Charlie’s angels or devils?

By Ameen Izzadeen
More than a million people marched in Paris on Sunday in what has been described as the biggest gathering to uphold freedom of expression. They walked, shouted slogans and carried placards saying “I am Charlie” in solidarity with the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (weekly) which lost eight of its journalists last week when terrorists reportedly linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attacked its head office for character assassinating Prophet Muhammad through its cartoons.
But as the cry “I am Charlie” reverberated all over the world, what went largely unnoticed in the Western media is not only the hypocrisy with which media freedom is exercised or promoted but also the endorsement of racism against Europe’s 20 million Muslims.
Free speech is not absolute. It should be exercised within the perimeters of human decency which, among other things, demands that one should not deliberately cause pain of mind to another. Rights are linked to responsibilities and free expression is subjected to laws dealing with tort, defamation, hate speech and security. While the savage attack on the journalists deserves the strongest condemnation, one cannot endorse the abuse of free speech.
Vilifying a prophet who died 1,400 years ago for the crimes of terrorists is not journalism, say Muslims who are hurt by the magazine’s repeated insults of Prophet Muhammad. Yesterday on board the aircraft that took him to Manila, Pope Francis referring to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons said there were limits to freedom of expression when religion was insulted. However, he also pointed out that killing in God’s name was an ‘absurdity’.
Misusing media freedom, just as the terrorists are misusing Islam in their mania for murder, Charlie Hebdo has been selectively provoking the Muslims. The magazine has been publishing a series of cartoons to dare the terrorists who had vowed to kill a Danish cartoonist for depicting a terrorist image of Prophet Muhammad, who, Muslims say, is dearer to them than their own lives. Stooping to a lower level, Charlie Hebdo resorted to pornographic portrayal of the prophet, disregarding warnings that it would hurt the feelings of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. And hurt them it did. But protests by France’s Muslims – who comprise 8-10 per cent of its population – were met with retorts that if they could not adopt Western values, they must shut up or get out. French Muslims say Charlie symbolises their everyday humiliation in the so-called free France.
It was not courage but cowardice when Charlie depicted Prophet Muhammad naked, with obscene words to add spice to its perversion. No depiction of Muhammad is allowed in Islam, because the prophet himself banned it fearing that his followers would take him as an object of worship. Respecting the beliefs of other people is human decency. Charlie dismisses such rules of civility in defence of its right to practice free speech. In a display of boorish obstinacy, it published in its first issue after the January 7 attack another offensive cartoon on its cover depicting the prophet.
In a defiant interview, the cartoonist who drew the image said: “With this cover, we wanted to show that at any given moment, we have the right to do anything, to redo anything, and to use our characters the way we want to. Muhammad has become a character, in spite of himself, a character in the news, because there are people who speak on his behalf…”
As protests across the Muslims world grow, a group of 54 British Muslim leaders urged restraint and asked people to follow Muhammad’s example by preaching words of peace.
“It is common knowledge that absolute freedom of speech does not exist…. Most Muslims will inevitably be hurt, offended and upset by the republication of the cartoons. But our reaction must be a reflection of the teachings of the gentle and merciful character of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Enduring patience, tolerance, gentleness and mercy as was the character of our beloved Prophet (peace and Blessings be upon him) is the best and immediate way to respond.”
French laws criminalise hate speech. But they are invoked to protect largely the Jews. Even a cartoon portrayal of the stereotype Jew with a hooked nose is considered anti-Semitic and a crime. Academics who have disputed the 6 million Holocaust deaths have been sent to jail. When laws are applied selectively, it is not liberal society. After the “I am Charlie” march, scores of people who tried to test their absolute right to freedom of speech have been arrested for expressing anti-Jewish sentiments.
By leading the “I am Charlie” march, French President Francois Hollande and several world leaders gave an endorsement to Charlie Hebdo’s argument that freedom of speech is absolute and it includes the right to blaspheme any religious leader. But the same West pontificated that the right to free speech came with responsibility when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and US whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the dirty dealings of big powers and justified their exposure on the basis of the people’s right to information. If free speech was the driving force behind Sunday’s march, why aren’t there such worldwide marches to demand the release of three al-Jazeera journalists jailed in Egypt? Hypocrisy?
Meanwhile, the unity march was seen as a dangerous bid to add fertilizer to racism. The seeds or racism are sprouting in Europe. It was only a week before the French march that tens of thousands of people gathered in the German city of Dresden for a march organised by the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida). It was shocking to see the rise of racism in a country that tries to erase its horrid Nazi past. This week, an Eritrean Muslim immigrant was killed in Dresden. The crime was blamed on the rising racism in the city. Ideologies similar to that of Pegida are spreading across Europe, especially in France, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Britain and Norway.
The Charlie Hebdo incident is about terrorism and free speech. That attacks such as this are still taking place 14 years after the war on terror began shows that the world has not decisively dealt with terrorism. Ironically, the policies of the West are blamed for terrorism’s growth.
A new approach is needed with economic and social factors being given top priority in measures dealing with the question of terrorism. The stalled United Nations talks aimed at working out a comprehensive anti-terrorism convention should be revived.
The UN should also work out laws governing freedom of expression. While free speech and the right to information are inalienable, there should be guidelines to exercise this right with responsibility. Otherwise, before long, magazines like Charlie Hebdo will bring about a dangerous and chaotic media culture where every religious leader held in high esteem by their followers will be fair game for insult. This will only lead to more bloodshed.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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