Originally published at the Fordham Observer.
Following the attacks on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, large numbers of Westerners have been emphatically defending the right to free speech. Though it’s refreshing to see free speech rights at the top of our political discourse, this instance deserves scrutiny. It seems that only when favorable speech is attacked do people turn out en masse to defend free speech. Westerners have rallied for Charlie Hebdo not on free speech grounds, but rather because they approve of the content.
Days after the attacks, nearly four million people, including more than 40 world leaders, rallied across France in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. These world leaders don’t actually support the right to free speech, waging their own wars on journalists and political dissidents. As Daniel Wickham tweeted, among the marchers were U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who forced The Guardian to destroy hard drives that stored the files of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden; Attorney General Eric Holder of the U.S., where several journalists have been arrested in Ferguson and where the Obama justice department has prosecuted more government leakers under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all prior administrations combined; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose military forces killed seven journalists in last summer’s assault on Gaza; King Abdullah of Jordan (whom Jon Stewart likes to joke around with on his show), which sentenced a Palestinian journalist to 15 years in prison with hard labor for “attacking Jordan’s image”; Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, whose country imprisons the most journalists in the world; Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukryto of Egypt, which in 2014 sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to at least seven years in prison; Prime Minister Enda Kenny of Ireland, where “blasphemy” is a crime; and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who had a journalist arrested for insulting him in 2013. You’ll never see four million people marching to defend these restrictions on free speech.
The largest free speech hypocrite following the attacks is the French government itself. From the Patriot Act in the U.S. to Bill C-44 in Canada, Western governments always devise ways to curtail civil liberties following any (Islamic) “terrorist” attack. France is no different. Days after the attack, the France government increased electronic surveillance, staged 10,000 troops to protect “sensitive sites,” and deployed nearly 5,000 police officers to defend the country’s 700 Jewish schools. Meanwhile, several mosques in France were attacked with grenades. Following the free speech march, the French government has arrested at least 54 people, including controversial anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné, for “defending terrorism.”
The French government takes the increasing tide of anti-Semitism very seriously, but doesn’t do the same for Islamophobia. While declaring in response to the attacks that “France without Jews is not France,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls refuses to use the term “Islamophobia.” By selectively protecting one targeted community and disregarding bigotry against another, France is telling its Muslim population that they aren’t as important.
Several journalists jumped to stand (and publish the blasphemous cartoons) in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. Jacob Weisberg, Slate‘s editor-in-chief, tweeted, “Best response to
#CharlieHebdo attack — other than catching and punishing killers — is to escalate blasphemous satire.” Though Vox’s Matt Yglesias pointed out that one should simply not publish racist cartoons, he also wrote, “To blaspheme the Prophet transforms the publication of these cartoons from a pointless act to a courageous and even necessary one.” In an op-ed entitled, “The Blasphemy We Need,” The New York Times‘ Ross Douthat wrote, “that [that which causes others to violently retaliate] kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good.” Most egregiously, New York Magazine‘s Jonathan Chait argued, “One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.” Because these writers rarely jump to defend speech that criticizes or degrades non-Muslims, it’s clear that the type of speech these writers are referring to is anti-Islam speech.
This is not the right response. Many were quick to point out the anti-Islam, racist, and homophobic nature of Hebdo‘s cartoons, including one that depicted Boko Haram’s sex slaves as welfare queens. Others simply made fun of Muslims generally. These racist cartoons make clear that Hebdo‘s white staff was trying to further marginalize Muslims in France. Charb, the magazine’s murdered editor, even told the AP in 2012, “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Quranic law.” Jacob Canfield rightly called it the “edgy-white-guy mentality… nothing is sacred, sacred targets are funnier, lighten up, criticism is censorship” — otherwise known as the French version of the Bill Maher/Sam Harris complex.
Just because I have the right publish racist cartoons doesn’t mean I’m going to. It’s a right I choose not to exercise. I can defend another’s right to publish racist ideas while simultaneously condemning them — just as the ACLU defends the right of neo-Nazis to march through a town filled with Holocaust survivors in Skokie, Illinois while at the same time condemning their ideas.
Though it’s featured cartoons making fun of Christianity and Judaism, Charlie Hebdo is not an “equal opportunity offender” as some have suggested. In 2009, Hebdo fired Sine, one of its cartoonists, for writing what some called an anti-Semitic sentence. Sine later won a judgment against the magazine on the basis of unfair termination. Like Bill Maher and Sam Harris, Islam is the most frequent target of their bigotry. Rarely ever do they mock Judaism or Israel. As Glenn Greenwald wrote, “Parody, free speech and secular atheism are the pretexts; anti-Muslim messaging is the primary goal and the outcome.”
Even more dangerous is when writers or cartoonists self-censor themselves for fear of legal or economic repercussions, as we’ve witnessed academics like Steven Salaita face. In an article that featured both “blasphemous and otherwise offensive cartoons [and] not-remotely-blasphemous-or-bigoted yet very pointed and relevant cartoons,” Greenwald wrote:
When we originally discussed publishing this article to make these points, our intention was to commission two or three cartoonists to create cartoons that mock Judaism and malign sacred figures to Jews the way Charlie Hebdo did to Muslims. But that idea was thwarted by the fact that no mainstream western cartoonist would dare put their name on an anti-Jewish cartoon, even if done for satire purposes, because doing so would instantly and permanently destroy their career, at least.
Hebdo‘s white staff doesn’t have to deal with this when their target is Islam. The content of their cartoons are deemed favorable by Westerners.
The discourse on free speech since the Hebdo shooting has made one thing clear about most Westerners “defending” free speech: to defend free speech, one must approve of the speech. The only speech to be protected is that which degrades unfavored groups (Muslims) while rendering free from criticism or prosecution any speech that does the same to favored groups (Christians, Jews) in the guise of liberal principles. Society, however, should not be judged on how it treats its favored groups; society should be judged, rather, on how it treats its most marginalized, oppressed groups. Until the bastions of free speech start defending speech which Western society finds most repellent and government finds most dangerous to itself, their selective application of free speech principles isn’t helping anyone.