On Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo

By Somayra Ismailjee

The tragic massacre of Charlie Hebdo staff members last Wednesday ignited a global discussion around the freedom of expression, particularly within the press. The attack was believed to be the work of gunmen angered by the publication’s blasphemous depictions of the Islamic prophet Mohammed. Many around the world are standing in solidarity with the staff, opening a debate about the implications of free speech. Some have even called on worldwide outlets to republish the offensive cartoons, in a show of support for “the right to offend”.

The move is intended to be an act of defiance and a show of strength, but I wonder if defiance and strength can be shown without perpetuating the Islamophobic content which made Charlie Hebdo a target in the first place – as Guilaine Kinouani succinctly put it, hatred breeds hatred.

For many Muslims living in Western countries, including myself, the subsequent conversation taking place about freedom of speech seems ill-informed and in denial of our marginalised status in these societies. The role of power comes into play, and while we have consistently and unequivocally condemned the attack, we cannot forget what sparked it.

Many fail to see this. Bill Durodie, in an article for The Conversation, wrote:

Now we must reaffirm the importance of absolute freedom of expression in an open society – regardless of how offensive it might be to some and, on occasion, how puerile it may become. The solution to bad ideas – as the enlightenment philosopher John Stuart Mill noted – is not censorship but more speech with which to counter them.

There are two issues with this notion. Firstly, Durodie’s favoured “solution” is problematic in itself. Yes, we live in a democracy and all groups or individuals might have a voice – if we were living inside a theory. The reality of our society is that some voices are louder, with further reach, than others.

Take Andrew Bolt, for example. In 2009 Bolt wrote two articles that were later found to have been unlawful as they contained factual errors, were decidedly offensive toward members of the Aboriginal community and were not written in good faith, as ruled by a Federal Court judge.

According to the solution Durodie purports, there’s no issue here – anyone offended could simply have written a countering article, forgetting that Bolt has access to multiple mass media platforms in order to express his views. The aforementioned “solution” ignores the fact that the common individual often does not have the means or influence to respond in an equivalent way. Turning offensive or bigoted expressions of free speech into a back and forth public tug-of-war is a game reserved for the rich and powerful; most are not so lucky.

Moreover, absolute freedom of expression is dangerous. We in Australia visited this topic early last year, when the government attempted to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (which makes it unlawful to “offend, insult or humiliate” a person or group of people due to their “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”). Senator George Brandis infamously argued, “People do have a right to be bigots, you know,” in response to concerns raised by Indigenous Senator Nova Peris.

Bigotry is harmful. The “right to be a bigot” is a right already freely exercised by major media outlets and those in positions of power, often using “freedom of speech” to further marginalise or offend the vulnerable and already stigmatised. In the West, particularly Europe, there has long been a prevailing attitude of Islamophobia; we have seen this escalate recently with tens of thousands rallying in Dresden against a perceived “Islamisation” of Western nations.

Those defending Charlie Hebdo’s brand of satire claim the publication mocked “everyone” and therefore was not racist or Islamophobic. However their cartoons were not created in a vacuum; their portrayal of Muslims, as Richard Seymour points out, was markedly offensive. In a country where restrictions are imposed on what Muslim women wear, a continent where Muslims face discrimination in all areas of life including the workplace, and a world in which Western imperialism still ravages Islamic countries leaving a death toll in the hundreds of thousands, Charlie Hebdo’s deliberately disrespectful content was a constant twisting of the knife. Freedom of speech and “the right to offend” are not, by any means, the same.

Satire is not about perpetuating a dominant narrative – in the case of Charlie Hebdo, fuelling the West versus Islam dichotomy and painting Muslim people as “savages”. What may seem harmless or “comedic” feeds a culture of Islamophobia that grows in risk and reach. Restrictions are imposed on free speech to protect those who are, or are at risk of being, marginalised. If censorship is protested, it should be in order to challenge the powerful, not to continue treading on the already downtrodden.

Muslims living in the West are constantly “othered” – treated as alien, unwanted and toxic when the real toxicity comes from intolerance. Our places of worship are set alight, and individuals often attacked for nothing other than their attire. This provocation, along with repeated mocking and blatant demonisation in the media, has not come without consequences; “radicalised” youth are the ones who have been pushed to the fringes.

After all, there is an uncomfortable juxtaposition between the rise in those actively defending freedom of expression, and the fact that so many are increasingly not free to practice their religion without being ridiculed, threatened or shunned. It is this which makes limitations on free speech necessary – when one’s exercise of free speech affects another’s freedom.

Expression should not be a death sentence, nor an excuse for divisive and harmful media. There is a wide discrepancy between supporting journalists and the profession, and supporting the allowance of limitless bigotry.

Somayra Ismailjee is an Australian-born, South Asian-Muslim writer living in Perth. She hopes to pursue an intersection of creative and academic work with an interest in issues of racism, misogyny, classism, queerphobia, Islamophobia and the arts.

Feature image: Olivier Ortelpa via Flickr