As the world now knows, three masked men stormed Charlie Lebdo offices killing 12 employees including four cartoon artists a few days ago. As I write this, they are still at large leaving a trail of damage.
As is the norm now, Muslim organisations have come out condemning the action. Nevertheless the discourse rapidly focussed on two key areas, which are typically only discussed in the Muslim context.
Free Speech and Propaganda
Reading statements from politicians and emotionally-charged papers defending “free speech”, the fact that free speech is not absolute, is continually ignored. The right to life is an absolute non-derogable right. Thus balancing the two rights in the human rights discourse would mean giving way to one when the two are in jeopardy. This is not something new. Balancing competing rights happens every day in the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights restrictions may be imposed on freedom of expression “for the respect of the reputations and rights of others”, and protection of national security, public order, health and morals.
As it is there needs to be some pressing questions which need to be answered. Rights, as I discussed last year, is often used as a stick to beat the Muslim minority with. The freedom of expression is an important right. After all, it is the protection measure for the people against the state and a fundamental mechanism of holding the executive to account, sharing knowledge and challenging ideas. The question is however, at what point does it become hate speech and/or propaganda to alienate a minority and normalise xenophobia? A further restriction on freedom of expression lies in the prohibition of abusive invocation of rights. Article 5(1) states,
“Nothing in the present Covenant may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms recognized herein or at their limitation to a greater extent than is provided for in the present Covenant.”
As such Article 20(2) requires that, “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”
The French Muslims have been systemically discriminated against, their places of worship desecrated and attacked, their religious manifestations curbed and their faith repeatedly mocked. Freedom is binned when a Muslim woman wears a hijab on the beach. The European Court of Human Rights in its judgement upholding the French ban on the veil acknowledged that the discourse leading up to the enactment of the law banning the veil was in fact Islamophobic thus demonstrating that discrimination against Muslims is strongly institutional.
To foment further discrimination of the Muslim minority through increasingly repugnant anti-Muslim drawings in such a politically charged environment smacks of Goebbels’s strategy to demonise the Jews. Take for instance the paper’s incredibly disgusting image depicting a caricaturised Egyptian protester being riddled with bullets by the Egyptian army. Mocking one of the worst massacres of protestors in recent history, the writing on the cover translates as “killing in Egypt – the Qur’an is s**t – it does not stop the bullets”. The propaganda image at the very least normalises the killing of Muslims and wanton attacks on the Qur’an, at a time when Muslims were being massacred by the military. It is purely Nazi-esque. In 1946, Julius Striecher, editor-in-chief of the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, was convicted by International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. According to the Tribunal,
“Striecher’s incitement to murder and extermination at the time when Jews in the East were being killed under the most horrible conditions clearly constitutes persecution on political and racial ground in connection with war crimes… and constitutes a crime against humanity”.
Were it not for common decency, I would present an open challenge to “satirists” and papers to depict a picture of a Jew holding the Torah while being gassed in a chamber. I for one would condemn such actions. Would the defenders of free speech publish such an image? Or perhaps publish a “satirical piece” on how no one really died in the holocaust? At this point the liberals point to the fact that free speech must be exercised within the confines of the law and in French law anti-Semitism is banned, thus conceding the point that unfettered free speech in society is not possible and a blatant unreflective delusion.
As a matter of “principle” (for free speech purists), one needs to question why the Holocaust is such a “sensitive” issue that it is off-limits for “criticism”, or, in the present context, “satire”. Why are the “freedom to offend” brigade so deafeningly silent on this topic? If satire involving a religious figure who is central to the hearts of a minority to such an extent that it evokes strong emotions globally is open game, then what is so sacrosanct about the Jewish holocaust that any criticism or expression of suspicion must be gagged through law? If a protestor holding his sacred Book is being shot in Egypt can be depicted in such a repugnant fashion, which “principle” restricts its application to Jewish sensitivities and why is this restriction not universally applied?
Today’s freedom-defending French President François Hollande called the attack “an attack on free speech”. A year ago, celebrating the ban on comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala’s performance before France’s anti-semitism laws were breached, Hollande declared the decision a “victory”. Casting doubt over Charlie Hebdo’s claims that they satirise everyone, in 2009, when their cartoonist Maurice Sinet made a snide remark and drew cartoons about Jean Sarkozy’s marriage to a Jewish heiress, he was promptly fired when he refused to apologise on the editor’s orders.
It is clear that some human beings are more entitled to human rights than others.
This hypocritical application of free speech couldn’t be more acute in the British context than Cameron’s statement on the French shooting. Condemning the actions as a sickening attack on press freedom, he said,
“We stand united with the French people in our opposition to all forms of terrorism and stand squarely for free speech and democracy.”
