Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Charlie Hebdo horror is not an attack on free speech


JANUARY 13, 2015

A Singaporean friend and her French boyfriend have been having interesting discussions recently regarding the horrific attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris.

The Frenchman’s views fall in line with Western mainstream media’s framing of these terrorist acts as a gross attack on freedom of speech, a value the French hold especially dear and are now rallying defiantly around. Solidarity manifests in Je suis Charlie placards, light projections, hashtags and Facebook profile pictures. After all, France is the land of Voltaire, whose views on freedom of speech were summarised pithily and memorably by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

On the other hand, my Singaporean friend is a freethinker who identified more with the Je suis Ahmed hashtag: Ahmed Merabet was the Muslim policeman who was killed in action trying to stop the terrorists from fleeing the Charlie Hebdo offices. Belgium-based Lebanese activist and writer Dyab Abou Jahjah (@Aboujahjah) tweeted: “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.”

My friend’s French boyfriend regards Mr Ahmed as a hero, but his Facebook profile picture remains as “Je suis Charlie”.

Unlike her, he does not see the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as offensive. He noted that those cartoons should not be seen as attacks on Islam, but rather as critiques of Muslim terrorists and religious fundamentalism.

Further, the Frenchman points to medieval images and iconography of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the 2008 Iranian government commission of a mural depicting the Prophet ascending into heaven, as sanction for such depictions.

She, however, feels there is a crucial difference between such iconographic traditions and the crass, offensive cartoons published by European newspapers such as Charlie Hebdo and Jyllands-Posten.


Perhaps a more fundamental issue here involves the debunking of the idea of “freedom of speech”. Is there really absolute freedom of speech in France, with no limits at all to what can be said, expressed and published?

An oft-used example to puncture this myth is the existence of laws against Holocaust denial in France as well as in many other European countries. Due to well-placed considerations that certain forms of speech may incite hatred towards religious or racial communities, and in light of Europe’s harrowing World War II experience, these countries have made Holocaust denial illegal.

There are also hate speech laws in France which forbid public defamation or insults towards any particular group whether defined by religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or handicap.

In a similar vein, Singapore has laws in place that prohibit the incitement of hatred or hostility towards any racial or religious group, since what begins as mere speech may escalate into large-scale riots in our multiracial, multi-religious society. In these instances, it seems that the principle of social harmony and protection of certain communities takes precedence over the principle of freedom of speech.

Yet, a closer look at some details reveals a contradictory and messy reality. The denial of the Armenian Genocide, for example, is technically still legal and permissible in France — attempts to criminalise the denial by former French President Nicholas Sarkozy were overturned by France’s Constitutional Council in 2012. It has been suggested that Turkey’s and France’s billion-dollar trade ties have some part to play in the ultimate overturning of this law.

Whatever the real motivations in this case, the fact remains that “freedom of speech” in France does actually have limits, and these limits are not necessarily consistent, but are susceptible to a plethora of factors including political and economic ones.

It will be difficult for my friend to persuade her French boyfriend to accept that the dearly-held French value of freedom of speech is not, in fact, absolute, and that its limits are arguably arbitrary. It will be even harder for her to convince him that the besieged Muslim community in Europe deserves to be treated with extra sensitivity and consideration, given intensifying Islamophobia globally.

We ought to take into consideration, too, that certain actions by the United States and Israel have contributed to the feeling of persecution among Muslims and those who come from the Middle East.

For example, the US invaded Iraq in 2003 without sanction from the United Nations, and Israel continues to occupy Palestinian Territories despite UN Resolution 242 that demands its withdrawal from those areas.

More recently, Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014 continued despite condemnation from countries around the world, including Singapore.

These events and their continuing repercussions, however, arguably receive less sympathetic coverage by Western mainstream media.

Like everyone else, I strongly condemn the recent attacks in Paris, but I also disagree with the framing of these attacks as attacks on “freedom of speech”.

[Heroic AND racist?]

In order to move forward, French society has to reassess the boundaries of permissible speech and journalistic expression and take Muslim outrage at the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad seriously, before such outrage gets exploited by extremists and bubbles over again into another horrific massacre.

For the rest of us, especially those who call Singapore home, this should be a time of reflection and mourning — not only for those killed in Paris or Sydney, but also those in other conflict zones such as Nigeria, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, just to name a few.


Koh Choon Hwee, a Singaporean freethinker, is a first year PhD History student at Yale University. She previously studied in Lebanon and the National University of Singapore.

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