I sincerely hope that all those who have recently championed the right to freedom of speech do not allow their new-found liberalism to inadvertently blur into Islamophobia. Charlie would do well to remember that the media often forgets to include something called context, and that France also has a foreign policy.
It is very easy to raise the banner of free speech from behind a computer screen. It is far easier to do that from a computer screen in neutral Ireland, where the threat of Islamist terror is virtually non-existent. But if you are French, or British, or American, then it may be time to start asking yourself the harder questions.The French government has a long and chequered history with Islam, and its domestic treatment of Muslims has not been exemplary either. French fighter jets are crusading against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq as we speak; to extremists it seems that France is at war with Islam.
It is very easy to raise the banner of free speech from behind a computer screen.
This debate is not just about free speech and the role of satire – and the media has framed this issue in the wrong way, as it so frequently does. In fact, one of my long-standing gripes with the media is its systemic failure to contextualise information properly when it presents the news. Of course no news article can simultaneously act as a history book, but in an age of rapid, plentiful and instant communication, there is surely room for an op ed or short video documentary that presents the news relative to other stories in order to provide some grounding in reason and reality. For example, it is useful to point out that while the Islamic State was beheading people, the CIA was detaining people without trial and torturing them. More people are dying at the hands of drug cartels in in Mexico, a country on America’s own borders, than have been killed by the Islamic State – and the depravity of the cartels has been well-documented: as well as beheading their victims, the drug-lords dismember them and hang their corpses for public display. Since 1898 the United States has invaded or been an occupying force in some country every single year, with the exception of the four years of the Carter administration, many of those states in the Middle East, some in Latin America – which might do something to explain the resentment that many Arabs feel.
Moreover, the media is perpetually biased in its selection of the information it publishes. We know that the Islamic State has praised the Charlie Hebdo attack but not claimed it – yet Muslim organisations that have condemned this crime have not received half as much coverage. It is difficult to expect news viewers to understand the full picture, particularly that picture of Islam and all its various elements, when they are continually being fed a warped version of events. Those decent citizens who want to learn more must deliberately seek information that tells a different story – but if we cannot depend on everyone to do that, and if the media fails to even provide the other side of the story, then there is a problem.
Also echoing around the media sphere are the claims that Christian organisations were suing Charlie Hebdo for its depiction of the Pope – suing, these groups smugly claim, not shooting. Such a comparison is not analogous. Those who have watched The West Wing will recall that Islamist extremism is to Islam as the KKK is to Christianity. Christian radicals have committed horrendous crimes in the past, crimes that the world has suddenly, conveniently, forgotten. It is also somewhat disturbing to note that white Americans who have murdered children in schools across the United States are referred to as criminals, mentally ill, psychopathic – in other words, as individuals who were ill and committed these crimes for various personal reasons. Islamist extremists, however, who – it must be noted – were not acting in conjunction with Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State but of their own volition are not given the same status as ‘individual psychopaths’ but rather become part of the suddenly popular narrative of an Islamic plot to take over the world.
Christian radicals have committed horrendous crimes in the past, crimes that the world has suddenly, conveniently, forgotten.
Terrorists are not created in a vacuum. There is more to this story than one cartoon, even if that was the trigger. Stand up for your free speech, sure, but perhaps more importantly, stand up for your foreign policy too, if you know what it is. Do you support France’s participation in the American-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq? Do you believe that this campaign is reducing the threat posed by global terrorism, or making it worse? Even if it is working, is the ensuing threat to France and its citizens worth it?
The overarching goal of terrorism is to goad the target state into a reaction that is overly aggressive, tyrannical, or criminal – a heavy-handed response to crush those responsible. The result is that the former victim now becomes the aggressor, the democratic liberal society becomes one in which a particular group is hated and feared, and formerly peaceful individuals flock to the cause because of the resulting persecution. The initial threat, which may have been minimal, is now greatly exacerbated. Al-Qaeda’s attack on the United States in September 2001 accomplished such a reaction – the invasion of Iraq in the wake of 9/11 saw the rise of anti-Americanism around the globe, the unprecedented decline of American power, and the growth in size and ferocity of terrorist movements. In fact, the Iraq war gave a new battleground and rallying cry to Al-Qaeda and its allies which, faltering because of their losses in Afghanistan, suddenly had a lot more to play for. The Islamic State has emerged stronger than ever from the chaos that America left behind in its pursuit of power and revenge.
Do not fall into this trap that has been set for you. Calling on our governments to react aggressively, or reacting this way ourselves by disseminating offensive pictures of the Prophet Mohammed, serves only to cause anguish to our Muslim friends who formerly felt a part of our society and now feel that the state is out to get them for a crime they did not commit. Such a reaction only feeds the existing problem, and gives those who choose to commit takfir, the blasphemous re-writing of religious texts to serve murderous purposes, another excuse to hate us and everything we stand for.
Some things are evil, and others are ludicrous, but the latter cause no harm in reality.
Some things done in the name of religion are bad – the sexual of abuse of children, the subjugation of women, and the murder of innocents that do not subscribe to a particular ideology. We must condemn these things. But other parts of religion are just silly – the desire not to depict a religious figure (to preserve the axiom that the faithful must worship only one God, and not His messengers) or the belief that church-goers consume the actual flesh and blood of a human being, after a magical transformation has taken place before their eyes. Some things are evil, and others are ludicrous, but the latter cause no harm in reality. It might be about time that we learned the difference.
At the time of going to press no terrorist group had claimed responsibility for the attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo. Reports now indicate that Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the attack, and this claim is being investigated.