Onward with the Struggle for Free Speech

By Fazila Farouk · 15 Jan 2015

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Picture: Charlie Hebdo solidarity march in Brussels courtesy The Interpretor
Picture: Charlie Hebdo solidarity march in Brussels courtesy The Interpretor

There likely aren’t many journalists, bloggers, cartoonists or comedians anywhere in the world who don’t feel a connection with the massacred staff of French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. These are the men and women of the world who regularly scale the chillingly exposed platform of public opinion to hold a mirror to the world. It’s a frightening space to inhabit in a world of such diversity and difference of opinion. One never really knows how those whom one has offended are going to react. Tragically the reaction to Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons was extreme and brutal. Those who were killed in the Paris office massacre paid the ultimate price for the courage of their convictions.

Satirical publications like Charlie Hebdo perform an important function in society. They’re our modern-day court jesters. Their audacious reflections may needle, but we need these agent provocateurs to expose the demons lurking beneath the surface of refined public debate. The ugly truths of their vulgar caricatures are essential to remind us of the flimsy scaffolding of our civilisation.

In the aftermath of the Paris massacre, there are many people around the world starting to galvanise around renewed efforts to protect and advance freedom of speech and expression. They must be supported. Freedom of speech is fundamental to the healthy functioning of our democracies. We all deserve to live in a world where people are not persecuted for expressing their views, exposing lies or speaking truth to power whatever form power might take. In fact, freedom of speech and expression are protected in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Jailed Saudi Arabian blogger, Raif Badawi, who last Friday received the first 50 of a thousand lashes that will be meted out over a 20-week period for criticising his country’s clerics in a liberal blog that he founded, needs freedom of speech advocates to succeed in getting the principle adopted and entrenched all over the world. As do the imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt.

To be sure, Islamic states do employ harsh measures to silence voices of dissent. But as we scramble to put pressure on Muslim countries to embrace human rights values, especially freedom of speech and expression, let us also remember that Chelsea Manning is serving a 35-year prison sentence in the U.S. for releasing the Collateral Murder video to WikiLeaks, which exposed the unnecessary killing of innocent Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists by American soldiers. This remains one of the most important exposés that uncovered the War on Terror for the fraud that it is. Manning has paid a high price for whistleblowing, an act that falls under the ambit of free speech.

Let us also be reminded that Edward Snowden is in self-imposed exile in Russia after exposing the truth about his government’s egregious violations of people’s right to privacy. Snowden worked for the CIA. He knows what the U.S government is capable of doing to dissenters. Fearing for his safety, he has refused to return to his home country. Finally, nobody should forget that Julian Assange is still languishing in Ecuador’s London embassy fearing for what’s left of his freedom because the U.S. government seeks to gag him. Speaking truth to power is dangerous work for those seeking to hold to account the self-appointed caretakers of human rights and democracy in our world.

In the wake of the Paris massacre, in what can best be described as a bizarre application of logic, one right-wing British commentator has gone as far as blaming Assange and Snowden for the Paris attacks, claiming that the classified information leaked by the whistle-blowers puts Western populations at risk from Jihadis.

On the contrary, many progressive and even some mainstream commentators argue far more convincingly that the roots of terrorism lie in the alienation and emasculation of young men who don’t fit the Western guise of humanity.

In fact, the slain Kouachi brothers who were responsible for the Paris massacre epitomise the alienation of marginalized youth in the West. Typically these are young men of colour. Frequently they live in ghettos. Routinely, they are spurned by Western middle classes and elites.

According to American expert on Middle East social movements, Juan Cole, the Kouachi brothers were orphaned at an early age, but never placed in a stable home with a normal family. They eventually became trapped in an underworld of drug abuse and petty crime on the outskirts of Paris before turning to religion and finally being wooed by religious extremism. The Kouachi brothers’ race and ethnicity played a big role in how their lives unfolded as orphans in France, which is known to be particularly racist towards its citizens of Algerian descent.

Young men in the West, such as the Kouachi brothers, turn to terrorism because they feel abandoned by their countries and their fellow citizens on many levels. Western governments are not being held to account by large numbers of their citizens for their crimes against innocent civilian populations in Islamic countries. This remains a key factor driving disaffected European Muslim youth straight into the arms of dangerous extremist organisations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Sharif Kouachi, the younger of the slain brothers, specifically told interviewers that it was what he saw on television about the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib that motivated him to join an extremist group.

At the same time, a lethal cocktail of racial and class prejudice in Europe has established itself in the vile form of islamophobia. As Philip Stephens of the Financial Times put it, "Europe does not have 'a Muslim problem'. It has failed to integrate properly many of its immigrants, and a big proportion of those left on the margins are Muslims." Former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges puts it more bluntly, “When everybody is chanting, ‘Je suis Charlie Hebdo’, what they’re really chanting is we can’t stand dirty Arabs.”

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the mainstream focus on freedom of speech has emphasized a redacted version of the truth. As many have already observed, there is a double standard at play in the demand for free speech. Nevertheless, whilst freedom of speech advocates are preaching its inviolability with renewed vigour, an opportunity is being presented to us all to demand that it is applied with principled consistency no matter whose sensibilities are being offended.

Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and all those Muslim women whose identities are being scrubbed by the French niqab ban are depending on our vigilance to hold our governments to account for their responsibility to ensure that there is always a consistent and ethically rigorous application of the foundational principles of our democracies.

Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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