Cameron’s government is pushing forward with measures which gag dissenting voices, and ban speakers from speaking at universities. In fact, the PREVENT strategy which draws parallels with Nazi Germany and East Germany’s Stasi goes beyond free speech and seeks to discriminate and sanction based on thought, thus violating the absolute right of freedom of conscious and belief!
Cameron couldn’t be more hypocritical even if he tried.
Collective Amnesia and Framing the Discourse
Interestingly, when news of a number of Swedish masaajid being attacked hit headlines, they were described by the media and state officials as “arson attacks” thus given the action a criminal framework (see here, here, and here for example). Where the perpetrator is allegedly a Muslim, the public, papers and politicians in Western nations rapidly deploy their highly politicised “terrorism” linguistic-armoury. Following this, “free speech” and “values” are used to evoke a sense of collectiveness, similar in method adopted by authoritarian demagogues of the past.
Often the broader public, as evident on social media networks, suffer from a collective amnesia. “Only Muslims kill!” “You don’t see Jews and Christian killing when they are offended”. Except they do. The only problem is it is not as comprehensively broadcast daily as it neither serves the purposes of the right-wing and neocons in Western governments. When it is reported, it is done so from a different perspective.
If we continue to use the human rights framework to frame the attacks, then far-right, Christian fundamentalist terrorist Anders Breivik, attacked a much weightier right: the right for immigrants, Muslims and those who support multiculturalism to exist in Norway. In other words, Breivik attacked the fundamental right to life of minorities and those he politically differed with. The same applies to Pavlo Lapshyn, who murdered an 80 year old and bombed masaajid in Britain. His intent was to create a race war and kill “non-whites”, thus denying them the right to life purely on the basis of their skin colour.
On 7th of January of this year, a white man committed a “terrorist” attack in Colorado, US, against the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, one of the oldest civil rights groups in the US. Again, this attack, if framed in the human rights discourse can be viewed as an attack on the freedoms of “coloured” people. The provocation is the existence of “coloured” people in a given area. The same can be applied to far-right, white supremacist attacks on Jews in the US last year, and the several far-right terrorist attacks in the preceding years.
But you will never read a report entitled “far-right, white, Christian terrorist attack on Muslims provoked by their fundamental right to exist”. Nor will you see the level of reporting, national debates, and continued Muslim-reaction baiting we are currently witnessing.
Provocation and Backlash
As is the norm with such events, a backlash has already begun, with #killallMuslims hashtag trending on Twitter. Masaajid and kebab shops have been subjected to French “terrorist attacks”, despite the chorus of condemnation from Muslim leaders. Of course, the Daily Mail and Western media generally won’t class these as terrorist attacks. They are but white, non-Muslims “coming to terms” with what has passed.
And herein lies a more subtle point. When a “provocation” is made against western nations in their own countries, we witness a backlash by the white people; mosques are bombed and Muslims are terrorised, yet there seems to be an inability to comprehend or a refusal to accept Muslim backlash when western nations bomb Muslim lands, exploit their resources and destroy future generations. At its most basic level, both cases are emotional responses to provocation which continue cyclical violence. Yet one is humanised whilst the other, is dehumanised. It is this unceasing hypocrisy which undercuts the Western liberal discourses which will continue to demarcate the dire situation of the Muslim minorities and fuel resentment.
Globally Muslims feel the pain that French Muslims feel when the noble Prophet peace be upon is insulted, for verily he is revered more than the human who gave birth to us. It hurts us when the French racists and xenophobes use the Muslims to pedal themselves to power, curtail their freedoms in the name of freedom, perpetuating an atmosphere of hate. We understand Muslim minority discrimination all too well.
The discourses around such attacks certainly emphasis an important point. The Muslims do not benefit from such actions, neither do the perpetrators spiritually as they break the commands of their faith. It does however, provide a justification for further persecution of the Muslim minorities, further curtailment of freedoms and further military invasions abroad as the hot pursuit for the ever evasive “Islamist extremism” materialises exasperation. For particular policy-makers and politicians, events like these are a benefit; be it whipping up fear to manufacture consent of an uniformed public, winning the upcoming elections, justifying French military invasion of North Africa, or all three. Indeed the neoconservative and Zionist advisors in Western governments feed off such tragedies and direct their renewed warmongering vigour through their policies. When the September 11th attacks occurred, Benjamin Netanyahu told an audience at Bar Ilan university that the September 11, 2001 terror attacks had been beneficial for Israel. The neocon David Brooks wrote,
“Sept. 11th really did leave a residue — an unconsummated desire for sacrifice and service.”
Of course this self-sacrifice translated well in the jingoist neocon plans for global hegemony. In the Great Game, such actions play neatly into the hands of those who wish to exploit the vulnerable mood.
 Judgment of the International Military Tribunal for the Trial of Major War Criminals, Cmd.6964 (London: HMSO, 1946)