trended globally. Meanwhile in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram flattened the village of Baga, killing as many as 2,000 people — mostly women and children who were unable to flee the attacks.

Later that week, the same group of extremist militants introduced a horrific new weapon of war. They strapped explosives to the body of a ten year old girl and at least 19 were killed. There has been no worldwide hashtag campaign nor was there a solidarity march for the victims of these most recent massacres.

So, do we inherently believe that every life has the same intrinsic value?

If we areagainst discrimination we should be against all types of discrimination. As much as we are condemning this atrocity in France, people around the world should give the same value to any human life. Today, thousands are being killed in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria for the same reason, by the same violent extremists. However, when 17 people are killed in France there is an international emotional reaction and the event becomes an international controversy.

The ‘us-them’ dichotomy has coloured our perception and we must defeat this. We should be dignified in the way we stand for justice around the world.

This is when the real global discussion starts.

Yasmin Ahmed is a law student at the University of Hull, campaigner for human rights and the founder of the Nelson Mandela Society.
Courtesy: Huffington Post, United Kingdom

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