Between free speech and hate speech
By Maija Liuhto
23 January 2015
Understanding the impact of speech, particularly on marginalised groups, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Vigorous public outrage has followed the 7 January attacks on the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. And rightly so. Whenever a piece of writing, a drawing or an opinion leads to a violent retribution, it is a sad day for human rights.
However, the popular narrative that has emerged in the aftermath of the attack is problematic to say the least. ‘Je suis Charlie’ or ‘I am Charlie’ has become the new mantra of the self-described ‘liberal West’, while Muslims from all walks of life are expected to condemn and apologise for the attacks, as if failing to accept collective guilt for the actions of a few somehow means condoning the horrendous violence. Going a step further, American television personality Bill Maher declared on Twitter that mere condemnation is not enough – Muslims must all “strongly endorse the right of anyone to make fun of any religion/prophet” and refusing to do so means they are not “a moderate Muslim”. In other words, if you don’t do exactly as you are told, you are my enemy. This is similar to what we have heard before: if you are not with us, you are against us.
Why must reporters run around the suburbs of Paris asking for condemnations from Muslims as a way to calm us down and make us feel more secure from the threat of violence?
A wide range of Muslims and Muslim leaders have issued condemnations, which are easily available through a quick online search. Or one could simply consider the Pakistani reaction to the Peshawar attacks on 16 December. Why are many, particularly in the West, so eager to turn a blind eye and forgo consideration of such things? And why is it that when terror strikes in the West, we see world leaders flying in to attend memorial services, and find expressions of solidarity pouring in from all over the world, but hundreds of Muslims dying as victims of terrorism gets treated as if it is normal?
When 134 Pakistani school children die in a Taliban attack and the entire country goes into mourning, somehow the narrative about Muslims supposedly condoning all this with their silence remains unchanged. Why must reporters run around the suburbs of Paris asking for condemnations from Muslims as a way to calm us down and make us feel more secure from the threat of violence? This presupposes that most Muslims don’t condemn the use of violence, and that we should be afraid of them. At the same time, however, the children who were slaughtered in Peshawar were also Muslims. The vast majority of the victims of terrorism all over the world are Muslims, but it is almost as if this doesn’t matter. The fact that the story of Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman who was killed by the Charlie Hebdo attackers, needs to be highlighted by Western media also speaks of an underlying societal attitude that assumes Muslims are inherently ‘bad’, and cases like these are out of the ordinary.
In reality, Muslims have been ‘othered’ by the West for far longer than we would like to admit. We don’t trust them, we think of them as backward, intolerant and even bloodthirsty. This dehumanisation goes all the way back to the Crusades, and the years after 9/11 haven’t made things any easier. Western countries have bombed and used drones on Muslim populations, and many innocent Muslims have been suspected of being terrorists and imprisoned and tortured in places like Guantanamo. To top things off, the West expects Muslim to take collective responsibility and apologise for attacks committed by the very same groups they themselves are fighting in their own countries. No wonder these cartoons aren’t making them laugh. Muslims have also been stigmatised by the Hindutva brigade in India where they are constantly expected to prove their loyalty to the state. When an entire religious community is collectively blamed and questioned, it contributes to their marginalisation and ensures they remain second-class citizens.
A fine line
So where does Charlie Hebdo stand in all of this? Should we really all aspire to be Charlie? Should we be republishing the cartoons and celebrating the martyrdom of these fearless crusaders of free speech? This narrative ignores the uncomfortable truth that some of the cartoons in the magazine could indeed be contributing to negative sentiments towards Islam and Muslims. Certainly, the magazine’s commitment is to satire, and the cartoons that some commentators have taken out of context and interpreted as being racist, actually had racists and rightwing politicians themselves as their targets. The publication calls itself a ‘leftwing’ magazine, after all. In the present context, however, we must ask ourselves why we are so fascinated by the idea of insulting Islam even as we would shudder at the sight of a cartoon making fun of the Holocaust, particularly in Europe where anti-Semitic speech is prosecuted in many states. Is contributing to the othering of an already marginalised and deliberately misunderstood and misrepresented community a worthwhile endeavour? Or, should we consider other ways of fighting extremism while defending our values and freedoms? Minorities are always differently situated and disproportionately affected. Using satire to poke fun at those in power is entirely different from ridiculing a minority religious community facing socioeconomic difficulties in a country where their freedoms are already curtailed.
No one should have to fear violent retribution when speaking their minds or drawing a cartoon.
