On Jan. 7, gunmen attacked the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing a total of 12 people, including the Editor Stephane "Charb" Charbonnier and two policemen. Later, a third shooter was killed during a hostage situation at a grocery store, but not before he murdered four of the 19 hostages and a policewoman in a separate incident. The gunmen were Islamic radicals, and by committing this act of terror and violence they have clearly demonstrated their ignorance of Islam and rejected their human conscience. Tragedies like this demand prayers for the victims and their loved ones and condemnation of the transgressors. Such a faraway incident affects us even here in Austin. For good reason, ideas of life, speech and cultures play an integral role in our diverse community.
However, I am compelled to shed light on two issues concerning the general reaction to this tragedy. The first issue is this incident being mainly portrayed as an attack on freedom of speech. Such a claim would give the terrorists too much credit. They are not enemies of freedom of the press as much as they are enemies of civil society by the standards of any moral person. Consider the perspective of these gunmen. In their words, they claim that they "avenged the Prophet." What they really sought was to provide retributive punishment for the sin of blasphemy.
The Wahhbi/Takfri extremist ideology that these gunmen took on before they were killed by police without a doubt puts limits on freedom of speech where it violates their interests, but that does not justify murder. The issue at-hand is not that there is an organization hell-bent on destroying the institution of freedom of speech, but it is the very existence of the Saudi-funded Wahhbi/Takfri movement, born against the backdrop of western colonialism. Does anyone really believe that these terrorists saw themselves as people who would limit free speech by shooting up a cartoonist that saw a decline in circulation in recent years, publishing only up to 60,000 copies and only selling 30,000? The terrorists’ immediate effect was to violate the freedom of life, not the freedom of speech, of these people. That is an issue that has not received enough screen time — witness the barely audible story of Ahmed, the Muslim cop, who died protecting the magazine's staff.
But for those still compelled to rally behind the cause of freedom of speech, I would argue that we must have an honest discussion that does justice to an issue that I value dearly. Let’s be clear, Charlie Hebdo should not be revered as the flag-bearer for freedom of speech like Martin Luther King, Jr. was for civil rights, Ghandi was for nonviolent protests or Hussain ibn Ali was for fighting against oppression, because Charlie Hebdo fired French cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for making an allegedly anti-Semitic remark. Furthermore, the magazine's cartoons are not particularly renowned for their quality, but instead, have become more racist and sacrilegious. Charlie Hebdo's cartoons attacked and ridiculed a revered Prophet for billions of people, in addition to attacking others such as black French justice minister Christiane Taubira, who was drawn as a monkey. As we honor the deaths of the staffers as an attack on freedom of speech and a violation of civility, we must not view their work through rose-colored glasses if we wish to honor the very value that their lives were taken away for. While supporting freedom of press we must abstain from promoting obscene and racist content. As the pope recently suggested, there is a bright line between what is legal and what is immoral.
Furthermore, through a quick consideration of the status of freedom of speech in the western world, we would find it in pieces. Because of the various policing and anti-terrorism laws in the United States and across Europe, French bans on expressions of religion in public spaces, freedom of speech is restricted and even violated to meet the interests of governments. Even the general public, using social media, has shout down blatant racism, such as the case of former owner of the L.A. Clippers who was forced to sell his NBA team as a result of his racist remarks against African-Americans. We must recognize that the type of freedom of speech that we exalt and support in light of the murders of the magazine's staff and their peers simply does not exist.
We regulate, both informally and formally, the press, speech, religion, etc. In the process, we apply a double standard. Case in point, since the "glorious free speech march" France has already "ordered prosecutors around the country to crack down on hate speech, anti-Semitism and glorifying terrorism,” resulting in 54 criminal cases. Here in America, an NAACP office in Colorado was bombed the same week as the Paris shootings; yet, most major media organizations seemed to gloss over this attack, as did celebrities touting pins with "I am Charlie."
The extent of regulation on freedoms varies by country and society. Yet what has become increasingly and disproportionately acceptable is the hatred toward Muslims. This trend of collective punishment and marginalization of the Muslim community plays into the hands of extremists because tensions between peaceful Muslims and their neighbors will further escalate and provide extremist recruiters real evidence to their claims of Muslims being attacked and oppressed by the west. This serves as a reminder for us to be more vigilant in the fight against forces that will disunite our community here in Austin and abroad.