There is a fine line between making fun of minority groups and hate speech. We could argue that Charlie Hebdo’s target was not Muslims in general but Islam as a religion, and this would no doubt be true. Still, the magazine’s editorial choices became too problematic even for its former employee Oliver Cyran, who believed the cartoons had contributed to a false representation of Islam in France. Taking this to the Southasian context, how comfortable would we feel if newspapers in Pakistan started publishing insulting cartoons of Hindu gods and goddesses? If the target is not the community itself but rather its religious and cultural symbols, is this somehow more permissible? Can we really pretend that publishing these pictures would in no way negatively contribute to the plight of an already marginalised minority?
Looking again at Pakistan, hate speech and violence against religious minorities – Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis and Shias – is rampant in the country, as we all sadly know. Recently, Aamir Liaquat Hussain, a controversial Pakistani TV evangelist, caused outrage in the country by allowing his guest to call Ahmadis enemies of Islam on live TV while the audience applauded. The next day, two members of this minority community were shot dead. Unfortunately, it was not the first time this has happened after his show. Comparing Charlie Hebdo with Aamir Liaquat Hussain’s show and equating cartoons with exhortations to violence is obviously a stretch, but we need to keep in mind that words – or images for that matter – can be a powerful weapon for a variety of purposes. And we often filter content or practise self-censorship for perfectly legitimate reasons.
We should then ask why Barkha Dutt, an Indian TV journalist, was lauded for her bravery when she showed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons on her TV show. While one could argue that she was merely challenging intolerant interpretations of Islam, we cannot ignore the fact that this may have produced a very different feeling among Indian Muslims. India, which now has a Hindu nationalist prime minister, who built his career on anti-Muslim rhetoric and action, is no stranger to bursts of violence against its Muslim minority.
Striking a balance
No one should have to fear violent retribution when speaking their minds or drawing a cartoon. This fear would immobilise us and lead to bowing down to fanaticism, as has unfortunately been the case in Pakistan. Consider the example of Salman Taseer – a Pakistani Muslim politician who opposed the country’s controversial blasphemy laws often used to attack minority religious groups. He was murdered in 2011 by his own bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri, who shot him 27 times in Kohsar Market in Islamabad and was later celebrated as a hero by some religious fundamentalists. In many ways, the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and Salman Taseer became victims of the same menace, albeit in completely different social, political and historical contexts. Taseer criticised the powerful and defended the powerless. He simply raised his voice against injustice and tragically had to pay for this with his life. Obviously, this and other such cases have created an atmosphere of fear in Pakistan where most people prefer to keep quiet when it comes to these issues. Nevertheless, the Peshawar attack has changed this to some extent, and we have now started seeing civil society come out on the streets and demand the arrest of the radical imam Abdul Aziz of the infamous Lal Masjid in the centre of Islamabad, after he made controversial remarks that seemed to condone the Peshawar attack.
Should then Aamir Liaqat Hussain, Abdul Aziz and their ilk be allowed to spew their venom? Should sectarian and pro-Taliban voices be provided a platform? After all, one could argue that all they are doing is exercising their right to free speech. There is, however, a strong case to be made against them for using hate speech to directly or indirectly incite violence. The basic problem in democracies is that the rule of the majority has the potential to render minorities vulnerable. This is why modern democracies have put some safeguards in place so that minority rights are not trampled upon. The minorities are, then, expected to rely on the goodwill of the majority community, but what happens when this goodwill wanes? One only needs to look to Pakistan, Gujarat in India, or other recent and historical examples to find the answer.
The issue of free speech is not as clear cut as some would like to pretend, and there is sometimes great variation between different countries and cultures on how it is interpreted – even among Western countries. When this fundamental human right is used in a way that attempts to restrict an individual’s or a community’s entitlement to other rights, it becomes extremely problematic – especially when we are talking about the right to life. The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo obviously had a different intention and did not come close to crossing this line, but Aamir Liaqat Hussain and Abdul Aziz certainly did.
Safeguards for minorities need to be in place, and there are strong arguments to be made in favour of some legal limits in order to disallow hate speech. These laws exist even in France. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons do not qualify as hate speech, but we should also recognise the fact that perpetuating Islamophobic stereotypes, whatever the underlying intention is, only plunges us deeper in the downward spiral brought on by the so-called ‘war on terror’ and can contribute to rationalising discriminatory policies or even collective punishment of communities. We cannot simplify this as just a fight against radical Islamism. There are dimensions of majority-minority and dominant-subordinate relations here that need to be taken into consideration while we mourn the victims of terrorism all over the world.
~ Maija Liuhto has an MA in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Vienna. She has spent the past few years working in India and Pakistan in various development and human rights related projects.